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Visual Thinking book by Temple Grandin

Valuing people who think visually

Ginny D’Odorico, Aaron Giuliano, and Mel Romualdez review Temple Grandin's latest book.

08 November 2022

In her newest book, Visual Thinking, Temple Grandin builds on her earlier work focusing on her lived experience as an autistic woman and a visual thinker. Grandin explores the literature on 'thinking types' within the population (visual versus verbal) and distinguishes between different types of visual thinking: the object-visualisers (thinking in pictures) and the visual-spatial thinkers (thinking in patterns). She explores the dominant culture of verbal thinking, which favours this one type of thinking at the expense of others, particularly in school or the workplace. Most importantly, she advocates for more appreciation of the population of visual thinkers and the significant contribution they make to the global workforce. By recounting how differing thinking styles have been instrumental in a range of societal and technological advancements, she illustrates just how important visual thinking is to progress in society.

As a book that explores how autistic ways of thinking can be a gift to society, Visual Thinking  has obvious merits. Grandin proposes that many autistic people like herself tend to be visual thinkers, and are disadvantaged by a society that overly emphasises the importance of verbal thinking. This understanding of visual thinkers may have implications for how children are taught inclusively within schools. It could potentially increase opportunities for a balance between written tasks and student-led practical sessions for children who are not processing verbal information in a sequenced and linear way, but instead making associations using visual representation. Grandin explains these object visualisers need more time to process language, such as rapidly delivered verbal information; this has significance for how teaching styles should be adapted for visual thinkers.

A particular strength of Grandin's writing style is her use of visual metaphors, analogies and anecdotes; utilising her own visual thinking style, she is able to synthesise current research in a vivid and memorable manner. She clearly shows the reader ways in which the devaluing of visual thinking in society can have disastrous consequences. As she does this, Grandin takes her synthesis of visual thinking research and applies it to real-world scenarios that she views as being either caused, or worsened by, a lack of diverse thinking. For example, she suggests that visual thinkers are able to better predict disasters related to weakened infrastructure, and know how to design bridges, roads, and buildings to prevent such disasters. Grandin also applies her own experiences as an autistic individual in her discussion of the consequences of the verbal-thinking, neuro-normative culture from which we must move away.

However, there is a certain contradiction in how she views her own autism versus her apparent championing of the neurodiversity perspective (she devotes a whole chapter to 'Genius and Neurodiversity'). Grandin says that her autism has always been secondary to who she is, and makes reference to having to 'overcome' her autism to achieve the things that she has — somewhat at odds with the view of autism as an identity and a neurotype. She includes mini-biographies of famous geniuses in history who were suspected or confirmed to be autistic. This may pose a certain risk of reinforcing the harmful stereotype that autistic people are all geniuses (or savants) whose 'superpowers' are what make them valuable to society. What about autistic people who may not have incredible genius-level gifts, but are no less valuable?   

While delving into these criticisms more deeply is beyond the scope of this review, it is important to point out that an autistic scholar with a platform as large as Grandin's has a certain responsibility to the autistic community, who have fought so hard to give the neurodiversity movement the momentum it has today. Still, her advocating of visual thinkers and, more generally, neurodivergent thinkers as integral to society's advancement is a call that should be heeded. At the heart of the neurodiversity perspective is this respect for different kinds of minds, and an appreciation for all that they bring to the world — and that is a beautiful thing.

- Ginny D'Odorico, Aaron Giuliano, and Mel Romualdez are based at the Centre for Research in Autism and Education at University College London. Ginny is a PhD student and Headteacher, while Aaron works as a research assistant and Mel is a Lecturer in Psychology.

Visual Thinking: The Hidden Gift of People who Think in Pictures, Patterns and Abstractions by Temple Grandin is published by Rider Books.