Talking With Temple: Visual vs. Pattern Thinking

PART 2 (Here is a link to part 1)

When I found out I had been granted an interview with Temple Grandin I was as excited as a 10-year-old girl going to her first Justin Beiber concert.  There was only one problem.  The terms of the interview stated that I had to interview her at her hotel and I had secured an interview location at the venue where she would be speaking later that night. It wasn’t going to work, and now I was back to square one.  I was short on time and the hotel was been singularly unhelpful.  So I arrived really early, before the crew, to secure a location at the hotel.  The pay-off was that I found myself in the lobby of the hotel, sitting next to Temple Grandin, chatting like a couple of old friends. 

It was surreal, it was heady.  And I wasn’t going to let a moment like this pass without thanking her.  I had to.  She had changed the way I communicated with my son.  I told her this and she smiled.

“How’d I do that?” she asked me.

I told her that when my son was 5 I had watched a video of her speaking. This was well before the award winning HBO movie based on her book Thinking in Pictures came out.  In the video I watched Temple was describing the different ways that people with Autism, “Autistics” as she calls them, think.  She explained how visual she is.  This made sense to me because I am a very visual person.  But then she went on to explain “pattern thinkers”. These are individuals who have an amazing ability to see things conceptually.  This can be an awesome an strength but it can also mean they need the whole concept of something in order to comprehend it.  She mentioned how frustrating it would be if you spoke in visuals to a pattern thinker. In that moment it was as if someone had turned the lights on in a dark room.  My son is a pattern thinker and until that moment I had no idea!  I had been explaining things to him like a series of Polaroids that he had no reference for, and he was frustrated!

The true irony was that I had been so concerned about my son learning perspective taking, but until that moment I had not been capable of taking his perspective!  Temple gave that to me.  As a result I explain things to my son in an entirely different way now.  I try to edit my desire to describe details that are unimportant to him.  I start with giving him the whole concept of what I am about to explain.  Think of MapQuest…MapQuest gives you choices.  Do you want to see the overview map and/or do you want the step by step instructions?  My son wants the map.  I had been telling him about the landmarks along the way with no map at all!  Frustrating, right?  Once I took his perspective it changed my ability to communicate effectively with my son.

So, I thanked her and she was pleased.  She was more than pleased.  She started telling me how important it is to challenge pattern thinkers and to make sure they have access to higher level math, even at an early age.  She cautioned me to not stick him in “baby math” for long periods of time or he would get bored.  She was a wealth of knowledge and I was loving talking to her.

Eventually a gentleman arrived and informed Temple he would be taking her to lunch.  I knew it was coming, and I knew that I was going to be interviewing her on camera, after lunch.  Still, I was disappointed; I didn’t want the conversation to end.  She stood up…and then she said it, “Would you like to join me for lunch?”  Temple Grandin just asked me to lunch!  I made a noise that can only be described as something out of a bad sitcom.  It was like a cross between a moan and a whale call.  It was horrible. Temple’s eyebrow went up.  I don’t think anyone had ever made that sound after she’d asked them to join her for lunch.

“I would love to join you for lunch” I finally said, “But I can’t.  I have to be here to meet the crew and show them where we’re going to shoot your interview.  Thank you so much for the invitation, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I need to stay here.”

She was kind and gracious and agreed that she would be back in an hour, and then she was gone.  Life is full of hard choices.  As Autism Parents my husband and I have had to make a great many hard choices.  I consoled myself that this wasn’t really one of those tough choices.  I was still going to get to interview her.  Life was going to go on. And as it turned out the interview and what happened afterward surpassed any disappointment missing out on lunch could have metered.

****PART 3 Coming soon! In the meantime catch up on the latest in autism with Shannon on Autism Live!