Learning in patterns

I wrote a post about ways of thinking a while ago, referencing Temple Grandin’s “thinking in pictures” quote. Since then, I’ve read her book, The Autistic Brain. I was really excited to find there was a section about thinking styles. She mentioned that lots of people had criticised her claim about all autistic people thinking in pictures. Then she went on to talk about a third thinking style. Words, pictures, and patterns. Patterns is very clearly the way I think – I’m really excited to find that I independently came to the same conclusion as a well-respected researcher! (albeit using slightly different words).

I’ve talked before about how I’m not very good at generalising. I can’t learn from examples, because I can’t turn the example into an overall concept in my head. I either need lots of examples (and I mean, an impractical amount of examples: too many to be reasonable), or I need the overall idea explained first. Examples are a way for me to check that I’m understanding right, but nothing more than that.

The combination of these two things: thinking in patterns, and having trouble generalising, means I learn in a bit of a strange way compared to some other people. Other people’s understanding will gradually increase in little steps as they gain more examples and information. Whereas my understanding will stay at absolutely nothing for a long time, and then suddenly jump up to ‘completely understanding everything’. There isn’t any in-between. If I there’s even one small element of a topic that I don’t understand, then it means I don’t understand any of it.

This has confused teachers (as well as other people), because I can seem to get irrationally upset when I don’t understand something very minor. Because for me, it’s not just “I don’t quite get how to do this specific type of equation, but I have the general idea of most of the rest of the topic”. It’s more like “I don’t get this specific type of equation, so I have no overall system which encapsulates everything, so I have no way of understanding any of it”. It’s not me being over-dramatic or exaggerating, it’s a genuine difference in the way I learn. I am unable to understand something bit by bit, it’s all or nothing.

This does have its benefits when I want to explain something to someone else. If I understand the whole topic, then I have it fixed in my head. There’s a complete system which contains every part of it connected together. So I can give an overview of the ‘shape’ of the whole system, and I can also focus on smaller parts if someone has trouble with a specific bit. And I can look at it from different perspectives to try and find new ways of putting it if someone doesn’t understand at first.

I have only known a few of people who explain things in the way that works for me. Those I can remember: my secondary school science teacher, my A-level maths teacher, and my dad. They are all people who either ‘get’ that I need patterns to understand, or who naturally think in patterns themselves. Any time I’ve tried to learn something that hasn’t been from these people, it has involved me working desperately hard to process all of the information at once and distil a pattern from it myself. It’s inefficient compared to the way most people learn things, but I’m pretty good at it by now.


2 thoughts on “Learning in patterns

  1. I feel this so much!! I’ve recently started reading about other autistic people’s experiences and I find it very exciting & interesting? I have a need for words to describe my thoughts. (As in, my experiences make more sense then and I can calm down a lil.) I def think in words. I mostly script to myself when I notice I’m thinking.

    I get very upset in maths class if I don’t get something, too. Thanks for this post, I’mma read lotsa more of yours soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you can relate! It’s really interesting to hear someone who has a similar experience but with word-thoughts. I get stressed out if I can’t explain things using patterns or systems. It’s difficult to imagine how it would feel to need to use words to understand things. :)


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