a. Thinking in pictures
It is common to place a solid barrier between the senses and the mind, the senses are said to be in specific parts of the brain. Indeed, in laboratory experiments, when we feel something, an area of the brain will light up. Maybe that will activate also a part of our memory, because it will remind one or another event, but that’s all. It is claimed that we think, but especially that we only can think with language, and it has even become a philosophical evidence. But I invite you to challenge it because in fact, an autistic person are thinking in pictures, they do not use any words (and generally they have a good spatial intelligence).
(The following text is a text by Temple Grandin from http://legacy.autism.com/families/therapy/visual.htm)
Thinking in language and words is alien to me. I think totally in pictures. It is like playing different tapes in a video cassette recorder in my imagination. I used to think that everybody thought in pictures until I questioned many different people about their thinking processes.
I have conducted an informal little cognitive test on many people. They are asked to access their memory of church steeples or cats. An object that is not in the person’s immediate surroundings should be used for this visualization procedure. When I do this, I see in my imagination a series of “videos” of different churches or cats I have seen or known. Many “normal” people will see a visual image of a cat, but it is a sort of generalized generic cat image. They usually don’t see a series of vivid cat or church “videos” unless they are an artist, parent of an autistic child, or an engineer. My “cat” concept consists of a series of “videos” of cats I have known. There is no generalized cat. If I keep thinking about cats or churches I can manipulate the “video” images. I can put snow on the church roof and imagine what the church grounds look like during the different seasons.
Some people access their “cat” knowledge as auditory or written language. For me, there is no language based information in my memory. To access spoken information, I replay a “video” of the person talking.
If I share perfectly these observations, my conclusions are not necessarily the same.
Thinking with words is a bit like traveling with a rocket. Light from the fires on your rocket, placed like a on car in front, is traveling much faster, and you, with your words, you will travel very slowly behind it. What if thinking with the senses was a bit like thinking in the speed of light? Obviously the communication of thought will be done at the speed of the rocket, but that does not mean that the thought with image, or more generally the “sensorial thinking” will not go faster.
It’s very simple to explain: even poets have great difficulty to describe the lights, sounds, music, smells, and feelings. That would be hard for you to describe music with words, and even if you could do it, the description will lack consistency, and it would be much longer than the music itself. In addition, it is obvious that to describe this music, you would use sensory and emotional metaphors. You will say for example: my heart is raised by this music. The music speaks to you, with no word. You gather it with your senses, and you think also with your senses.
Another point is the following: to describe the music, then you have to describe what you feel when you are listening to it, you will have no alternative but to describe what you feel/think. Sensations, perceptions are the most intimate things, so it is normal to want to keep them to yourself. In addition to the slower speed of communication, there is the privacy of sensations, and these two elements are linked to each other. The communication is not going fast enough because it is not felt, and it is a kind of perpetual painful translation.
b. Theory of mind
To these two elements (invasive sensoriality and sensorial thinking) can we add a third for understanding autism: what they called the theory of mind. Many autistic children or the autistic children who have not yet learned, seem to have difficulties to understand, to caricature, that other people are not in them and that they are not in others, regarding perceptions. To the following test:
“Maxi and his mom are in the kitchen, they rank the chocolate in the fridge. Maxi leaves to join his friends to play. During his absence, his mother decided to bake a cake. She takes the chocolate in the fridge uses a portion and stores the remaining chocolate in the cupboard. Later, Maxi returns, he wants to eat chocolate. Where Maxi will he get the chocolate? “
They tend instinctively to answer “in the cupboard”. In my opinion, we must be wary of this, and that is why I wrote “they tend” and “instinctively”. Most people with autism will learn that the answer is not correct, and that, from a very young age. What is important is that this answer is not completely obvious, at least to the same extent as for the so-called “normal” persons. If this example is very limited, this means in less sensational, in practice and in real life, for both children and adults with autism, that they tend to think that others can see what they are doing and read what they think. This is what makes these autistic people usually pretty ethical and straight. It is almost as if « God » was looking to them, as if others, anyway, have the opportunity to know what they think, what they do, what they believe and what they feel .
Similarly, instinctively, and in the absence of intellectualization of the situation, they tend to think that others think like them and feel the same things in the same situation. This is what makes them often naive. If they do not think bad, why would others do?