Can’t you see? Inklings of life as a deaf visual thinker

The other day my husband was telling Lei to come to the dinner table and not sit back down at the computer. She had her CI processor on and it seemed to be working, so he figured she could hear him. But she walked steadily towards the computer as he repeated, “Lei, please don’t go to the computer. Lei! Please come to the table!”

No response, no change in trajectory.

Finally Hubs got a bit impatient and took Lei’s arm. “Hey! I’m talking to you! Why are you completely ignoring me?!” I heard the commotion from the kitchen and came in to see what was happening.

Lei was upset with him for grabbing her arm. “Why are you grabbing me? I didn’t do anything wrong! I was going to sit at the table as soon as I got a sheet of paper from the computer desk.”

For the millionth time in Lei’s life, I wanted to tear my hair out, wondering WHY DIDN’T YOU JUST SAY SO?

As Hubs tried to explain why he was so frustrated, we also asked her why she didn’t say anything to indicate that she was going to do as he asked as soon as she got that sheet of paper.

Lei finally said, “I thought you could see that I wasn’t turning around to sit in the chair like I normally would. I figured you could see I was just going to get something.”

I realized then that for all of the speaking, listening, speech therapy and other auditory practice she’s had, she is still a primarily visual thinker. Lei has been relying on her eyes to give her information since birth, inferring what she needed to know from people’s movements and facial expressions. Like most people, she assumes that everyone else thinks the way she does, so why even explain it? Why speak if everyone can see what is happening?

Temple Grandin’s book, Thinking in Pictures, gave me a fantastic introduction to visual thinking. She writes:

I THINK IN PICTURES. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures.

One of the ways I have seen this thinking work with visual thinkers I have spent a lot of time with is the tendency to change directions quickly when a new image comes into the conversation. Metaphors and examples can take conversations in unexpected directions by introducing an unrelated visual image.  For example, one day Lei and I were discussing the importance of considering the consequences of one’s decisions.

Me: “It’s like this, when you’re hungry you can’t just grab a candy bar, right? You have to think about what’s going to give you energy and keep you feeling good. If you think about that you’ll pick something healthy, like fruit or nuts.”

Lei suddenly rushed to the kitchen and began rifling through cupboards: “I want a candy bar!”

Me: Ummm….

Fortunately we don’t keep them in the house.

But as the interaction between Lei and her dad demonstrates, she doesn’t know that her dad and I don’t think the way she does. It is so natural to her that she can’t imagine not thinking that way. Grandin writes:

When I was a child and a teenager, I thought everybody thought in pictures. I had no idea that my thought processes were different. In fact, I did not realize the full extent of the differences until very recently.

I have started talking openly with Lei about it so that she can become more aware of her visual thinking and possibly learn to use it in interesting new ways.

Visual thinking, though often accompanied by difficulties in verbal communication, is a powerful strength that has tremendous potential. In Grandin’s words,

Visual thinking has enabled me to build entire systems in my imagination. During my career I have designed all kinds of equipment, ranging from corrals for handling cattle on ranches to systems for handling cattle and hogs during veterinary procedures and slaughter. I have worked for many major livestock companies. In fact, one third of the cattle and hogs in the United States are handled in equipment I have designed. Some of the people I’ve worked for don’t even know that their systems were designed by someone with autism. I value my ability to think visually, and I would never want to lose it.

Grandin writes that, like Lei, she loved to draw as a child and her mother encouraged her to use and develop her visual artistry. Whether Lei’s ability as a visual thinker continues to manifest itself through visual art or leads her to follow her love of science in a STEM field, I want to encourage her to make use of this strength. And after 11 years as her mom, I’m still trying to navigate communicating with a visual thinker without making a complete mess of it at times.

Are you or your child a visual thinker? I would love to understand more about what you have learned about it. Please share in the comments!

A friend on Facebook who is a Deaf adult shared this insight. I found it so interesting I thought I would add it here:

Telling you what she is doing via body language rather than verbally is a social skill set. I have the same problem… Ask my mother and she will have a field day with this. She would call me and call me and I would hear her but I didn’t respond and used my body to show where or what I was doing, not because I chose to be an ass – like she thought – but because this is a social skill we learned by being unable to hear.

We learn what people are doing by their actions because we can’t hear them say what they are doing. So we do the same thing: we demonstrate what others do, not having learned that others use words at the same time. It’s very hard to explain. I still have a fear of people coming up behind me and grabbing me. You and hubby should stop this at all costs.

Flick the lights, wait until you can get in front of her, etc. We don’t learn proper social skills because we don’t know/hear how hearing people interact with each other. You can directly teach it but it’s frustrating and belittling and I found myself doing it my way anyways, much to my angry mother’s frustration. Became a habit and became who I am and believe me my mother tried and tried since I was little, to no avail.

I even had trouble and still do with many other social skills, even how to walk with others. Growing up I was left out of that and learned to run ahead or walk behind alone and now people want to socialize and walk; it’s odd for me to do that. She will probably always be like that. Generational deaf people of deaf families don’t have this issue, since deaf children can watch and learn from parents interactions and their friends etc.


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