Tag Archives: education

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.

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Education

I recently had a disappointingly familiar experience. I was referred to a group CBT course – not group therapy, but more of a series of small group lectures to learn some techniques and exercises.

After a few of the weekly sessions, a recognisable feeling started to creep over me. The content was interesting enough, and the course was not run particularly badly. But I absolutely knew that it was not providing anything for me. I could learn the information much more efficiently, quickly, and enjoyably, if I was at home alone and not in the lecture itself.

I suppose a lot of NT people find it helpful to learn in groups. At the CBT course, the other participants seemed to enjoy telling and listening to stories and ideas from each other. But all I could think when they were talking was “When do we get back to the point? I’m not learning from this.”

This is an experience I have had repeatedly throughout education of all kinds. Initially, I can see the appeal of interacting with people who have similar interests, and of being able to directly interact with the educators themselves. But that appeal is extremely short-lived and soon runs dry when I’m faced with the exertion required to keep it up.

I have to push myself to go out, travel to wherever it’s happening, find my way into the right room to settle in, interact with my fellow learners, interact with the educator, keep up with verbal explanations, keep still throughout the lesson, concentrate solidly with no chance of a break, then lots more interaction followed by finding my way out and back home again! And all of this in exchange for learning something which I could understand much more quickly and easily if I just read written/visual information alone and in my own time.

I can understand the appeal of a social situation involving a certain subject, but not when I’m learning the subject. For me, those two things have to happen separately in order to be efficient or enjoyable. If I’m in a situation which has both, I have to just pick one to focus on (generally the learning), and I still find it much harder because I’m distracted by the other element (i.e., the people socialising around me).

I’m starting a distance-learning degree soon. It will be an interesting experience, because it seems like it will be the perfect learning style for me. But I’m wary of getting my hopes up too much. Maybe I actually need something that’s in-between traditional classroom learning and completely solitary learning? I guess I’ll find out.

Educational accommodations

I’ve recently found myself in an interesting situation. I’m about to start a distance-learning degree, and it’s the first time I’ve entered education with a formal diagnosis behind me. Suddenly I’m being inundated with help and accommodations that I don’t know what to do with!

It’s strange. The only experience I have with education is that when I have zero accommodations, it’s clearly not enough. But I don’t actually know what kind of accommodations I do need, or how much will be enough. So I’m having to try and imagine what things might help me, when I don’t actually have any evidence for it. Most people my age who are starting a degree will have plenty of history to rely on: “In college, they gave me an extra week on all my assignments”, for example.

But I don’t have that. All I have is a history of a few desperate attempts to get me to attend my exams by offering me the chance to sit in a smaller room or take a break. None of which were particularly effective by themselves.

The other complicating factor is that distance-learning is already very different from any education I’ve had before, so I can’t directly compare it to my previous experiences. Usually the most stressful aspect of education is sitting in lessons themselves – and there won’t be any lessons this time.

I’m left doubting whether I will actually need any accommodations at all  – or whether the different experience will be enough to help me cope. Only time will tell, I suppose.