The Different Thinking Styles of People With Autism

Another article from candidate Will van Zwanenberg about autism and employment. His first article looked at how employers can benefit from autistic employees, and the second addressed how interviews can exclude candidates with autism. This article looks more deeply at the differences in thinking styles between people with autism and neuro-typical people, and why they matter.

Amongst the vast majority of employers, the very different cognitive, reasoning and analytical styles of autistics is not well understood or appreciated. This is terrible shame – not to say waste – because if properly utilised, these very different thinking styles that are characteristic of autism can actually be a valuable asset. It’s a key reason (amongst several others) why employers are foolish to ignore autistics.

Unlike their non-autistic (“neurotypical”) brethren, a thinking process based solely in terms of language and words is completely alien to autistics. First and foremost, they’re visual thinkers constructing fluid, evolving pictures and images in their mind’s eye as they analyse a given problem or consider a given phenomenon. The words they use to describe that which they “see” come later; often much later. It’s only after these images have stabilised – that is, have taken concrete form – that they set about the task of describing that which they visualise by utilising language. Often that “language” isn’t actually made up of words born of linguistics, but is in fact another form of language such as mathematics, computer code or music.

Autistics do this as a consequence of their need for both precision and exactitude, coupled with a recognition that language, by its very nature, is none of these things and instead is both nuanced and nebulous such it that cannot ever satisfy this need. Simply put, language can never ever describe an object, idea, concept, or argument as efficiently or accurately as an image or diagram can.

When considering a given problem or concept, many moving images will appear and disappear concurrently. To use an analogy, it’s like playing different disks in a DVD player in their imagination and so running several different films at the same time.

It’s contrary to what one might imagine, but being able to construct images like this in one’s mind is actually a very valuable skill to have in many occupations. The ability to visualise both the shape and structure of, say, a new engine component and to be able to run test simulations of it without the need to physically build the thing or model it on a computer, could be tremendously beneficial in a profession such as mechanical engineering or aeronautical design. A product or furniture designer can save thousands of pounds and many man hours if they’re able to evaluate a new product in just their mind. Equally, to be able to conceive of a new building design, to be able to evaluate others, and to be able to identify any possible flaws with it before it’s ever built, is enormously useful in architecture. Maybe this is why the renowned architects Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, who are both autistic, are so successful.

Visual methods of thinking, when applied to tasks or problems that are conventionally tackled in nonvisual manner, often lead to a final conclusion that much sooner and that much more efficiently. An autistic computer programmer, when tasked with creating new software will first visualise the entire program tree in their mind and then fill in the program code on each branch. This method also works in reverse however – i.e. when faced with totally new kind of problem and you don’t have any idea from outset what the solution will look like and you only have some of the data needed or the components needed to derive the answer.

With any problem they have to address, however abstract or imprecise, an autistic will formulate a general outline of the solution in their head in the form of a fuzzy, out-of-focus image. As facts or facets regarding the problem become better understood or inferences are made, it becomes ever clearer. Once a sharp image has formed, it’s then that the solution will reveal itself and its then a relatively simple matter of both describing and implementing the solution.

The process is analogous to deducing what the picture on a completed jig saw puzzle is when only some of the pieces are put together. A piece is placed in one corner, and then another, and then after about a quarter of all the pieces are in place, the autistic can determine that the puzzle has a picture of a house on it.

Precisely because of their exemplary visual cognitive skills, autistics are ideally suited for careers as:

  • Cartographers
  • Games Designers
  • Interior Designers
  • Draftsmen
  • Artists
  • Graphic Designers
  • Physicists
  • Astronomers
  • Engineers
  • Mechanics
  • Film Makers
  • Surgeons
  • Air Traffic Controllers

Employers should forgo their communication difficulties in order to foster this natural talent. Ironically, the very skills that autistics excel at are, more often than not, the very same skills employers find hardest to find people with. Why? Because in their ignorance, they’re overlooking autistics and are instead are focusing on what they can’t do rather than what they can.

William van Zwanenberg © May 2016

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2 thoughts on “The Different Thinking Styles of People With Autism

  1. I found this article very interesting because I suspect that I am on the autism spectrum, my GP is trying to get me a diagnosis. I am very analytical and precise, and can visualise in my mind’s eye. I find it difficult to learn new tasks, unless I can visualise the sequence in my mind or the person training me is a patient a good listener and finds a way of explaining the process that I can understand.


  2. Nailed it! I was so happy with your description of the jigsaw puzzle analogy, as that was a description I have struggled to explain to others. I always said that I didn’t understand things sequencally but as a whole. That pieces of the pattern would fill in until I grasped it then the pattern would snap into place as a whole. I often struggle with translating my thoughts into words to be able to relay them to others. I love this description! Thank you so much for your words!


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