Non-Linear Thinking in Children With Autism

By Lisa Fritscher
Children with autism may be able to solve complex problems in non-linear ways.
Children with autism may be able to solve complex problems in non-linear ways.

The autism spectrum is highly complex, and no two people on the spectrum think or perceive the world in exactly the same way. While a standard definition of autism would seem to indicate that autistic people are capable only of sequential, linear thought, a growing body of anecdotal evidence shows that many people with autism think in extremely tangential, non-linear ways. Visual thought patterns and proportional thinking are just two of the many processes that children with autism use to organize their thoughts.

Visual or Auditory Thought

Autistic author, speaker and often-cited autism expert Temple Grandin notes that her memories are coded almost entirely as images. She uses language to pull up the relevant images as if performing an Internet search. Like any Internet search, however, these images sometimes go off on a tangent. Grandin gives the example of pulling up the image of a paper clip she saw attached to a scientific paper from Europe, which then gave way to images of her first scientific meeting in Spain. Some people with autism code sound files rather than images, which they retrieve in similar ways.


On his blog, computer programmer Hoss Gifford discusses “The Speed of Dark,” a novel by Elizabeth Moon that features an autistic main character named Lou. Like many people with autism, Lou is obsessed with patterns. The logical bent and left-brained literalness of children with autism can actually lead them to find patterns that are often overlooked by their neurotypical peers. This form of non-linear thinking could lead your child to draw correct conclusions without going through a standard step-by-step process. In “How Does Visual Thinking Work,” Temple Grandin noted that this pattern-recognition is often found in autistics with a musical or mathematical bent.


Temple Grandin notes that she uses categorization to sort the images in her mind. In an autistic child, categorization is a laborious, time-intensive task. The categories are likely to be incomplete or even erroneous because the child does not yet have enough data to flesh them out. As your child matures, however, he will accumulate enough information to quickly sort through his memory banks and retrieve the relevant data to make decisions. This ability to categorize and retrieve minimizes the need to follow an intensive process to arrive at conclusions.

Proportional Thinking

Proportional thinking is another skill frequently used by people with autism, according to Temple Grandin. For autistic children who struggle with numbers and calculations, proportional thinking can help them achieve right answers without going through the sequential process. For example, your child might have difficulty understanding the actual difference between $10 and $5, but be able to understand the difference between a meal at a casual table-service restaurant and a fast-food meal. A teen prepping for the SAT might be able to rule out incorrect answers by considering the proportional differences between the presented answer choices.

About the Author

Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer specializing in disabled adventure travel. She spent 15 years working for Central Florida theme parks and frequently travels with her disabled father. Fritscher's work can be found in both print and online mediums, including She holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the University of South Florida.