Learning Styles

By Donna Williams

If you listen to people like Temple Grandin, all ‘autistics’ think in pictures.

Not so.

I have heard from many on the spectrum who think without pictures or struggle to make or hold a mental picture at all.

So, for the record, there is not a simplistic division between auditory-verbal non-autie thinkers (thinking in words) and visual-picture autistic spectrum thinkers (thinking in pictures). This is simplistic and forgets all those who think in systems, think in physical/tactile experiences and movement or think in music for that matter.

Temple is an engineer and PhD who was re-diagnosed with Asperger’s in adulthood after an infancy that appeared more autistic, so she may well be saying that those, who like her, have Asperger’s, tend to think in pictures.

Again, whilst there may be many engineers and techies who do, many people with autism are neither engineers nor techies and, there are actually seven dominant modes of learning style:

The learning styles are:

Visual (spatial). You prefer using pictures, images, and spatial understanding.
Aural (auditory-musical). You prefer using sound and music.

Verbal (linguistic). You prefer using words, both in speech and writing.
Physical (kinesthetic). You prefer using your body, hands and sense of touch.
Logical (mathematical). You prefer using logic, reasoning and systems.
Social (interpersonal). You prefer to learn in groups or with other people.
Solitary (intrapersonal). You prefer to work alone and use self-study.

So, as someone diagnosed with autism in adulthood (after a childhood thought deaf, called psychotic and labelled disturbed)
where am I?

Well, I can tell you that I have songs going around in my head almost constantly. It’s definitely my most dominant style of ‘thought’.

Its certainly my best way of understanding what emotion I sense others in or feel in myself in relation to people, places and experiences.

Until I was 9 much of my language repertoire was bits of jingles and songs.
Still, if someone uses a butchered song to sing me a topic I process far more than if they spoke it.

Still when listening, my brain struggles to get past the sounds to the meaning.

As for rhythm, without constantly moving, I seem to go rather brain dead.
I am also a musician and around 30-50% of the relatives I met on my father’s side of the family were either artists, musicians or writer’s
So what does this mean for language and socialising?

It means that you adapt these things for your audience.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

When in interaction with a musical mind, join them through tunes, rhythms, songs, patterns and when the person is then more receptive to you and language because of this, progressively meaning, or whatever can be made of it, will take care of itself.

But my second form of learning is certainly physical, kinesthetic.

I’m a mover.

I have always moved, always been a jiggler who couldn’t stay seated.
If it doesn’t move, I often don’t know what it is.

Jiggle an object and ‘bingo’, recognition.

And with reading too… it distresses and overwhelms me, ….except on a train, perhaps also in the massage chair..
and the same with expressive speech….if I’m walking or in a moving car, bingo, blah blah blah… but sitting, its like I’m sitting on my brain (ha ha)
If I’m moving, its like the speech area of my brain comes on line better.
What would this mean for children in mainstream told, sit still and listen?
I love words that have an action, like ‘bop’, these words ‘gel’ for me where those without actions are like an intangible language… I’m not a visual thinker, words don’t gel with images for me, hence the 30% of words which have little capacity to put gesture to them just float off into meaninglessness within seconds and tumble, unsecured, into a matted jumble of blah.

When I’m listening to people or reading on the computer, my leg rocks or foot jiggles the whole time.

Is this how a kinaesthetic person links in to language?

As an artist, I’m spatial but I don’t start with images, I almost always start with a messy pattern then find the picture. I struggle to create one from my mind, like most kinesthetic learners, I’m a discovery learner.

My art is very 3D, space and movement is essential, far more than image.
Most of my figures have no faces, they are redundant and far more is expressed without them.

The background, too, seems irrelevant to me, and is always very minimal.
Yet the expression is utterly full, nothing is missing.|

I always saw things in bits, not as a cohesive whole till I was an adult.
My capacity to visually recognise objects outside they usual place, use or form is very poor and I’m often so meaning blind I had a psychiatrist once declare ‘you have agnosia’.

I use objects to hold concepts where I am unable, like visual thinkers, to hold an image, let alone multiple images, in my mind.
My dreams are in movement, theme and feel far more than image alone. I get a ‘sense’ of them, not a movie.

I write films, I’ve written 4, the last 3 were fictional. They captivate those who’ve read them who say the characters are immensely tangible to the degree its hard to imagine they are not real. Yet they come to life with no images, they are like the dreams of a blind person, I feel these people, how they move, and the dance of their interactions with others. Its like a symphony of life. They are about being, and doing.

Yet whilst many people on the spectrum may be visual thinkers, many are not and some struggle to grasp systems like PECS even if they can use real objects quite well instead of pictures. Real objects are known through the body. They gel for kinesthetic learners. Pictures must be held as concepts in the mind, something visual thinkers can do well but kinesthetic thinkers will struggle to retain or use with consistency.

I’m not much of a visual thinker even though I will use objects and gesture to indicate what I’m struggling to express verbally.

I think in systems and am so logical that in my world, all things are possible.
No matter what extraordinary thing you tell me, I almost always take it all as possible.

This may sound illogical, but it is like there are no boxes, yet I will find the system in anything.

In an IQ test the psychologist threw a trick question in.

The other pairs were things like ‘apple and orange’, ‘cat and horse’.

He asked me, what is the similarity between a tree and a fly.

I thought for quite some time, all manner of patterns cross referenced in a flash.

Nothing gelled.

Then, I got it.

‘They are both effected by the wind’, I replied.

I do almost everything alone.
Some of this is sensory flooding.
Some of this is slow processing leading to overload.
Some of this is inability to understand things without gesture to see the experiences behind words.
But in the end, all of it means I learn best ALONE.
The more you put me with others, the less I process.

As a writer, I use words. But my typing is vastly easier than my speaking.
Typing is the only place words are natural to me.

I love words as sounds and shapes, but verbal words fall away, tumbling like clouds in a windy sky.

Typing, like objects and gesture and song, grounds them.

I’m a wordsmith, and with a degree in linguistics (its a very systems oriented subject that requires much rote learning) but I’m not the standard linguistic learner and learning reliant on words without gesture is a torture like fingernails down the blackboard leaving me pretty wound up!

I love being around people, but not in among them.
I’m the fly on the wall.

I love their patterns and diversity.

I’m interested in what is different and the sameness in difference.

But I do not learn together with others well, it is more an obstacle than a help, unless they are in their own space, parallel.

Then I can progressively merge into their patterns, and, using kinesthetic sense, learn through doing.

…Donna Williams *)
author of 9 published books in the field of autism.
copyright 2005 Donna Williams

Donna Williams *)
Ever the naughty Autie.

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