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Thinking in Pictures as a cognitive account of autism

Project Members: Maithilee Kunda, Ashok Goel

We are developing a cognitive model of autism centered around visual representations and processing, an account that we believe could lead to new and improved paradigms for communication and education within the autism community.


Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by atypical behavioral manifestations in three different areas: social interaction, communication, and stereotyped or repetitive patterns of behavior and interests [1]. Classic autism (also known as Autistic Disorder or Kanner autism) is one of several related conditions that comprise Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs), also known as Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDDs).

While the specific causes of autism are not known, an etiological framework (shown below, adapted from [2]) has been traced out that leads from genetic and possibly environmental factors, through neurobiological development and cognitive functioning, and finally to behavioral manifestations.


Many theories have attempted to give a cogent account of the changes in cognitive function that lead to the behavioral characteristics of autism (see [3-5] for three prominent examples). However, many individuals on the autism spectrum have given introspective descriptions that are quite different. One of the most famous is the account by Temple Grandin in her book Thinking in Pictures [6]. Grandin, a high-functioning adult with autism, states that her mental representations are predominantly visual, i.e. that she thinks in pictures, and that this representational bias affects how she performs a range of cognitive operations, from conceptual categorization to the interpretation of complex social cues.

While Grandin's account of visual thinking has been primarily an introspective study, we aim to show that the Thinking in Pictures hypothesis does, in fact, represent a very powerful way to look at cognition in autism.

Some questions we hope to answer in the course of investigating the "Thinking in Pictures" hypothesis include:
  1. Do people with autism really think in pictures?
  2. If so, is visual thinking a characteristic of autism in general, or does it apply only to a subset of diagnosed individuals? And does Thinking in Pictures apply to only a subset of behaviors within a particular individual?
  3. What kinds of visual representations might be used, and how might their use (as governed by their computational properties) translate into observable behaviors?
  4. Are the visual representations used by individuals with autism and neurotypicals the same or different?


  • Kunda, M., and Goel, A. (2008). "How Thinking in Pictures can explain many characteristic behaviors of autism." In Proceedings of the 7th IEEE International Conference on Development and Learning, pp. 304-309. [pdf]
  • Kunda, M., and Goel, A. (2008). "What can pictorial representations reveal about the cognitive characteristics of autism?" In Stapleton, G., Howse, J., and Lee, J. (Eds.), Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on the Theory and Application of Diagrams, LNAI 5223, pp. 103117. [pdf]
  • Kunda, M., and Goel, A. (2008). "Thinking in Pictures: A fresh look at cognition in autism." In Love, B., McRae, K. and Sloutsky, V. (Eds.), Proceedings of the 30th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, pp. 321-326. [pdf]


  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Revised 4th Ed. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
  2. Minshew, N. J., & Goldstein, G. (1998). Autism as a disorder of complex information processing. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 4 (2), 129-136.
  3. Baron-Cohen, S. (1995). Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  4. Happe, F., & Frith, U. (2006). The weak coherence account: Detail-focused cognitive style in autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36 (1), 5-25.
  5. Russell, J. (Ed.). (1998). Autism as an Executive Disorder. New York: Oxford University Press.
  6. Grandin, T. (2006). Thinking in Pictures, Expanded Edition: My Life with Autism. New York: Vintage Press.

Last modified 7 January 2009 at 10:50 am by mkunda