23 Jul 2019

Visual thinker

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My mind is like Goole Images I’m an visual thinker. Many people with autism are visual thinkers. When someone tells something I see it happening in my head. Sometimes it happens that I start to laugh at something someone tells, because it produces a funny video in my head.

Visual thinking is not unique for people with autism, many people do it. But with people with autism, it is often an effective means of explaining something. If you want to explain something to an autist, using images or videos is a good tool. By using these visual aids, situations often become clearer sooner than when you only use words.


You often see when you look at diagrams for autists that so-called pictos are used. These are (often) small, clearly recognizable images. The big advantage of these images is that they clearly convey an action without distractions.

Autists quickly focus on details. If an image contains many details, an autist is distracted by the details and no longer focuses on what the image means. Too many details can cause unrest and uncertainty. That is why pictos are often small and abstract.

These pictos also respond to the fact that an autist already thinks in images and therefore can often follow steps better when given in images.

Visual thinking from day to day

Everything you think in seeing images may be unimaginable, but that’s how it works. I see almost everything happening in my head. This is sometimes difficult. If I think about a problem, it may be that I am distracted by something in the “movie”.

So I can think about a situation that happened with someone. A conversation about something. Then I see the person in front of me, talking, and I try to follow the conversation in my head again. Then I see a certain something in the background and unconsciously focus on it. The object brings back its own memories. For example a plant that I have seen before with someone else or in a different situation. And before I know it, I am somewhere else with my thoughts.

Then I have to call myself back to the moment that I originally thought about. Awkward. That costs extra energy and that is why I sometimes need a little more time to process events or to respond to a question. I have practiced myself not to be distracted too quickly and to keep my attention on the subject. But when I am tired or over-stimulated, that is a lot harder.

Thinking aid

Visual thinking also has positive sides. I remember that I was taking my final exams in high school. I believe physics. During the exam I closed my eyes to think about a question and I “leafed” through the physics book in my head. I visualized the book in my mind and searched for the answer. In my mind I saw the page again, with the formula that I needed.

This image in my head was not one-on-one the same as the actual book. I have no photographic memory! But the formula was correct and the answer was correct. The image helped me find the answer in my mind.

I notice that this occurs more often in my mind. When I try to get something back that I have read, I think back to the book or something and browse through it in my mind. When I think back to a conversation, I make a representation of the person with whom the conversation was and what they said. If I want to solve a problem in my work, I try to imagine it visually.

Drawing a problem can also help you understand. By drawing what is going on, it can become a lot clearer for myself, but also for others. This technique is of course not only for autists, but also for non-autists a useful tool for understanding and solving problems. And it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, as long as it’s clear to yourself.


Although things like sarcasm are not well understood by many autists, image jokes can often be understood in one go. I also see this reflected in various Facebook groups where autists can enjoy a good laugh about everyday things that we feel are strange. Or those with a small adjustment are very funny at once.

For example, a doll’s arm that lies on a street is a:


Some more Dutch examples:

Tafelkleed Tafelvoetbal Tijdschrift

And so there are more things that you can come across from day to day that in the mind of an autist can really be different than you would initially think. Clarity above all; if you want to explain something to an autist, it might be useful to make it visual. Don’t use too many details because we can lose ourselves in that.

Not every autist is the same. For example, I myself have no problem with sarcasm or metaphor. But with so-called “silent hints” I can’t do anything with. I’d rather have someone say something blunt to me, than beating around the bush. Tell me what it says. Tell me if I disturb you or that you like me. Honesty above all.

I am a social klutz sometimes, but I appreciate it if you just say what you mean. Of course, that doesn’t always have to be blunt, but I would like clarity a thousand times than I have to figure out what you mean.

Thanks for reading
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Tags: autisme dit-is-autisme 
Picture of the author David Westerink
David Westerink
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I am David, born in 1984 and I'm autistic. I write blog posts and advocate for autism acceptance. I'm willing to talk to anyone about anything.

I have my own podcast (in Dutch) about autism and neurodiversity! Checkout the AutCast!

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