Not thinking in pictures; autism and a possible sub-diagnosis of aphantasia.


Fragementation 2

It’s been a curious time – one of transitions, I guess. Spring weather and lighter nights coincide with reaching beyond the 2 year anniversary of my diagnosis of autism.

A decisive diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome came as a surprise, I expected equivocation and maybes’. Hidden disability is a tricky rogue, adept at fooling even the person who embodies and lives it. A subtle form of gaslighting is our daily bread. You look fine! You seem okay! Why can’t you do that? You did it yesterday…

These are the conversations we internalise and play on repeat, looping endlessly, until diagnosis day or the day/s self-identification kicks in (either is good in my book).

From this moment you can begin to deconstruct, understanding ever more the hows and whys of the daily struggle. Sometimes we wade through treacle, and sometimes we glide like swans. Only careful unpicking reveals why (though the why is often maddeningly elusive). Finding out why is so helpful. Finding out why (I find) often requires a group conversation. This can be quite random for an autistic person – a process of sifting and happening on rare pieces of gold.

But these golden nuggets can be just what we need to rub the looping critical internalised voices from our minds. Yesterday I learned about aphantasia  from autistic blogger and researcher Shona Davis. Aphantasia relates to the inability to visualise images. I’m still wrestling with the concept and am uncertain that it applies to me wholly, but suspect that at least partially it probably does . I often find that peeling back sensory and/or neurological difference is cloudy at first, my kind of ‘normal’ is long lived and late diagnosis can feel like playing a game of tag with yourself. I’m also a little hung up on how literally to take ‘seeing’ pictures in the mind as an expression, let alone arrive at a whole new diagnosis just like that. But it sounds like an important thing to know about yourself when so many areas of life can be affected.

Okay aphantasia is not well known or researched, but I find myself reflecting in new ways on how poor information and services are for autistic people, how little attention is given to the detail of our diagnosis. There can be so many strands to each individual presentation of autism. Not only should we as a society embrace that fact instead of chasing tired old stereotypes about autism, we autistics should also receive commensurate support.

Aphantasia could provide the key to so much understanding of the many ways in which I struggle to learn and retain information, recognise people and keep them in mind when they are absent. It could also relate to the intense need to see and touch things to understand them, and to learn hands-on rather than in the abstract.

I also feel I’ve reached a tipping point after diagnosis in which I must begin to reconstruct my life. There comes a point where all the carefully garnered information about autism and reinterpretations of my decades on the earth should lead somewhere – to forming new helpful habits and adaptations I hope.

As I drifted off to sleep last night I tried to conjure a scene. Useless. See a yellow bucket, I said to my sleepy imagination. Imagination said no.

If I screw my eyes and dig back into word association fleetingly I get something – a picture book bucket. I find a black bucket easier to conjure (builder’s buckets are a stronger image – more familiar probably – but slippery as sand in my mind’s eye). I don’t get nothing at all but what I get is faint and has that rolodex quality which facial recognition also contains for me. I get there by association. I don’t see black (as some report) and I don’t see words either. Perhaps what I see is something in-between?

The more familiar an object is the more clearly I see it but it quickly skips away. I can see my fantasies (I can see pieces of art I’ve made or imagined pieces) but I can’t seem to conjure images to command. There are also powerful visual experiences which stay with me that I can’t easily rub out so I feel this form of seeing for me may be deeply linked to emotional engagement at the time of seeing (if that makes sense).

I reflect again how poorly I understood the variety within our autisms when I read Temple Grandin’s incredible book, Thinking in Pictures, so many years ago, desperate to understand my newly diagnosed child. I can now see that fascinating as it was it didn’t help me all that much. They don’t think in pictures either – though obviously some autistics do, while others of us can’t conjure a single mental image.

My work as a visual artist is curious when you consider that I don’t have this ability firmly embedded in my neurology, and that my visual acuity is otherwise high. I’m incredibly visually sensitive (sometimes this is painful) and this guides me in my work. Probably, as in so many other ways, I’m just navigating differently.

Yesterday I took a picture of a broken plastic magnetic letter while out walking (a new habit). It is orange, the magnet is missing and it lies frontside down. I can see it clearly in my mind and this image is stable. Is this because it struck me so? Is it because I took a photo, and then spent time editing it on instagram? Is it because I love orange? Or is it because it is the letter which begins all the names of the men closest to me?

In recalling it just now before adding the image I had forgotten that it was broken or that it had a small blossom resting on it. Otherwise my visual memory was strong.

I think the truth may be that when it comes to detail and specifics, when there is time to embed an image (as in the creative process) and when the emotional pull is strong enough  I can visualise an object. Visualising a whole scene, or something in the abstract is something else entirely.

Somehow knowing this  feels like a huge step in rebuilding my life.









Published by soniaboue

I am an artist.

34 thoughts on “Not thinking in pictures; autism and a possible sub-diagnosis of aphantasia.

  1. This sounds so much like me. My ability to “see” images is not completely absent but requires a lot of effort and concentration. It really doesn’t come easily. I used to be dumbfounded when trying guided visualizations and wondering how on earth anyone could find that practice relaxing. Like trying to “count sheep” to get to sleep. The effort of trying to conjure up those sheep would leave me wide awake. There are one or two special places, places we used to go on holiday etc, that I can “see” clearly. But always from the same angle, the same spot, as if I’m looking at a postcard of them. In fact, I may be remembering photographs I took of them. And yet, when I read about aphantasia I thought “I don’t have that”. Like much of autism, it’s a spectrum. I have it partially, subtly, and depending on context and circumstance. Just like you describe.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you for reading and replying! I was reading your comment when I suddenly thought about how hard it is to visualise anything mathematical either – once it is a matter of abstract number I see nothing – there is a huge blank.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I always love your writing. It struck me that maybe this image is so strong because it is a letter. I see words better than images in my mind. So if someone mentions a banana I don’t see a banana in my mind but the word banana. I am also involved in visual creative arts and wonder if that is a way to capture or manifest visual images…

    very interesting – will go and read the other post…

    Liked by 3 people

  3. How very different your internal experience is from mine! As I read the words “See a yellow bucket” it was there in my mind. Not only seen but tangible: in my mind I could hold it, feel the smoothness of the plastic, hold its weight in my hand, turn it around. Tap it with my fingernail and hear the sound. Except for the fact that it wasn’t there in the same space and time as my physical body, it was a real bucket.

    Even with abstract ideas, my thoughts are wordless. I don’t describe this as “thinking in pictures” because it’s so much richer: I experience it, live it.

    I find with writing that I have the ideas I want to express in my mind first. Then it’s an exercise in translation, turning those ideas into words. One thing I love about visual arts is that this to-and-fro with verbal language is bypassed: there’s no need for words to move between ideas and images.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. I think everything in pictures, and I did not know about aphantasia until I heard a CBC Radio Quirks and Quarks segment on this neurodiverse way of interpreting the world. Some of the people interviewed in that segment were autistic. I love hearing about just how neurodiverse the autism community is within itself.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Packing a trunk is practically one of my special skills. I am mostly a visual thinker with a smattering of words thrown in. If I were to attempt to visualize mathematics or anything abstract really just cause a dark void as I have nothing to pull from.

      Liked by 5 people

  5. I love your writing! The wording is beautiful, poetic. I found out that I have Aphantasia 3 weeks ago, and it’s changed how I think about pretty much everything. I’ll be publishing my own blog soon to talk about my experiences. Really lovely read.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. I don’t get any images at all when I try to visualize. Nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada. My grandfather didn’t either. (I also know one non-autistic aphantasiac.) So, /waves hi?

    Aphantasia does seem to be getting a bit more attention now that it’s actually been named at least?

    Liked by 3 people

  7. I had heard of aphantasia before, also in the context of autism. It is a concept that’s pretty much unimaginable for me (and therefore of course fascinating) because I have pictures dancing through my mind practically non-stop. I can imagine pretty much anything I want, and almost with the intensity which Alex Forshaw describes in a previous comment. For me, though, pictures and words are inextricably intertwined.
    But it’s so interesting to hear of other people’s experiences.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I think in a hazy mixture of vague pictures, occasional words, and abstract concepts with no symbols attached. It is certainly hard to describe how a recognizable thing like a familiar face actually looks in my mind’s eye. I imagine seeing it, and I sort of get a…sense of how it looks, piece by piece, but not a clear image.This subject is fascinating but it’s so hard to study, because people’s thoughts can’t be transferred to any kind of record without losing something.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. Oh! I’ve wondered about this forever! Despite being artistic/creative, I cannot conjure an image in my mind. I can describe it with words, which I do when I write, but I can’t see it. Even images I have drawn over and over or worked on multiple times are very vague.

    I’ve wondered whether this is related to prosopagnosia and difficulty navigating without a GPS. I can remember getting lost in school – going to the wrong classroom or not being able to find my locker because I was on the wrong floor. I still have nightmares about it!

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I am also a writer/sometimes artist who find things difficult to visualize. In fact, I just had a piece sent back because the editor said “your story is completely unhelpful. There is no description of anything which means I have no reason to care what happens to anyone in your story.”

      I sent a reply to her explaining what the author did (without the medical term), and I think she understood: “Well, too bad, describing things is your job. It is your only job, and if you can’t do it…”

      This kind of comment is what makes putting my art/writing out there more challenging. I can barely stomach the thought of going through the list of editors again, even though I know I have to at some point.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. That is so discouraging, I’m really sorry this happened. Has this editor not heard of Elmore Leonard? SO many ways of getting vivid picture across without describing – often I have to skim descriptive passages as they bore me and don’t add to the story!! I just want to know what happens most of the time. Cut to the chase, people! 😉 I bet your writing is tops! Don’t give up x

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Thanks for writing about aphantasia. You describe it so well, and also the frustrations with the ‘thinks in pictures’ stereotype. I hold data in words, feelings, sounds, textures and smells and my ‘mental pictures’ and memories are a combination of these. The first time I read about aphantasia it was amazing to discover something about myself that was right there but I’d not noticed because my other senses are so acute and my compensations adequate. Thanks for writing this – Briannon

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Thankyou, this describes my experience very vividly. Typically I can gain a wavery image only of things I’ve already seen, and like you, I forget details or proportions.

    One thing to add: I can picture things when falling asleep (the “hypnagogic state”, you know, when people sometimes hear mumbling voiced of people they met that day, or hear music). Then I can visually hallucinate in detail, even fantasy creatures- for only brief moments and It’s almost impossible to consciously choose what to see, but it lets me realize it’s something that can be done, but I can’t normally do.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I don’t know if this happens to anyone else, but I am usually able to see in pictures (quite vividly, actually), but sometimes my mind just says no. I too have Asperger’s and I can usually able to visualize both past events and books in great detail. However, there are certain points where, after using a lot of creative energy, I am unable to enjoy music (I usually adore music of almost any kind). As a matter of fact, at these times it seems I cannot enjoy much of anything, let alone create or visualize things. I don’t really know why, it’s just a general feeling of apathy and exhaustion. Maybe it’s because I haven’t been getting enough sleep, I got four hours of sleep two days ago and about nine yesterday, but I only fell asleep at midnight. If anyone else gets these random bursts of aphantasia, how do you get it to go away? I am a writer, artist, and musician, so this inability to be creative is rather detrimental not only to my work, but to my mental state as well. In fact, times when this happens are extremely frustrating and I feel as if I’m goin insane. I don’t know if it’s a thing or not, but if so, I guess I just want to know that I’m not alone.


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Orion – Think this may be overload. I get this too when my brain is just so crowded and tired. I find downtime – going out for a walk or getting on with ‘mindless’ chores/ sorting and tidying are good ones for me. Thank you for reading and for your very interesting comment!


  13. Hi Sonia, WOW! I just read about Aphantasia last night and realised that this is what I have….it has a name! I cannot visualise anything in my brain. This is why I am struggling at college. I am doing a foundation in textiles and the design aspect of the course is a nightmare. I am an excellent maker…I can sew, weave and create in 3D but drawing or painting from I am not a designer. I am not sure if I should continue my course. I am going for an ADHD diagnosis is 9 days via the private route. I strongly suspect that I have Aspergers.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Dear Sonia

    I came across this blog post by accident and felt compelled to share what I know about Aphantasia.

    First of all Aphantasia is not linked to autism – there is no actual evidence of this – the willingness to connect the two is an indication of a complete misunderstanding of the condition.

    Secondly, Aphantasia does not mean you have no visual imagination.

    I have Aphantasia as does my mother and two of my children. I am an artist, working primarily in paint, my mother is a film editor and both her parents were also artists. Aphantasia has had literally no impact on any of our visual creative capabilities.

    The idea that people with natural Aphantasia don’t ‘see’ or imagine anything when we try to picture something in our mind is misleading. The reason that this condition has only very recently been discovered is that as far as we are concerned we do ‘see’ something.

    To describe the difference it’s like the difference between a picture of a thing compared to a description – that description is more like a Wikipedia page rather than a simple visual description. This can actually be explained neurologically by the scans of the brains of people with Aphantasia while trying to picture something – while in the majority of people they only access the visual memory part of the brain when trying to picture something, people with Aphantasia however access much more of the brain when doing this activity.

    There is also some evidence that there are two types of Aphantasia; natural Aphantasia, as described above, and trauma Aphantasia – where there has either been physical neurological trauma (damage) that prevents the normal accessing of visual memory, or where there has been psychological trauma causing the brain to inhibit access to visual memory as a protective measure.

    (Ps. Feel free to contact me at the email address provided)

    Liked by 2 people

  15. So glad I came upon this blog. I am on my own journey at 54 realizing I likely have Aspergers but the one area that I could not relate to was the thinking in pictures. I cannot make a picture in my mind, In fact oddly I can somewhat see memories but they are much clearer with my eyes open, when closed nothing.

    Liked by 1 person

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