In my previous blog “The Way We Roll” I wrote the following: “For my son pictures are more easily processed than the spoken word. He just ‘gets’ it when I show him a picture or use visuals to schedule out the plan for his day (like a visual diary). The pictures seem to just ‘stick’ in his mind easier than words. He continues to improve in his ability to understand, retain and follow verbal instructions…but visual supports are his number 1. They also help him to calm down if he is upset about something, and are far more effective than me or someone else telling him to calm down.”
A fellow blogger kindly asked if I could explain more about this, in particular the highlighted part…here goes…
What I have found both in the literature about autism and from my own experience with my son is that external systems, structures and routines that are represented in a visual way can greatly assist him in providing order and structure to his internal world. Often my son and I sit down together and ‘draw’ out the events of the day. This has the ‘flow on’ effect of helping my child to remain calm and emotionally regulated. Visual systems can take many forms and serve many purposes. The visuals themselves can be photos, drawings, cartoons, icons, words, numbers and actual objects. Temple Grandin is just one example of an adult with autism who explains her visual way of thinking in her book “Thinking in Pictures”. She writes the following:
“I think in pictures. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures. Language-based thinkers often find this phenomenon difficult to understand, but in my job as an equipment designer for the livestock industry, visual thinking is a tremendous advantage…I value my ability to think visually, and I would never want to lose it. One of the most profound mysteries of autism has been the remarkable ability of most autistic people to excel at visual spatial skills while performing so poorly at verbal skills. When I was a child and a teenager, I thought everybody thought in pictures. I had no idea that my thought processes were different. In fact, I did not realize the full extent of the differences until very recently. At meetings and at work I started asking other people detailed questions about how they accessed information from their memories. From their answers I learned that my visualization skills far exceeded those of most other people.”
I am absolutely one of the language based thinker Temple writes about. I do not excel at the visual spatial skills she referred to. My son however is brilliant at directions, is amazing at doing puzzles and unbelievable at computer games. His verbal skills do not come as naturally. If I was to ask him how old he is there is often a long pause and maybe a 60 to 80% chance that he will answer: “I am 4 years old”. We have been practising answering this question for months now. He definitely knows he is 4 years old. He absolutely has the ability to say those 5 words in a sentence. It just requires effort for him to access that language from his mind and then to connect it to his mouth and speak it out. It is part of the mystery of autism. My son is a bright boy, but he struggles tremendously with his verbal (expressive and receptive) skills. This is a big deal given that we live in such a verbal world. It can also lead to frustration when you have thoughts, needs and ideas that you are having trouble communicating.
When I say I use visuals to help calm my child I have a sense that I am ‘speaking his language’. When I refrain from using verbal language I am avoiding placing any extra demands on my son. Processing language when he is upset is placing extra demands on an already stressed body and mind. More recently my child has even said to me on the odd occasion ‘No more talking Mum!’ It makes me giggle when he says this but I am quick to oblige. So when I want to help him calm I draw a quick sequence of pictures on a ‘megasketcher’ or ‘magnadoodle’ as they are sometimes called. I put this in front of my son and wait quietly next to him. I do not talk. Soon or later he has a look and when he does I just point to each picture in the sequence. Sometimes he might say what the picture is, sometimes I might say (quietly) what it is, and sometimes I just silently point to each box.
The scenario could go like this: My child is upset because Daddy is going to be late home from work. The sequence of pictures are telling him that he will have a bath, then we will eat dinner, then he will go bed, and after he has gone to bed Daddy will come home. My son gets all that from some (badly drawn!) pictures. He is able to easily process that visual information and calm himself. I may also offer him a quick cuddle and then we carry on. Not every time, but most of the time it helps. I see it as being similar to my need for a diary. Some days I don’t need it but other days I need to know what’s going on either to help carry me through a difficult day (crossing off each item as I go) or just because I can’t seem remember what I am meant to be doing at what time.
My son’s visual way of thinking is different to how I think, but it’s not been too difficult for me to understand and make accommodations for him. All I need to do sometimes is to just stop talking, keep a pen and paper handy, or even have a ‘megasketcher’ nearby!