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A Look Inside the Visual Thinking Brain

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Autism: The Way I See It

A Look Inside the Visual Thinking Brain

by Temple Grandin, PhD

Autism Asperger’s Digest | January/February 2007

 

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a brain scan study with Dr. Nancy Minshew’s research group at theUniversityofPittsburgh. The MRI scanner was equipped with the latest technology called Diffusion Tensor Imaging which made it possible to see large white fiber tracts that connect different brain regions together. Two weeks later when I received a copy of my scan it was a real mind-blower. Compared to my age and sex-matched control, I have two huge broadband-internet like connections that start deep within my visual cortex and run the entire length of each hemisphere. The normal control subject had the same circuits, but mine are almost twice as thick. Similar findings were discovered in some other young adults with autism. I thought, “Wow, this explains my thinking in pictures.” Dr. Minshew and her colleagues are doing ground-breaking research which will help both parents and professionals better understand how people with autism perceive the world.

In another study, Rajesh Kana and other scientists at the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging atCarnegieMellonUniversityconducted a brain imaging study which showed that in people with autism non-visual material is processed in the visual parts of the brain. Individuals with autism and control subjects were presented with sentences that were either high or low visual imagery. An example of a high visual imagery sentence is “Animals and minerals are both alive, but plants are not.” An example of a low visual imagery sentence is “Addition, subtraction and multiplication are all math skills.” While in the scanner, the subject’s task was to press a button to answer whether the question was true or false.

Both of the sentences triggered vivid images in my mind. The first sentence triggered pictures of dogs, cats, cows, corn fields, trees and crystals. The non-visual imagery sentence triggered a picture of my third grade arithmetic class. The study results showed that the autistic group activated their visual areas in both types of sentences and the controls activated the visual areas primarily in response to the high imagery sentences. People on the autism spectrum also use the frontal cortex area of the brain much less compared to normal when performing a visual rotation task. They rely more on non-frontal cortex areas of the brain.

I did horribly on some test tasks labeled as visual that required use of working memory and quick response time – two of my worst skills. Dr. Minshew tried a test on me called Finger Windows. In this task the subject watches the experimenter point to different pegs on an array of pegs laid out on a grid. The task is to imitate the pattern after the experimenter stops pointing. I failed this test. I could remember only three pegs in the correct location and sequence. This was just like my problems asking for driving directions. If there are more than three steps, I have to write them down; otherwise, I cannot remember the sequence. In a series of cognitive tests the Finger Windows test was most accurate in separating autistic from normal subjects, as there was no way to use an alternate strategy to perform the task. My performance on the verbal digit span test, however, is good because I keep repeating it back out loud. This strategy compensates for my working memory deficit.

What can parents and teachers learn from this research? First, if a child is a visual thinker you cannot get the pictures out of his head. They are his “native language”, rather than words. Second, avoid long strings of verbal sequencing when teaching or working with a child. Keep instructions short and concrete. If the child can read, write the instructions down instead.

References

Kana, R. K. et al. 2006. “Sentence comprehension in autism: thinking in pictures with decreased functional connectivity.” Brain (in press). Advanced access online preprint.

Koshino, H., et al. 2005. “Functional connectivity in an fMRI working memory task in high functioning autism.” Neuroimage 24: 810–821.

Silk, T. J., et al. 2006. “Visuospatial processing and the function of prefrontal-parietal networks in autism spectrum disorders: A functional MRI study.” American Journal of Psychiatry 163: 1440–1443.

Williams, D. L., Goldstein, G., and N. J. Minshew. 2006. “The profile of memory function in children with autism.” Neuropsychology 20: 21–29.

 

BIO

Temple Grandin is an internationally respected specialist in designing livestock handling systems. She is the most noted high-functioning person with autism in the world today.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.

 


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Comments

  1. Lisa C says:

    Thank you for making sense of all this! I’m still not sure how to determine the type of thinking my son is, but I do believe he is a visual thinker. Like the previous comment, I too am spreading the word. there is so much misconception and I just want people to be educated instead of ignorant. I feel hopeful and like we’ve come a long way. The more we know the better we can be. Knowledge is power!

  2. Ruth Ann Prince says:

    THANK YOU DR. GRANDIN FOR ALL YOU DO FOR THE CAUSE OF UNDERSTANDING AUTISM. AS A GRANDMA WITH A 10 YEAR OLD GRANDSON WITH ASPERGERS, YOUR BOOKS AND ARTICLES HAVE HELPED ME BETTER UNDERSTAND ANDREW AND THE MOVIE ABOUT YOUR LIFE IS WONDERFUL I BOUGHT SEVERAL COPIES FOR RELATIVES AND OUR LOCAL SCHOOL TO SPREAD THE UNDERSTANDING. YOU HAVE DONE IT AGAIN WITH THIS ARTICLE ABOUT THE BRAIN. FUTURE HORIZONS IS DOING A WONDERFUL SERVICE TO THOSE WITH AUTISM, THEIR FAMILIES, TEACHERS AND THERAPISTS. MY DAUGHTER REALLY ENJOYED THE CONFERENCE IN OKLAHOMA CITY THIS SPRING .

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