People With Autism Need Visual Strategies
Jeffrey Maloney, Ph.D.
ACES Executive Clinical Advisor
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Individuals with autism, think in pictures. They use the occipital lobes to interpret and make sense out of their world. They build their intelligence and meaning from pictures. When they think of “dog”, it is most likely they see the picture of a dog, or dogs, in their mind. And then they link the word “dog” or “beagle” to the picture they have.
In general, most people who do not have autism mostly think in words. We use our left temporal lobes to interpret and make sense out of the world. We connect to the world through language. Many caregivers of children with autism thus have a tendency to use words and encourage their child with autism to conform to thinking in words. They want their child to think in words, to use words, and to communicate with language – just like they do. They want the child to adapt quickly to their world of language. This is understandable. But to rid of child’s use of pictures, icons, visual aids, visual schedules, charts, and diagrams when communicating, possibly leads to disorganization and thus makes it challenging for the child. It is believed, a child with autism may always rely on visuals to interpret and communicate because this is the way their brain works. There is a small percentage of individuals who develop efficient language and may not need visuals to hold a conversation. Scientifically speaking, when a part of the brain is weaker (in this case, the temporal lobes – the language centers), it relies on the stronger parts to help it learn, grow and make connections. This is why we use icons, photos, pictures and drawings when teaching communication. An individual with autism will almost always understand the visual information first, and then connect to the verbal.
Use of visuals tends to proceed in stages as a child develops. It starts with using icons and photos to build vocabulary and sentence structure in early development. As a child goes into elementary school, we continue to use picture dictionaries to help them decode what we say to them, what we want them to do, or what they read or hear about. As the child gets older, we use written words (which are visuals – not auditory) for instructions, explanations, and scheduling.