Pattern Thinking and the Autistic Mind

I am a pattern thinker. And a bit of an image-thinker. These are two very common ways of thinking for those on the autism spectrum. Neurotypical people typically think in words, meaning their thinking doesn’t have to be translated for them to communicate their thoughts. Autistics have to translate thoughts into words, which is why we are sometimes a bit slower with our language, a bit slower to respond.

It’s probably not too hard to imagine what it means to be an image-thinker. After all, “image” is part of the word “imagine.” But it’s quite another thing to have your thinking dominated by images, to have a series of images pop into your mind–and not just abstract images, but very specific, concrete images of things you’ve seen. When I go to remember something I’ve read, it’s not uncommon for me to literally see the page on which the sentence I wish to remember was written. As a result, when I go to look up a quote, I can almost always immediately find what I’m looking for, since I see the page in my mind.

Less easy to understand is pattern thinking. Until recently, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you how pattern thinking works, but I was fortunate enough to feel an insight coming on recently, and so I sort of observed what was happening when the pattern thinking insight occurred.

Basically, pattern thinking occurs when you have a great deal of information about a great many things in your head, and then you read just the right piece of information that ties it all together, that provides the insight–a tipping point is reached–and then you are bombarded by example after example after example of things that fit that pattern. In my case, I write them down, because when that occurs, I typically have an academic paper or even a book in mind. My book, Diaphysics, is full of examples of my pattern thinking at work, finding deep patterns others haven’t seen before (but confirm that, once I point the patterns out, they seem obvious).

It may not surprise anyone that I also think in words. I am a poet, after all. But even with my poetry, sometimes it’s the image which comes first. When I write a play, I can see the stage and the props and the actors as I write. And I mean that I can see them as though they were right in front of me. At the same time, as a poet and playwright who writes using regular rhythms and often uses rhyme, I also bring in my pattern thinking and use it for my writing.

In addition to all of this, I am also a bottom-down thinker rather than a top-down thinker, but that’s a post (actually two) for the future.

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10 thoughts on “Pattern Thinking and the Autistic Mind

  1. Hello! I love what you wrote here about having both pattern and visual thought processes. I, too, think similarly. I particularly relate to your description of writing — I also *see* scenes and seek rhythm and rhyme with language. Thank you for sharing your experience!

    I found your blog as I wrote about my own thought processes, wondering if other people have overlaps,as well. I linked this post to mine and wanted to inform you of that. If you would like to read my post, here is the link:

    https://thechandchronicles.com/2018/02/02/pictures-and-patterns/

    Thank you again!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Ever since I read Thinking in Images (Temple Grandin) a few years ago, I’ve suspected my son was a pattern thinker, but I’ll wait a little until he can confirm or deny it himself. And since no one fits into one box only, I’m sure there’s a blend of things that contribute to his thought process. He uses association a lot too, and in an impressively intricate manner, but I wonder if it’s distinctive of pattern thinking or not (probably not?).

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    1. I’m certainly an associative thinker (and lecturer). I would think association is a kind of pattern thinking.

      I’m also a very visual thinker myself. I can create strong images in my mind, which was very useful when I was taking organic chemistry. I could see the molecules in 3-D without using the physical ball-and-stick models, move them around in my mind, and see how they interacted. I did spectacularly well in organic chemistry.

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      1. That’s amazing!!

        These days, my son likes to write the words or sounds he hears, like songs, when there’s music “flying around” the house. When the words are already written (ex. in a CD booklet), then he doesn’t feel the need to as much. He might just “write them in the air” for a second. But when he listens to a “best” of CD, for example, where there’s no lyrics in the booklet, he’ll try to write them down (if the lyrics are in another language, he’ll write what it sounds like in French, our mother tongue, or English). I thought it was a way to visualize and make sense of it all, to touch it almost, but he’s having so much fun that I think I have yet to understand all that he’s doing with this. 🙂

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      2. You might be amazed at the degree to which the sounds are flying around the house to him. One day my younger son came up to me with an imaginary box of rocks and proceeded to dump them out in front of me. For about a second, I actually saw rocks tumbling out at my feet.

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  3. Pattern thinking is hard to describe with words… The computer at Minority Report, though it’s a cube I’m sitting inside, sort of… or the thinking in Numb3rs… or in Lucy… now, all those are a visual description, and it’s of course inadequate, because my thinking isn’t just images and words, it’s images, words, emotions, ideas – like I just know something – light and colors and music and maths and like magical squares and brain games like sudoku and things, and… all kinds of things. It’s really hard to describe using words, because my mind doesn’t use many words. Or images…

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    1. That’s right. I’ve often experienced it as a flood of images, ideas, words popping into consciousness, with the connections among them being extremely obvious. My book, Diaphysics, is a product of my pattern thinking. I have had people say they cannot believe the patterns I see in it–but they don’t deny them.

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