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Being a Spatial Thinker

(one kind of autistic thought)

I have been told I am very good at mathematical or verbal things, or alternately that I am very bad at mathematical or verbal things, as if each is a category that cannot be divided. What I think is happening, is that I am very good at spatial things, and that my spatial abilities (which are extremely pronounced) govern what I am good at within a broad category of ability. Spatial abilities are also not tied to any one sense, and are an internal way of functioning.

Spatial thinking is a way of organising things in my head. It is not visual (though some people think visual and spatial are synonymous) but involves connections between things in a format like 3-dimensional or more-dimensional space. Sometimes there is no connection but just a spatial relation. This is not the only level of thought for me, because there is another level of thought which does not involve representation of anything. However, this is my form of symbolic thought. I do not think with language. Sometimes I add in pictures, sounds, smells, and other sensory things to each "point" or "area" of spatial thought in my head, but these things are not necessary, but enhance it.

My senses have always sent me information that is to some degree or another, garbled. Particularly, this is true for vision, hearing, and touch, with vision and hearing being the worst. However, I can count on one hand the number of times I have gotten lost in my life. Usually when I had a fever or something.

I talked to someone once who told me that by people's eye movements and speech patterns he could tell whether someone was a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner. I said, "What if they're equal in all three?" He said this was impossible.

The way I formulate language is spatial, and crosses all the senses. It is helpful to look at the nature of idioms I use to describe things in a non-sensory way. I talk about things being "on different levels." Some things are "surface" levels, and others are "core". I want to know what is "behind" something. Things are "over" things and "under" things and "through" things. I describe many things in terms of geometric shapes and concepts. This, for me, is constant, not fluctuating like my use of sensory idiom. Sometimes, but not always, my own spatial idioms clash with the spatial idioms other people are used to.

People often interpret my spatial idioms in terms of their own preferred sense. My brother, before realising what he had said, said, "Well visual and spatial are the same thing!" Some people automatically associate spatial idioms with visual things, some with auditory things, and others with other senses. I often associate spatial things with olfactory things, as do a few other people I have met. I would guess that my dog and cat would be the same, given that for them smell is a more primary sense than in most humans. I experience spatial representations in all senses, but most often in none.

My mathematical and verbal abilities are divided along the line of "spatial" and "non-spatial", not "mathematical" and "verbal". There are some words I have immense difficulty in remembering the meaning of. These are ones that, for whatever reason, I cannot find a lasting spatial representation for. These are words like "ontology" and many other words I have encountered in philosophy class. If I can "spatial-ise" them then I can use them, and if I cannot spatial-ise them I have a lot of trouble.

Mathematics is similar. Internal geometric visualisation is very fun for me, and I like to do it. I have always been fascinated by the concepts of infinities, number lines, geometric shapes, multiple dimensions of various kinds, and other spatial things. These things have always seemed "intuitive" and natural to me, and I like to play with them as if they are a game. However, other areas of math, some considered "simpler", are things that have made me feel like I was beating my head up against the wall. These things I have had to learn more painstakingly and slowly, and am now deliberately learning them in order to be able to describe the things I do spatially. It turns out that it is much easier to do spatial things in my head, than to spatially manipulate things from outside my head or to make my body explain the spatial things inside my head.

One of the things I work the hardest at is learning to "catch up" my non-spatially-related skills to my spatially-related skills. This is because some of the non-spatially-related ones are considered essential (for example, speaking, cooking, getting dressed, and other tasks that tend to be more sequential than spatial). Also my sensory skills are very weak in some areas, and I have to work at integrating them with my spatial skills.

Basically, being a spatial thinker has extreme advantages and extreme drawbacks. When the inside of your head is multi-dimensional, it is easier to see certain patterns in the world, and infer things from those patterns. However, it is also more difficult to do things that are more sequential (one-dimensional, in a line) especially when such a task involves picking a one-dimensional line out of a multi-dimensional web of possibilities. This can look like a slowness or inability about doing certain things, or a learning disability. It can also be puzzling from the outside if you don't understand spatial thought, especially when abilities seem varied (like being able to do complicated geometry but having trouble with arithmetic). To quote myself in a moment of amusement and frustration, "Infinity not a problem; toothbrushes tie my mind in knots."

The symbolic level of representation inside my mind is like a big, dark (non-visual) collection of things in a multi-dimensional (sometimes 2, sometimes 3, sometimes, 4, and so on) space. These things have qualitative and quantitative differences within them. I have spatial "maps" of everything I do, from the internal workings of my mind to the external world. My map of my neighbourhood, to use an example of something that many people use maps for, contains no "pictures" of houses. It is "dark" -- no pictures -- and contains locations in space. I do not make these maps on purpose.

I can, because of this, go almost anywhere and be able to find my way back. If I am in the right frame of mind, I can tell where the stars are in the daytime just before they come out. I believe this is my "spatial sense" kicking in.

I have in the past tried to make several internal spatial maps of my mind, which vary according to situation. Some of them involve mathematical concepts like fractals, and others involve layers of spherical things.

These models are all manifestations of one model that I have. However, it does not translate easily into a three-dimensional and linguistic representation. It is almost like a four-dimensional (or more) object intersecting with three-dimensional space. The same thing, with different cross-sections, can appear as a torus ("doughnut"), a sphere, or many other things. There are many things it can appear as, especially, if it is not a regular shape such as a hypersphere or hypercube. So any description I give is the intersection between my thought and the linguistic and three-dimension-spatial mode of communication that I have available.

My map of time is a spatial thing too. It is a big curving thing that wraps around the front of my head and turns back, and wraps around itself many times. It is difficult to describe easily, but it is similar to my "mental numberlines." It doesn't give me much of a sense of time though.

I find a lot of beauty in spatial things. I do not mean, as much, spatial things like the layout of a room. I mean spatial things that are not representable in a sensory context. Some of the most rewarding at the moment are mathematical concepts. These are things I can "visualise" and which I really enjoy (I think that when I say "visualise" I often mean "spatialise", or to represent spatially in my head, not visually). I am learning the beginnings of discrete mathematics right now and am really enjoying it because of the spatial way it connects together. In the same way, I enjoy logic, certain kinds of wordplay, and lying still with my eyes closed or otherwise "turned off" with a spatial map of the world all around me.

I think maybe my spatial skills are well-developed somehow because of the fact that my sensory input is not as reliable as most people's. So these skills have developed independently, although relatedly, to my sensory skills. They have helped me compensate, also, for sensory problems by providing a framework within which I can fit the "pieces" of sensory information that filter through.

My senses of smell/taste are most reliable, followed by touch, hearing, and sight. Touch, hearing, and sight alternate in reliability depending on how I am doing that day. Many smells feel spatial to me, possibly because smell is more comfortable to me. However, there are no tests for olfactory learners. I learn pretty much equally well in visual, auditory, and kinesthetic ways, but I prefer to have a combination of the three so if one sense isn't working well then the others can "pick it up" for me and insert it into my spatial map. Visual can be easier because the things in question stick around for me to stare at and work out even with a fluctuating sensory system. They don't disappear as auditory information does, despite my visual processing being not much better than auditory.

The World Wide Web, by the way, is perfect for me, because it is a spatial thing. I really like having a map of my website in my head, and I like putting things here because I can make an external but still spatial structure to put things I have written, drawn, et cetera, in. I have a spatial map of this website in my head, and I enjoy it. I also have spatial maps of other things on the Web, and things inside the Internet and computers in general, unrelated to the Web. Sometimes I feel like I can spatially map the internal workings of a computer, to varying degrees.

This, like all things I write, is a linguistic approximation of a phenomenon that makes a whole lot more sense firsthand. Also, the spatial level is one level of thought for me, and I cannot always use it. I am right now interacting with the keyboard in a spatial-linguistic way. Linguistic things are not natural to me. Spatial things are more natural, and the thing that is most natural is non-symbolic whatsoever. My thought as I call "thought" is spatial, with sensory stuff added in. Then, there is experience, and something beyond/before that, which is something that it becomes difficult to talk about because of its non-symbolic nature, and the symbolic nature of language.

A M Baggs, 1999


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