People who are not really knowledgeable with Asperger’s or high-functioning Autism might not find any recognizable difference between a diagnosed person and a neurotypical individual. That’s because most high-functioning autistic people appear to be normal at first glance until you engage with them in a social setting and interact with them for a longer period of time. From then on you will probably observe the person exhibit social anxiety, sensory sensitivity, and rigid routines which are among the most common features of a person with Asperger’s or HFA. In the same manner, you might be surprised to know that the autistic person is also very articulate, talented, or a genius in a specific area of knowledge. With this being said, it isn’t uncommon for many people to wonder how high-functioning autistic people differ with their neurotypical counterparts in terms of their cognitive processes. Thanks to the increasing number of research and studies aimed at understanding how autistic people act and think the way they do, questions of this nature are given more credible and sensible answers. These findings are hoped to shed more light on the complexity of autism as a spectrum disorder.

According to Temple Grandin, a major figure in the discussion of autism-related literature and existing issues, those who are diagnosed with Asperger’s or HFA are divided into three main categories of cognitive processes. These categories include visual thinkers, pattern thinkers, and verbal thinkers.

Visual Thinkers

Ever heard of individuals with a photographic memory? If they are diagnosed with autism, they may belong to this cognitive category. For visual thinkers, everything is all about visualization, may it be a simple thought of an object, a more abstract thing as a feeling, or a complex one as a plan. Whenever a visual thinker needs to imagine something, they have to access their memory like some sort of search engine and look for visual results. When they hear the word “honey”, their mind does not simply form a plain visual representation of honey with no background or corresponding detail. What their mind does is it recalls a related memory, like a visual scenario of a specific TV segment they’ve watched a long time ago that showcases how honey is made and harvested.

To conceptualize something, they have to bind together similar or related visual data that they can imagine in their mind and sort them out like files of a computer. Say for instance, their concept of peace may include the visualization of different things, like a scenario depicting two nation leaders shaking hands, a picture of a dove with an olive branch in its beak, or the famous peace sign, As they say the words, their thoughts will follow it up with a stream of photographic data that are more associative in nature instead of linear. If the topic is about forks, the autistic person may relate it with other things linked in the visual memory, such as a pair of chopsticks that the person used months ago in a Chinese restaurant because there was no fork to be found. This leads a high-functioning autistic person to stray away from the topic and get misunderstood by other people involved in the conversation who the two objects unrelated. When creating concrete plans or structural designs, the mind of a visual thinker can be able to test run the whole system.

Pattern Thinkers

Great musical and artistic prodigies who are diagnosed with Asperger’s are said to be pattern thinkers. They have the natural tendency to look for patterns in all things, whether trivial and big, in an attempt to arrive at a better understanding. Musical compositions are composed of scores that contain different elements all following specific patterns. Musical rhythm, tempo, and timbre for pattern thinkers are some sort of arrangements that they can easily decode and analyze, and their own musical compositions are a rare gem to the ears of typical people. Painters also perceive strokes and shapes in the same manner, and when they incorporate their understanding of artistic patterns in their own works of art, the quality becomes world-class. The same category of cognitive processing also applies to mathematicians who see patterns and links in numbers. Solving equations composed of long and complex algebraic expressions does not appear intimidating to them. Autistic people who are good at math see equations and formulas as pieces of a puzzle with a definite pattern. Individuals who excel in board games and computer games are also patterned thinkers.

Verbal Thinkers

These are the more articulate type of high-functioning autistic people, who have a better natural inclination to speech and literature. While other people on the spectrum suffer from speech challenges, verbal thinkers don’t have any issue with speaking. As a matter of fact, most verbal thinkers on the higher end of the spectrum can be well-versed in more than one or two languages, as they can easily understand and use foreign words if they are given the chance. Because of their adeptness in words, they can develop a hobby of memorizing product ingredients, visual aids like schedules and graphs, quotes and lines from movies and personalities. Because of their extensive memory for terminologies and stuff that are associated with words, many verbal thinkers excel in statistics, history and other social sciences. They can enumerate a list of many things and different categories, or even recall important dates and events.

Autistic people also have strengths and weaknesses when it comes to their cognitive processes. For instance, verbal thinkers may not be very good with visualization and arts, while pattern thinkers are not good with reading and writing. On the other hand, visual thinkers are weak at algebra. Knowing these facts about the categories of cognitive processes for high-functioning autistic people would help provide a better understanding to others why they excel at something and fair poorly on other things. Their behaviours can also be explained better by studying the nature and relationships of these cognitive categories.