The Visual-Spatial Learner


From Cheryl Swope | October 28, 2016 | For Special Needs

On our Simply Classical Discussion Forum, a mother asks how to bring a classical education to her creative, artistic daughter on the autism spectrum, even though she is “wiggly,” struggles with writing, and is a visual-spatial learner, without stifling her creativity? For the complete answer to the mother’s question, visit our forum.

Here is an adapted excerpt:

You describe your daughter as a child who has visual-spatial strengths. The visual-spatial learner (VSL), thinks in pictures. The brilliant, renowned animal researcher and also a person with autism, Dr. Temple Grandin, author of Thinking in Pictures, describes her own need to adapt her learning:

“Growing up, I learned to convert abstract ideas into pictures as a way to understand them. I visualized concepts such as peace or honesty with symbolic images. I thought of peace as a dove … or newsreel footage of the signing of a peace agreement. Honesty was represented by an image of placing one’s hand on the Bible in court. A news report describing a person returning a wallet with all the money in it provided a picture of honest behavior. The Lord’s Prayer was incomprehensible until I broke it down into specific visual images.”

You will want to cultivate in your daughter the wonderfully unique gifts she possesses. You describe your daughter as artistic and creative. As you know, homeschooling’s efficiency with one-on-one learning, offers extra time to nurture these abilities. Watch for and encourage possible hobbies and interests in any area of design (fashion design, interior decorating, photography, graphic design). As she grows older, she may enjoy visual mathematics (geometry, trigonometry) more than algebra.

The difference in a classical approach to your daughter’s education is that even while fostering her strengths, you will not neglect the other elements essential to a complete education. As I observed in Simply Classical, sometimes we focus so much on “’special’ that we forget ‘education!’” Our task is to give the child a complete (i.e., classical) education in spite of the child’s challenges. Indeed, “that which is beyond the range of a man’s education he finds hard to carry out in action, and still harder adequately to represent in language.”

Have you ever noticed that some visual, creative, imaginative people struggle with details, perseverance, or planning? Some visual-spatial learners find auditory sequencing – or step-by-step sequencing in any form – exceedingly difficult. If you teach your daughter with a well-constructed classical approach and curriculum such as Memoria Press provides, you will not harm her; instead, you will assist her in developing the very skills she lacks! You will give her many opportunities for necessary practice in the thinking, writing, and communication skills she will need for any calling in life.

You may want to vary the order of presentation to assist her motivation. For example, begin the day with an easily visualized subject. Move next to Latin which requires more effort for her in the necessary writing components and word-based content. (As you teach, remember Dr. Grandin’s “tricks” for visualizing abstract ideas. Nouns are easiest to visualize. Keep toys available for teaching prepositions. Place the dog “on” or “in” or “near” a box. Use visual tools such as flash cards and charts during recitations.)

After Latin, give her a “break” by studying something very visual. She may enjoy the Memoria Timeline program with a visual timeline. Include maps of countries and events throughout history. Many visual thinkers on the autism spectrum love maps. (My son is such a child.) Then teach a more challenging subject for her. Continue this rotation throughout the day. If the amount of writing is too much overall, consider saving a subject or two for Saturday mornings. We find this helpful in our own homeschool, so the weekdays are not too long.

As for “wiggly,” I have one of those too. Consider movement during drills. We bounce-passed a ball, balanced on a balance board, jumped on a mini-trampoline, or recited while jumping rope. Bonus – some children on the autism spectrum have coordination delays or sensory issues, so the gross-motor, proprioceptive involvement can incorporate OT and PT therapy goals as well.

You can do this! Just remember your daughter’s very real strengths, so these can be fostered throughout her educational program and in other areas of her life. This will help keep her satisfied and motivated, all while giving her the essential knowledge, wisdom, and skills in every area of her education.


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