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Temple Grandin's three types of Thinkers in Autism

I've looked at a lot of Aspergers theory over the years and while I agree with some of it, I find that I disagree with other bits. One theory that I really like is Temple Grandin's observations on the three different types of thinkers;

Temple claims that there are three types of thinkers in Autism and while people don't exclusively belong in a single group, they usually lean towards one set of patterns more than the others.

Temple's three types are;
  • Visual
  • Music/Maths
  • Verbal

Visual Thinkers
The idea is that the visual thinkers are those who need to "see" things in order to understand them. They're more likely to draw a picture or build an object when trying to work out a problem. Temple herself seems to be a visual thinker, her photographic memory clearly supports the idea.

Young visual thinkers tend to be keen on building blocks such as lego and possibly on woodwork or other craft projects.

Music and Mathematical Thinkers
These types of thinkers find patterns in everything. In fact, I'm surprised that Temple didn't refer to them simply as "pattern thinkers". They could be very good at music or mathematics, both of which are full of patterns. Of course, they might be good at one and not the other.

Verbal Thinkers
These are the thinkers who like words and speech. They love to make lists and will often memorize things such as train timetables & routes, stories in alphabetical order and even mundane things like software product codes. There doesn't need to be a pattern, there just needs to be words.

Finding a Home
In thinking about Temple's theories, I naturally felt the urge to try to find my place. It was difficult at first because I felt that I fell across all three types. I'm very visual and will often draw during lectures rather than take notes because I can look at my drawings and remember what was being said while I was drawing a particular thing.

I'm also quite pattern-centric and I find patterns everywhere. I try to resist putting things in order but I can't quite help myself and will often sort Books or DVDs into their correct order - even in a shop. It's embarrassing and I try to be discreet but I sometimes have trouble breaking out of chaos.

In the end, I looked at my writing, my books, my word-for-word recall of conversations (and things I've read) and the fact that I have several lists, literally hundreds, in storage on my computer which I refer to regularly. I'm obviously primarily a verbal thinker.

Why does this all matter?
I know that some people are already thinking, "No, not another label!", people are individuals and they're right of course. People really are individuals and as the saying goes, "If you've met one person on the autism spectrum, then you've met ONE person on the autism spectrum".

That's all well and good and it's nice to play the politically correct card every so often but the fact is that this label could be quite helpful. You see, as parents and teachers, we want our children to learn. Understanding that there are three major types of learning and that a child may lean more towards one than the others is important. It helps us to choose the most effective teaching patterns for a given child.

For example, a visual learner will get the best results from history lessons if they watch Historical Movies, they'll do best at reading if the words and their meanings are shown to them and they'll do well in mathematics problems like geometry where shapes are involved but won't do so well on abstract theory. Color coding things will also help pattern learners as will labelled Polaroid shots.

Pattern learners are more likely to excel in mathematics problems for which there is an established pattern. This includes multiplication tables and algebraic formulae. Their history lessons could probably benefit from a layer of abstraction and perhaps they would do best to examine the similarities and differences between similarly aged civilizations. Other good patterns occur in Science and language structure.

The verbal learners will handle prose much better than the other types of learners. They may be more able to deal with prose based mathematics questions, will be able to memorize lists such as the periodic table of elements and may find that rote learning works better for them.

Figuring out your child's preferred learning types could enable you to better address their academic needs.


Tiina said…
This Thinking-theory is not only for autistics. It's well known theory that can be used also for NT-persons.
And it includes all senses we have.
Easiest way to test how we are really thinking is to ask from person what is the first thing that comes to his mind when somebody says e.g. a bell.

Some of us will see image of the bell in their mind. Some of us will hear the sound of the bell. Some of us will feel the material of the bell, some of us will smell the bell and some of us will taste the bell.
Unknown said…
Sometimes people are critical because they are trying to be important.
I think lists and labels are artifacts of language. To get away from them, we need to get away from language as we know it. If we do that, we have to fall back on things like the Vuclan Mind Meld for communication. I don't think we are ready for that.
No, I'm not trying to be funny or curt. I'm trying to communcicate. Really.
m said…
i think there should be a "disconnected" category for disorganized people like me.
Unknown said…
I hadn't come across Temple Grandin's three types before - thank you Gavin for writing about this. I've long been aware that I'm primarily a visual thinker, but had never thought about how this might tie in with the hours I spent playing with Lego as a child, or the enjoyment I get from constructing things, whether it be assembling flat-pack furniture or writing software.

I strongly agree with you that identifying the primary way in which a person thinks is important in that it allows one to use the most effective teaching methods. For me, when studying history, maps were the key. On the other hand, when studying languages it has always been the structure of the grammar that has helped: tables of declensions and conjugations, as well as mapping words between languages and following their etymology (a special interest of mine).
Ketutar said…
You are mixing things a bit, I'm afraid to say. Temple was talking about ways of thinking, not learning. There is a difference.

For example, let's talk about organizing things. In itself it's not connected to any specific way of thinking. A visual thinker might organize books by color or binding, a musical thinker might organize them by size or subject and a verbal thinker in alphabetic order.

Learning styles are somewhat connected, but still different. The three styles of learning are visual, auditory and tactile. Visual learners learn best by pictures, auditory learners listen and tactile learners must try themselves.
Let's take languages, an art for verbal thinkers. Visual learner learns best by looking at pictures of things with the name of the thing written beside and watching movies. Auditory listens and repeats. Tactile learns by doing things with a native speaker.

Naturally, when it comes to autistic people, we tend to be very limited and unable to use the information unless it is adjusted to our way of thinking, and this is how the ways of thinking are useful in learning, but they are not styles or ways of learning.

Tiina's sensory based thinking is neither quite what Temple Grandin was referring to. It's a good lead to finding out the style of learning people are comfortable with, but when it comes to the autistic thinking - as far as I understand - there is no "the bell". There are bells. Every bell ever encountered is a specific bell ;-)

To M I'd like to say that you don't NEED to use any labels if you are not comfortable with it. I find it helpful. If you want labels, invent your own. :-)
Anonymous said…
Great post. The honework for me is working out which thinker type my family members are. I just asked (likely) AS hubby about the bell and he said ' i dunno, ring?' . I asked but did you see, hear it, smell it etc and he said ' i dunno, just ring'. Ive got my work cut out figuring out my young AS daughters!! Ha!
IanMKenny said…
I cannot help thinking that Temple's description of pattern thinkers was shaped by her own visual thinking. The examples she gave in her talks (at least the ones I've seen) were actually *visual* patterns. I don't think in terms of visual patterns like the ones she mentioned, but I have high levels of mathematical ability, and love using pattern languages, such as regular expressions. But they are more like algebra. Hmmm, Temple said she wasn't good at algebra either, while I loved it at school.

But I also love linguistics and reading novels.
Anonymous said…
All interesting comments - can I just make an observation that whatever style of thinking and/or learning people with AS have, you all seem pretty smart to me!! Also, I remember back in my uni days studying psych we learnt about 3 types of intelligence -1. book smarts (academics),2. Street smarts and 3. the ability to learn new things quickly. I think about my eldest daughter with AS and she seems to have 2 out of three of those intelligences - cant ask for much more than that...overall pretty blessed I would say. As an NT, I think I have maybe one of those....
Amanda said…
I'm a pattern thinker. I used to think I was a visual thinker, but the real problem is that I just can't understand people's speech that well. They have to show me what they mean or write it down.

I love my pattern advantage. I can solve any puzzle, be it physical, mathematical, or logical. People always give me little puzzle objects just to watch me figure them out. Haha.
Lindsey said…
Thanks for this! I am aware of different learning and thinking styles and how to accommodate students with diverse styles, but it hadn't occurred to me that this really might be all there is to meeting the needs of students with autism or aspergers. It has frustrated me when told that the key to teaching students with special learning needs is simply "good teaching practices," because in that case, they *don't* have "special needs." But, perhaps it's simply a matter of needing the "volume" on some of the good teaching practices turned up a notch.

As I've been thinking about this, it seems like getting to know the student's special interest and planning lessons specifically with that interest in mind could also be helpful. This is where teaching with special needs students in mind goes beyond good teaching practices in general. Certainly, it is helpful to get to know the interests of all students, as part of relationship building, as well as to occasionally design projects that students can customize to focus on their personal interests, in order to promote motivation and make the task more authentic. However, failing to tie a concept or lesson in to the special interest for an aspie might be enough to completely lose them, whereas it won't be for an NT.
C... said…
My Aspie son falls into the visual area big time. He loves building things especially legos.
Susan said…
I was very happy to read this article. I have been trying to figure out what type of thinker I am as well. I have AS and I do think in pictures but I love words... I write all the time and I have always been able to recall things I've read with ease... Now a days not so easily due to autoimmune issues, but I wonder which category I do actually fall under. My son who has AS too, I believe falls under a Musical Thinker, my husband, under mathematical. My son has difficulty with math, but he just instinctively can play the piano. He is also a visual thinker because he is amazing with art.

I was wondering, I have a blog on tumblr, can I repost this on my blog and give people the url to your blog? My site is:

Thank you,
Gavin Bollard said…
@Susan; Yes you can repost.
Barbara Gini said…
Gavin I found this article to be very helpful for me as an educator. Its also refreshing to hear you say that lables have an important place when assessing a learners needs. I would like to place a link to your article on my blog if I may:
You have lots opf great information on here-thanks so much for your insight! ~Barbara
Gavin Bollard said…
You don't need my permission to link to any of my articles (only to reprint).

You have my permission anyway.
I just watched Temple Grandin the movie and it led me to watch her TED video on different types of thinking. I too made the parallel between being a good parent and knowing that people see and process the world differently. I wrote at thing about it here

At any rate, labels can be restricting but for me, the label made me feel 'normal'. After wondering why I just couldn't do the things everyone else did in school (like read music, memorize history textbooks, learn what people told me in lectures without having to go back over it in my own way at home) and then trying to resolve that with getting almost 100% in all math tests, being able to make up songs that I could hear in my head, and having the ability to create connections between things that aren't usually related). These thought distinctions really helped me know that I wasn't an 'oddity' - I was just approaching learning differently. I could have used some of that validation earlier on in school.

And now comes the task of finding out how my children process the world! The fun never ends...
BigDragonMama said…
Do you remember which article Temple Gradin first posted this theory in? THANKS!
Anonymous said…
The theory for the nuerotypical person is visual, haptic and verbal. This conceptualization of learning is ditinctive from what she means by autistic/aspergoid visual, pattern and verbal. Notice that in all three categories, the typical qualities of visual, haptic and verbal learning styles are present? That is, a pattern thinker might need to 'see' the pattern of something to learn it, and, in order to do so, he may need to figure it out hands on, by playing with its various elements.

I think Grandin's idea is different.
Unknown said…
Can someone have aspergers without this way of thinking?
Gavin Bollard said…
Absolutely Daniela,

Asperger's isn't something that has a firm and finalized set of properties. We're discovering new things about it all the time.

Personality is the combination of many things, one of which is "experience". Different experiences will always shape people differently.

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