Question for Non Word Based Thinkers

Four mornings a week Emma begins the day with a Skype call with a professor in New England who is a bio-chemist.  We call him Dr. C on this blog.  They have a close relationship and their conversations flow easily between them.  I am very much the observer most of the time.

This is a sample of one of their more typical exchanges:

Dr. C:  So if water were linear and not bent what effect would this have on life on Earth?

Emma:  Hydrogen would not be able to find connections to create networks, life as we know it could not be.

Dr. C:  Right, so there would be no dipole or tiny magnet, thus water would not align with a + or – side….

The session before this one, Dr. C asked Emma, as a homework project, to construct a Benzene (C6H6) model, which Emma then did.  It looks like this:



The final piece of the homework assignment was to draw the corresponding Lewis Bond Structure.  This proved much more difficult and took about five attempts before she drew the structure below. (It is awesome and fabulously impressive!)

Lewis Bond Structure

Lewis Bond Structure

The Lewis Bond Structure is basically a replica of the actual three-dimensional model, so much so that you can literally place the model on top of it and it will pair up.  While making the molecular models of things like water, ammonia, methane and carbon dioxide are now fairly easy for Emma, drawing the Lewis Bond Structures are not and it reminds me of a similar problem that writing, handwriting and to a lesser degree typing presents.

I would love to hear other people’s thoughts on why this might be so, but watching Emma cheerfully putting together these models is absolutely fascinating.  And it makes me wonder if this isn’t a key to better understanding how teaching methods might take a page from organic chemistry…

If one thinks in a more three-dimensional way, does it then follow that trying to write, formulate the words to correspond with the thoughts, would present a whole series of challenges?  Doesn’t it suggest that this is more than a “word retrieval” issue?  I’m wondering if there even IS a word retrieval issue, (I plan to ask Emma later) but instead there’s a spatial issue presenting itself as non word based and therefore very difficult to transcribe.


35 responses to “Question for Non Word Based Thinkers

  1. I’m autistic, and while I don’t have a lot of trouble with words when it comes to simple and everyday things, or things I’m very familiar with and/or have talked about a lot (and have a sort of scripted shorthand for), I often find myself with a problem that seems similar to this, where it’s like I understand a concept very well but I have trouble fitting words around it. I think describing it like you did, trying to express something you understand in 3D by flattening it into 2D, is close to what I experience. You could also say it’s like trying to reproduce Monet’s Waterlilies with only one shade of blue and one shade of green. Or maybe better, like having to describe a dodecahedron by only one of its sides, leaving out the other 11 entirely, or the fact that it’s a 3D shape at all.

    I do have word retrieval problems, but they’re not related to this issue. I’ve managed to get pretty good at finding analogies, which helps to get more of my meaning across, but when I can’t find one that works, it can be really frustrating because even if I know where to start describing, finding the words that convey enough meaning can be very difficult, and I’ll lose a lot in translation. I’ve had experiences where someone assumes I don’t know or haven’t considered certain aspects of something, just because it wasn’t in the words I said. Almost every time I have to explain something like this, I start it off with something like “it’s more complicated than this, but…”

    • Thank you SO MUCH for this Lana. Do you mind saying how word retrieval occurs for you? I am wondering if the non autistic meaning of “word retrieval” is the same as what is meant by the person who experiences it. Does that make sense? So for example, I sometimes will blank on a word. I know the word, I can even feel it, but it’s as though my mind cannot reach it. Is that how it is for you? Or is it something else?
      Totally understand if you prefer not to discuss.

    • I totally agree with this. There are times I know something and I *know* I know it, but cannot articulate it. People then assume I don’t know it because I can’t parrot it back, so they re-explain/over-explain a known concept.

      At the same time, I sometimes have the ability to take very complex subjects and make very simple analogies. But I admit to having a hard time to explain the experience of knowing I know something (how do I know that?) and not being able to convey that.

      There are times as well, where while trying to express something, I actually think I can feel literal wheels turning in my head. Like switches flipping and gears moving. It’s like my brain is doing somersaults trying to do it. Very odd.

      • Yes, all of this sounds familiar to me! I find that I can understand complex things easily, that I just “know”. I have knowledge of a lot of different things that I’ve picked up over the years, and I’m particularly good at patterns, and even if it’s a relatively new concept, I know my mind is kind of checking it against things I already know, finding patterns, and filling in blanks, without me consciously thinking about much of it. I suppose it might be the same way that many non-autistic people “just know” social rules and expectations?

  2. We are going to try this software, called Efofex. It even does some chemistry diagrams.

  3. Last night, I couldn’t find the word “bench”. I was looking right at the bench, I’ve used the word plenty of times, but it wasn’t there. It was like there was just a blank space, and it felt less like I didn’t know the word and more like I couldn’t get any words out. Like the words I was saying were being poured out of something, and “bench” got stuck and blocked up all the words behind it. Sometimes the jam will shift enough to let a trickle through, and I can get to “there” or “that” while pointing, or maybe describe something with fragments or onomatopoetically. I usually point or use gestures to get past it — I don’t know ASL yet aside from the alphabet and a handful of signs but I very much want to learn, and I haven’t tried writing as a substitute so I’m not sure if it would work. If someone else can help me out by saying the word for me, that clears it up after a second or two. Of course it’s easier for someone to know the word for what I’m pointing at (but they still have to not be a jerk about it); generally speaking, though, there are very few people who won’t annoy or offend me by trying to give me words for something that’s less concrete.

    When I forget words in a more neurotypical way, it’s like I can’t reach it for a minute, but I can talk around it and say “chair thing” or “place to sit” if I couldn’t get to “bench”. I don’t mind at all talking about the experience for people who are really interested in understanding. It can help me understand myself more by thinking about things that I just sort of accept as normal, and since I have a young nephew who was recently diagnosed, I think I have a lot of that in my future. So the practice is nice.

    • This sounds different than my experience and is very helpful for my own processing and considering how it might be for others. Really appreciate your taking the time to explain!

  4. I think it’s easy for people to confuse written and spoken language as being the same thing. A written word can represent a spoken word, but it *isn’t* a spoken word. In a way, writing is another language we all learn that maps to spoken language. If, for some reason, (and there may be multiple reasons why people are nonspeaking) developing spoken language is extremely difficult or impossible, a person can still develop a written language. However, this written language will not be mapped to a spoken language the way it is for most people. It will be connected more directly to concepts and ideas and visual representations that are used to symbolically manipulate ideas during thought.

    The idea of “word retrieval” is that “words” are stored somewhere in your brain and you retrieve them in order to write or speak them. If this analogy actually makes sense at all (I’m not sure that’s how brains really work!) I doubt that written words and spoken words would be “stored” in the same way. Or even that typed words would be stored in the same way as handwritten words. All of these output modes require physical actions of some kind, either complex motions of the mouth, tongue, lips, throat, diaphragm, etc for speaking, or complex hand motions. Of the three modes, typing has the least complexity. If part of a person’s disability is motor control and planning, then cognitive resources for the more complex modes of expression will be hugely demanding and make it harder to “retrieve” any words.

    If spoken language was learned secondarily to written language (rather than the usual order), then more cognitive resources are taken up to map an idea onto spoken language. It’s like having to take a very long, arduous detour when other people can just cut straight across and get to their destination much more easily.

    Another factor was mentioned by other commenters: overincorporation.
    It’s hard for my brain to decide which details are important and which are not. I tend to try to incorporate more information than is necessary. In terms of translating a model into a diagram, I would have to understand that the important details are the types of atoms and the types of bonds between them as well as their overall configuration in relation to each other (the ring structure). Then I would have to know some conventions about representing those details (letters for atoms, lines or double lines for bonds, 2D drawings that represent 3D structures). Finally, I would have to be able to control my pen to create the marks I want to make, and have the visual/motor integration in my brain to be able to copy or connect things the way I see them on paper. If you have a brain that doesn’t generalize things easily, all of this is an enormous task.

  5. I think the idea that for some people information can be stored in their brain in a multidimensional way that makes it difficult for them to translate the ideas into language is a valid one. I think the 3-d to 2-d simplification is an analogy that might help some people understand the concept (or for others to explain it), but that it would be a mistake to compare language (spoken, signed, or written) to 2-d. In the case of building molecules — they really are 3-d, and 2-d simplification is mostly for the purpose of communication. Thoughts are more than “2-d”, for everyone, not just autistic people, but there’s no specific dimensionality to them. It will be interesting to hear Emma’s thoughts on the topic when you’ve discussed.

    I wonder if you’ve ever tried to communicate spatially? For example, building a model to describe a thought or idea Emma has? That would be an interesting effort.

  6. 2 dimension is a flat and does not consider enough relationships and connections, since it cannot represent it, the 3 dimensional model allows much more exploration of the shape and different viewpoints on can have of the same thing- so when we have to simplify info into a 2 dimensional model it becomes tricky- what two dimensional angle should you transfer, out of all the possibilities?

  7. If one thinks in a more three-dimensional way, does it then follow that trying to write, formulate the words to correspond with the thoughts, would present a whole series of challenges?

    That’s entirely possible. I often say I am living in a 3D Pixar world and trying to explain my experience to someone in a 2D black & white world. I do have a word retrieval problem. But the problem is the word I need doesn’t exist. I don’t know how to describe the things I see when I’m thinking.

    • Tami, I think we’re alike. You just described much of my experience — and of course you described it better because of my own word retrieval issues! Something so simple but I really, truly wouldn’t have thought of describing it the way you did. Sometimes I have something to say but I draw a blank — not because I have right-at-the-tip-of-my-tongue syndrome, but because I don’t always feel that there are words adequate enough to describe what I’m trying to say. It’s not really a frustrating process though. I just let it go. I accept that the English language isn’t perfect and I move on! I would imagine that it would be a lot more frustrating to know the words exist but you just can’t remember them (like Ariane described). Now that I think of it, for me the hardest things to find words for are often very simple, ordinary things or events.

      Oh, and I’ve always been a 3D thinker as evidence by artwork my mom saved. The houses I drew as a little kid were always sloppy but had dimension and 3-quarter view perspective.

      For my 6 year old son though (also on the spectrum) who is a very visual/pattern thinker, it’s pretty clear to me that his issue with language is not having a picture to link to a word. Sometimes when we’re talking and he gets stuck trying to finish a sentence, it helps him to turn his head and stare off into a wall or ceiling to use as a canvas and “visualize it out”.

    • This is very similar to what Emma has also said, Tami.

  8. The correct term is “Dysgraphia”. I had to find that specific word to fight the educational system for my own child who is Autistic, brilliant academically and many grades ahead of his peers there, but grades behind as far as his handwriting skills go and it causes him stress as he struggles to write. Until I found the correct medical term (yes, it occurs very often with Autism and ADHD), the schools didn’t want to accept that the difficulty writing was anything more than what they termed “non-preferred activity”. Google it and you can find more details on how a Dysgraphic brain works and what can be done to help make writing easier.

  9. I’m Autistic, and just found out as a 41 year old. When I was a child, I remember handwriting being VERY difficult. Holding a pen/pencil just seemed very wrong to my hand, and I could not figure out how to duplicate the patterns! Eventually, my mom got me these triangular rubber pieces that slid over my pens and pencils, to help me grip better. I was allowed to hold the pen/pencil how *I* wanted to, that helped. And I spent time every day on handwriting, using those preprinted sheets that show an S solid, then as dotted lines, then with arrows, then faint and you traced over it, then you did it yourself…progressed from individual letters to words in handwriting and script. Now, I have beautiful handwriting and am usually picked to make the signs or whatever in any group. Hope that helps.

  10. My first thought then, is that many people have no trouble describing 3-D scenes with words. If one is a visual thinker, why, then, can’t one use words too? I cannot imagine how one WOULD describe something without a visual 3-D representation. How do YOU do it?

    I have a terrible word-retrieval problem, and I am visual thinker, SO, what’s happening up there?
    When I read or am told something, I can only make sense of it if I can construct a 3-D picture in my mind; I then retain that picture and simply have NO need to retain the words, which is really great if I never need to talk to anyone! Unless I have memorised some previously constructed script, having used other people’s words, it is often better to just keep quiet, MOST frustratingly!
    I read a LOT, mostly non-fiction, so it’s not as though I have not encountered enough relevant words.

    Writing is better, for me, only in that I have time to search for the common words I have by now retained/can access.
    I have a cousin though, that damaged the right front of her brain in an accident (she is paralised on the left) who sounds really childlike when she speaks (words she uses), but writes well, without any sign of the same.

    Graphs e.g. are impossible for me to decipher, simply by looking at them. If my husband is at hand I will ask him to tell me, because it’s quicker than constructing a scene.
    I need concrete examples for abstract ideas (actually, I realise I am scripting here, because this is an expression I have often heard; I still cannot get a handle on the word ‘abstract’ – I know what an abstract painting is, but what on earth is an abstract word/idea – and by ‘concrete example’ I mean something I can visualise in 3-D/as a scene).

    Emma’s drawing of the PHOTO of the 3-D model looks so obvious, but unless someone put the model down exactly like that in my field of vision from above so that I could ‘flatten’ it onto the page and copy it, I would have no idea how to start. It’s movement in space is confusing.
    It is, for example, impossible to see a 2-D plan of a house as a 3-D object and visa versa; I would need someone to build a model.
    I have built many props for shows, but I have to visualise the finished product in my mind before I can start. I cannot draw my idea or work from a drawing. I look for photos of the real thing and then abstract it, in 3-D, if I need to, completing hidden parts in my mind before I can start.

    Was Emma given a verbal explanation of the bonds and order of atoms, in order to build the model?
    Also Emma has a vast vocab retrieval that she uses creatively.

    It seems to me that there is a disconnection between the visual and language based parts of the brain on the one hand, but how 3-D relates to 2-D is probably a spacial issue, not visual, but more of orientation. I can represent what I see very accurately in 2-D and 3-D in a one-to-one scenario (realistic representation), but if it moves in space I feel VERY disorientated. If the angle changes, it beomes something else. SO difficult to explain.

    More questions than answers 😦

    • You explained it quite well. Dysgraphia, dyscalula, there are others… They are subcategories of dyslexia. What I found looking into the subject was that one could have dysgraphia, but not the typical characteristics of dyslexia. I refuse to see it as something people should be made to feel ashamed of. Yes there is difficulty with some thought processes, but that also gives you strengths that others lack. I was recently showing a Sp.Ed teacher the “Shape Math” system I had seen while searching for visual alternatives for my child. I told her that it seemed pretty overpriced to me, but everything that you needed what’s there one the home page. It seemed clear to me, shapes and colors that fit together to do mathematics. I saw how it worked immediately. But looking at the expression on the face of my child’s teacher, I could tell she was really having to concentrate to get her mind wrapped around it.

    • Interestingly Emma was given a verbal explanation, but in making the models I can’t know how much that played a role in being able to make them.
      I know I experience a disconnect often between words spoken and if I’m shown something. I learn much more readily if shown. Words can become too abstract for me to apply to real life.

  11. YES yes 100 percent yes- it is word retrieval. Though autistic I am not a visual thinker (endless associations here) BUT I home school my autistic sons as well, and they ARE and they do SO SO much better with visual models, and demonstrate understanding in this way, on a much …higher level (not exactly the words I want, but that will do) than they would using only verbal methods.

  12. I am a visual thinker — not always concrete images, but also abstractions — although visual is not an adequate word to describe the mental processes. I “feel” concepts in a way that does not involve words, nor pictures in the normal sense.

    I find the experience very difficult to put into words. For example, consider the concept of happiness. I know the dictionary definition, a merry-go-round of synonym after synonym, a seemingly endless branching series of references that ultimately only lead you back to where you began with no enlightenment. I didn’t learn of happiness from the dictionary; I don’t feel it in terms of a collection of words. Happiness is a physical sensation. It is a lightness of being, both in the sense of freedom from weight and of shining brightness. Happiness is the sun shining on a day when the to-do list is miraculously empty of chores.

    I know what happiness is. I understand it deeply. And yet to convey that understanding through the medium of language requires an artistic ability to conjure an impression. I think that’s why so much of what Emma writes mirrors poetry: the aim is similar. To use words as a painter uses color or the texture of brush strokes to stimulate compatible thoughts in the mind of the reader.

    I have learned how to use language — words — as my medium for communication. And yet I have strong abilities for visualization. This was an asset when studying math at school — especially geometry and vector algebra which have a strong spatial aspect. I can easily construct and manipulate 3D shapes in my mind, but I find it difficult to draw them. As clear as an image might be in my mind, I struggle to set it down on paper. I think it is that I find it difficult to project the 3D mental image onto a 2D surface. That and some mild motor function issues which affect my hand coordination…

  13. A very fascinating post and even more so, absolutely amazing comment thread. Thank you to all of you who have contributed to this discussion. I’m just blown away right now by the complexity and diversity that the human brain is capable of. I’m definitely a “word thinker” and have a very hard time with visualization, spatial manipulation, etc. so reading the descriptions of this type of thinking has been very enlightening and interesting.

  14. I have never considered my non-lingual thoughts as being “spatial” or anything else that corresponds to a sense. It’s definitely not a “word retrieval” issue either; to me that sounds like forgetting what a word means, or knowing what you want to say but forgetting the corresponding word. It’s a matter of translation. I know how to speak two languages: My third is ASL, my second is English, and my first language is I Don’t Have One. I think in intuitive understanding of concepts, not language. That’s because the definition of language is the method of communication between at least two people. I don’t need to communicate with myself, because I already know what I know. Sending information to other people means translating from thought to English, just like you can translate ASL to English. Actually, since ASL is already very similar to English, it’s more like translating from Javascript to English..

  15. I just wanted to say how much I appreciate the question Arianne and the replies (especially Lana, your personal experience with word retrieval). Thank you.

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