Firstly I need to be completely transparent, while I have officially been diagnosed with ADHD as a child and again as an adult, I have never officially been diagnosed with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) as I have never sought an official diagnosis due to my belief that an official diagnosis wouldn't help me at this point in my life.
However, as well as my own self realisation that I appear to have ASD, the medical professionals who have diagnosed my ADHD and other Autism specialists have confirmed that I do fall on the ASD spectrum in the area that would have in the past been referred to as Aspergers.
Autism is a spectrum disorder, my experiences and my way of thinking will be different to others with ASD. This isn't a definitive answer on the topic of aphantasia and autism, however, it could be viewed as opening the door to discussion on the matter.
Aphantasia has impacted my life in many ways, typically through what I would call micro choices. These micro choices and explaining this further is for another article, but in this case it explains why I don't enjoy reading as I never feel immersed in a book, even if the topic is something I am deeply interested in. I would like to make it clear that I haven't completely read any of the books by Temple Grandin, however, I have read sections of the book Thinking in Pictures and this is my inspiration for this article.
I am not attempting to counter the arguments or opinion of Mary Grandin, what I am attempting to offer is the insight to how thinking works in an Autistic brain without being able to think in pictures.
I'm also not attempting to dissect what makes someone have ASD or how I function with ASD, but instead offer a different way of understanding how a brain with ASD and aphantasia works.
I have always scored highly on IQ tests, falling between 135 and 147 being my highest, but my spatial reasoning scores have always been noticeably lower than the other parts of the test. I typically score highly on questions asking me what piece would complete the shape, or what piece fits where or what piece is missing, however I score comparatively lower on the typical example of showing you an unfolded cube with different designs on each of its 6 sides and asking what cube would be impossible to make when refolded.
Here is an Example Test, I find the last 3 examples difficult to complete in any reasonable amount of time, and I got the last one wrong. Now getting one wrong out of ten might seem like a good score, but I feel that not being able to visualise is holding me back from getting ten out of ten quickly.
As the designs become more complex I struggle to be able to calculate their positions 'blind'. As I can't rebuild the cube in my mind, it takes an inordinate amount of thought to try and figure out which pieces would be where when the paper is refolded. Even though I know how it will fold and which pieces go where when assembled, without being able to visualise, I lose track of how each piece would be orientated and how it relates to its adjacent piece.
For those of you who can visualise and would find this task easy, the only way I can explain the difficulty I face would be for me to ask you to complete a 6 piece jigsaw puzzle. However, you only have one attempt, the pieces are turned over, so every piece looks the same and also they are all the same shape. Every piece will fit into each other piece, and you will only know if you have done it correctly when you turn it over at the end and the finished puzzle is shown to you.
I enjoy problem solving, building structures and understanding how a machine or system would function and operate. I can look at a structure and see the small details, or why its design would cause a failure. Even without being able to visualise I am able to understand the bigger picture, however, I get there piece by piece, looking at how each piece would impact the following and so on. For complicated systems, this becomes quite difficult as explained above, it can be hard to keep track of all the pieces as I can't see them as a whole, I can understand the bigger picture, but I can't "see" it at once.
In my mind I can't see a vast library of images, however the majority of nouns have a deep link to childhood and will link back to a scene that is related to that word. If I think of 'VCR' I think of primary school, where a big CRT TV would be on this wheeled apparatus that would be brought out of a cupboard for various screenings of weird educational videos. I then think about a VCR in the cabinet under the TV that was at my grandparents house 15 years ago. The difference between myself and what Temple Grandin is describing is, I can't see what I'm thinking. The links, the library of interconnected thoughts to words are there, but it is blind, it is verbal.
I can wander around in my mind getting lost from where I was meant to be in the first place, hopping from word to word, but even though it is a hugely descriptive journey, with many twists and turns, it is blind.
My mind still seems to create this library of images, but the ability to retrieve and recreate them just isn't there. Aphantasia appears to be the inability to recreate the images that are stored in memory or thought.
When I absorb information I assume it is stored factually as I can't retrieve an image associated with memories at a later date. For example, if I think of the world 'steeple' I can't bring up a library of churches I have seen in my life, I can remember one well, it was one I would see on a back road near where I lived as a child. However, what is odd is that I feel that if I could visualise it would be there in my minds eye in all its glory, but as I can't visualise, it sits there, out of reach, but feeling so close. I want to dig deeper into this memory, I feel like I know it so well, and that I could explorer around the scene, but I can't, like I am held back behind an opaque window.
I instead retrieve this information as bullet points, pieces of information that I feel I am dragging from this image deep in my mind and converting into my inner monologue as a verbal description. As trying to verbally describe this image would be too much of a task, only the key points are translated to a bullet point description. So often this interconnected web of words is done as a vast venn diagram overlaying words into categories of association, but each word is grouped verbally and not visually.
Not all people with ASD are visual thinkers so even if I could visualise I may not have been a visual thinker. I am by no means the authority on this subject nor the best person to be discussing it, however, I hope I will have given other people with ASD and Aphantasia the confidence to discuss how they think so we can learn more about the human mind.
Please comment on this article and share how you think.