Big Picture? What Big Picture?

Two weeks in my new town and I’m finally starting to orient myself geographically.

It takes me a good long while to get a feel for a new town or a new neighborhood or even a new Starbucks. It’ll be weeks or  months before I stop asking The Scientist things like, “do I turn left here to get to the center of town?” and “which road goes to that grocery store I like?” If I’m driving alone, I rely on Waze for directions.

It’s not just my poor sense of direction that throws me off–though that’s a big part of it. It’s my difficulty with putting all of the elements together to see the big picture. In fact, The Scientist jokes about how ironic it is that I finally figured out not just the layout of our old town but all of the best shortcuts–just in time for moving away.

In the past, I knew to expect the disoriented feeling of being in a new place but I didn’t know why it happened. I think I’ve finally figured out the why, at least in part. It’s that big picture thing that autistic people are always being told we have so much trouble with. I learn a new place based on the individual parts of it that interest me most–the details–and it takes a long time to integrate those details into a functional whole that I can not only visualize but use to navigate.

Until that happens, I know where the grocery store that I like is and I know where Target is. I know that Route A takes me from my home to Target and Route B takes me from my home to the grocery store. But ask me to go from Target to the grocery store and I’m reaching for Waze. I struggle with visualizing how “home” and “Target” and “grocery store” are related to each other in the gestalt concept of “city.”


The first time I encountered the word gestalt was in a 300-level philosophy of sociology class that I probably had no right taking. Mostly what I remember is that it’s somehow related to verstehen (another word I couldn’t make heads nor tails of) and that heavy dudes like Weber and Simmel had a lot to say about it. So it was with some trepidation that I decided to write a blog post in which I’d have to explain gestalt versus detail-oriented thinking.

Fortunately, I found some online resources that make far more sense that my sociology textbook. The simplest meaning of gestalt is “unified whole.”  As a theory of psychology, it refers to the mind’s tendency to organize a group of individual parts into a whole and to perceive that whole first or alongside the recognition of the individual parts. For example, when the brain sees a person, it recognizes “face” or “person” before it recognizes “blue eyes” and “hook nose” and “tall” or any of the other hundreds of individual details that make up the conceptual rendering of person or face.

Are you having a lightbulb moment here? Because I did. As I wrote that example, chosen seemingly at random, I realized that our tendency to focus on details first may be why so many of us are moderately to severely faceblind. Where typical people see “Joe’s face” we see a collection of individual parts: Joe’s black-rimmed glasses, Joe’s spikey blond hair, Joe’s acne scars. If those parts never quite assemble into a single concept of face, we’re left trying to recognize the most obvious details when we next meet Joe.

The same is true of places. Think about what you notice first when you walk into a new store or restaurant. Do you register gestalt concepts like ordering counter, bar, clothing department and checkout lines. Or do you first see details like bin of Easter candy on sale, menu board, employee stocking shelf, and people standing around drinking. I’m much more prone to seeing places as a bunch of individual details that I need to manually collate into bigger picture concepts like “menu board = ordering counter” and “Easter candy on sale = seasonal items = not what I came here for.”

Rather than a gestalt recognition of the whole before (or simultaneously with) the details, I register details first and the whole comes later, if at all. Because, I’m not gonna lie, sometimes I miss the gestalt entirely.

The Principles of Gestalt

Up to this point, the theory that autistic people are oriented more toward details and less toward gestalt makes sense to me. I can find an endless list of examples in my everyday life, from the way I copy drawings to how I approach statistical analysis projects. I’m all about the details. In fact, I excel at details.

But gestalt theory is also closely tied to pattern recognition and forming complex rules from simpler rules or patterns. That, in a nutshell, is how I make sense of life.

Looking at examples of gestalt principles, my brain does all of the things that it’s supposed to do–grouping objects by proximity and similarity, seeing whole objects that are formed by patterns of smaller objects. I don’t lack the ability to recognize the fundamental patterns. But what my brain does with those patterns is clearly different from what the average person’s brain does with them.

Other people see patterns of details and form abstract conceptual wholes; I see patterns of details and form more and more intricate sets of logical rules.

The Big Picture, Eventually

The Scientist has tried different ways of explaining how our new town fits together. He suggested I look at a map, which helps me conceptually but does nothing for me once I’m out on the road driving. Even if I know that Starbucks is south of my house, I have no idea whether than means I should turn right or left when I’m two intersections away from my driveway.

He’s explained multiple times how the major arteries connect to each other in relation to compass directions and major landmarks, which helps a little, but again, which turn do I take out of this rotary to get to the Town Hall? Until I connect all of my landmarks together and memorize the various routes and turns, the conceptual layout of the town–the geographical gestalt–doesn’t help me much. I’ll still go the wrong direction down Main Street every single time, thinking that my car is parked is to the left of the drug store or library or town hall when it’s actually parked to the right (or, you know, vice versa).

Like most other things in life, I learn the gestalt of a thing through direct experience. I have to do it, repeatedly, and then I’ll get it. No amount of conceptual understanding can make up for that.


93 thoughts on “Big Picture? What Big Picture?”

  1. I may have just sent this to someone with a Capslocked “You need to read this right now” – I had never thought about this in context, but there is so much in here I recognize.
    And now, philological geekery because those words are both German, which is my mother tongue and if you’ve been by my blog lately, you’ve probably noticed my obsession with words anyway.
    Gestalt itself only means shape or form – “menschliche Gestalt” would mean “[thing being] of human shape”
    The word also has a verb form – gestalten – which would mean “to design” or “to shape” something.
    So to recognize the “Gestalt” of something, one would need to understand how it is designed – if you don’t get the concept of it, you can never see the whole.
    Verstehen by itself means understand/comprehend/get and depending on the context even empathize – basically, it is an umbrella term for everything remotely related to those words and can be used in a lot of different situations. The “Comprehension”-Part of the words seems to be at play here – being able to get and process all the necessary information from the “Gestalt” of something like your beautiful examples.

    1. Cool background. So, is “Gestalt” and “gestalten” a word that appears in ordinary usage? Would one use gestalten to mean “to design or shape”, say, when writing in a blog? In English, “Gestalt” is a technical term, from psychology, and, sometimes, also used to mean “big picture” or “the heart of the idea.”

      1. The first association to the word “Gestalt” I know is a figure in the dark, because that’s how it’s used most in literature, and the second is a song with my “of human shape”-example from my comment above in it, which is however worded very oldfashionedly. In German, the sociological term is actually “Gestalttheorie” – theorie being theory – for distinction.
        The verb is … somewhat formal. Maybe old-fashioned. In a blog? Yes, that I can believe. In everyday verbal usage? More in people who are used to a large vocabulary and who don’t mind seeming overly formal.
        A common way I have seen it used is if someone wants to describe how something turned out more difficult than planned by using it as a reflexive verb. It [gestaltete] itself more difficult than expected, basically. (gestaltete being the Praeteritum version, singular, third person – our equivalent to the simple past.)
        Another usage would be if someone plans out something in a certain way – “einen Abend abwechslungsreich gestalten” would be to plan out and organize an evening that is multifaceted. (For an event or something.)
        But this is the kind of language you’d expect either written or from well-educated adults in a semiprofessional to professional context.
        It’s used in the formulation of tasks in school – if you are supposed to design graphic presentation, or even a poster or handout, gestalten would be the word that might be used.

        1. Svenja, I’m some thirty years older than you are and for me, ‘gestalten’ used to be the word that today largely has been replaced by the English word ‘design’. I even remember my father complaining about all these newfangled words being introduced in his work environment of advertising when I was in primary school.
          Apart from that, I stumbled into Gestalt therapy in my early twenties. The psychologist has helped me gain some insight into things I struggled with: general shyness, not daring to speak my mind, unworthy of having friends because I had nothing to offer them. She taught me some basics making me talk to a cussion that I was supposed to figure as a friend I didn’t dare to talk to, she made me imagine a relationship as an elastic band that would every so often pull me back to where I had ventured from, she made me visualise with little objects relationships in small groups. Maybe I have learnt with her to see patterns in behaviour.
          I have no problem figuring out directions in towns and can’t get my head around understanding how people like my aunt get lost in the obvious system of the London Underground. In nature, even with the best of maps, I can’t find my way.
          And I never can tell whether men have beards or people wear glasses.

          1. Yeah, in many parts you find the word design replacing it, but in some places it remains. It was actually used as the name for a elective at the former school I was at, to distinguish it from Art, and I had an Art teacher very fond of the word.
            But the whole concept of loan words – while fascinating in retrospect – is starting to grate on my nerves while I actually live through it.
            I myself have the habit of switching languages in the middle of a sentence if there is no equivalent for what I am trying to say, but for a word that doesn’t actually need replacing? That I won’t understand, I’m afraid.

    2. Thank you for the etymologies of the words! I love learning more about where words come from, what they mean, how they relate to each other, etc. The concept of understanding the design of something being essential to understanding the gestalt is really interesting. In researcher this, I found quite a few references to gestalt in design, graphic design, etc.

      1. Oh then you will love my new blog series, which is basically all about words, where they come from and what I think about them and me drawing them as nicely as I possibly can. Next post in that is up the day after tomorrow.
        “Design”, in this context, was more meant as “Why is this thing the way it is and not different”, but graphic of course plays into that, too.
        And no problem at all – I love when people actually WANT to hear or read my monologues about words.

  2. I find it useful to print a map and to mark those places on it. I never use the map, except to mark things, but I can pull it up in my head whenever I like. If I know where I am, I know where everything else is. (Of course, I also try to live in very small towns, but I store maps of cities I visit, too.) Waze is good. Personally, I carry Thomasina (my TomTom ap) in my pocket on my phone. She gets me to where I want to go and back when I am disoriented. My favorite feature is the Home button. No matter where I am, or how lost and disoriented, Thomasina will get me home.

    1. I’ve been looking at maps a lot, watching my progress around town on Waze and prerusing Google maps. It helps a little but I’m still heaving dependent on Waze (and the home button!).

  3. I am unable to learn to dance, because I decompose the movements to the smallest details. I practiced Tai Chi Chuan for 3 years, and I was never able to do it alone. Orientation in a new city, or in a mall…it ia a nightmare……..What big picture? The big picture is made of million small pictures. And all those small ones are made of million smaller ones!

    1. Yes! For years, when learning new katas in martial arts I had to learn them as linked sequences and remembered them by feel (the feel of my body I guess?), which meant I could never start in the middle and if I got lost, I had to start over. There was no picking up where I left off. The worst was when someone else asked me a question – I’d have to run through the kata to get to physically get to the point they were asking about to answer them. On the positive side, I was great at teaching the little kids who didn’t know right from left. 🙂

      1. I had the same problem in martial arts… I did taekwon-do for years but I learned the forms essentially through body memory. Stopping in the middle through me off, even facing a different direction than normal threw me off (though I could relearn it in that direction). One time we were doing a practice session at another school with the “grand master” and he had us run through one of the early forms… but not in order. He would give instructions like, “do movement 17.” I was absolutely, completely lost, even though I’d been doing those forms for years at that point. I remembered them only in sequence and only starting from the beginning, and my body had to sort of get on a roll to continue through in “automatic” mode.

        1. Oh yes, facing in a different direction would completely throw me off too. Often I knew I was doing the form right because I was facing the “right” wall at the right time.

  4. I live in a family that has a range of experiences of gestalt vs. detail. Direction sense seems, from my limited experience, to be a very good indication of where one falls on that continuum. I have a sibling and a father who are hopeless with directions and forming a coherent sense of place; they will both get lost in a mall that has one floor, is laid out in a straight line, and only has two very short intersecting perpendicular halls. My sibling will eventually fit the pieces together and remember them for the future. My father seems not to; we’ve lived in the same small suburb for more than a decade, and where things are seems to be a source of constant surprise to him. I can’t completely generalize, but I can fit together a sense of where something might be in relation to something else, can backtrack if I get lost (something my sibling and father have trouble with), and can usually find my way to main thoroughfares from which I can then orient myself.

    On the other hand, I had horrible face memory as a teen. And still do, unless I am careful. If I’ve only met a therapist one time, I won’t recognize her on my second visit (very embarrassing; I assumed she was the receptionist in one case). But if I see someone three or four times, then I will remember them comfortably. My face memory seems to be improving as I get older; I’m not sure why. Possibly because I realized it was a problem and now try to compensate? I’m still eager for the day Google Glasses or something like it means I can surreptitiously take pictures of new acquaintances and label them for review…

    1. Yeah, I think direction sense (or the ability to acclimate to new places) is a good marker for gestalt vs. detail processing. I could come up with dozens of more complex examples (like how I approach data analysis or cooking) but direction sense feels most relatable.

      I’m more like your father–I’ll consistently get lost (in the same way!) for weeks or months in a new place. I have learned a few tricks, like noting landmarks so I can backtrack. For awhile I lived in a city in the southwest that was sandwiched between two distinct mountain ranges that were visible from just about anywhere and I used them to navigate around town.

      It’s awesome that your facial recognition is improving as you get older. I have a lot of tricks that I use to remember people and I’m good at recognizing voices, which helps a bit, but the actual facial recognition feels pretty hopeless, even when I make an effort.

      1. The funny thing to me, too, is that I’ve noticed people remember directions in different ways. You use landmarks? I use landmarks, too, but it takes me years to remember street names (even the main street of my home suburb). My sibling uses street names but can’t use landmarks, so we have the devil’s own time giving each other directions. I’m not sure which my father uses. Mountains are great! I lived in Colorado for a while, and it’s very hard to feel too lost in Colorado. You go toward the mountains, away from the mountains, or along them. Hooray for mountains. I like distinctive tall buildings in cities for the same reason.

        I wish I knew why/how it was improving. I remember in school, being invited to some girls’ home and not being able to tell who they were the next day. I knew they were blonde! Somewhere in my late 20s (all of–a year or two ago), I realized I never remembered anyone’s name. So I started making sure to ask people their names at least two or three times when I met them and make it kind of a joke (“I can’t remember names to save my life! Let me try yours again. Does it start with an L?”). They’re usually good about it. It’s a decent conversation starter, too, since most people then chat with me about how they’re bad at faces or bad at names or both. And somehow making sure to repeat their names over and over made me better at remembering faces, too. I don’t get it, but I’m grateful. I think it tells my long-term memory the person is important. Doing names once must just go to my short-term memory. Having the little talk about names also gives me more to hang memory on–how they respond, what they tell me, how they move. Maybe it buys me more time to examine them? (I’ve also starting playing Lumosity’s name-memory game. I don’t know how helpful it is, since it only uses maybe 15 or 20 vector-animation-ish people to identify, but I feel like it might be helping. It makes you remember food orders while remembering names of people who show up, like you’re a server at a coffee shop.)

        1. I’m so terrible at remembering names too. I literally forget a person’s name seconds after being introduced to them (definitely a short term memory problem for me) and it’s terribly embarrassing if anyone’s name comes up in conversation in new group settings. I may try your trick of making a game of it to see if that helps.

  5. I learned how to program myself to get the Big Picture quickly. I made mapping a location and observing it an obsession. Oh, yeah, I figured out somewhere along the way that I could decide what to be obsessed about. That helps in all kinds of ways.

    1. I’ve heard quite a few people say that they’ve turned an area of difficulty into an obsession in order to master it. Social skills and facial expressions are two other big areas that people seem to latch onto and study with a passion.

      1. Not me! I recently discovered that I encase myself in a protective bubble, and float around looking only straight ahead. This is not good! And exposure does not help, it has only made everything worse over too many years.

  6. I need to “experience” the connections between places myself as well. Sometimes people were wondering why I took such a long way from A to C (because I didn’t know they were so much closer to each other than A to B to C). When I have to go to a new place alone I look at google maps before and draw a small map with the main intersections. I don’t drive at the moment, so it’s only for the walking distances between bus/train stops and a place, but not having a mobile navigation system at all this is really helpful. Sometimes I turn the piece of paper around in my hand to match reality when standing at an intersection to understand whether to go left or right. Still I prefer meeting up with someone to walk together the first time. Another orientation thing I suck at is doing sequences when playing sports – some capoeira movements include semi or full turns, and at least when learning a new sequence there is a big chance I’ll keep turning in the wrong direction because I can’t look at someone else to copy their movements while turning. (Or when I can I get confused because I look at them while turning only to see them do a rotation as well, creating some weird wheeling effect.) Faces are bad as well, but for many other things I can either switch between details and Gestalt, or it depends on my level of awakeness.

    1. Printed or drawn maps are super helpful in navigating new places on foot. I sometimes even print out or draw a map to use with my GPS if a place seems especially hard to find or getting there on time is important (talk about paranoid!).

      I totally know what you mean about copying complex movements. I spent years learning martial arts and I really need to do the thing myself to grasp it. Watching helps me have a general idea of what to do, but until I develop a sense of how the correct version of the movement feels internally, it’s kind of a mess. And yeah, spinning movements are the worst.

      1. Speaking of spinning … today’s class consisted mostly of spinning movements, and combinations of more than four different spins, one even on the head (at which I royally failed of course). I hope the “topic” of next class will be something more fun. What kind of martial arts did you do?

        1. I mostly did taekwondo (lots of spinning and jumping spinning kicks) plus some hapkido, judo, karate, and various weapons.

          Capoeira looks very challenging. I don’t think I would be athletic enough to master anything beyond the basics.

          1. The basics are challenging enough for me! It’s fun nevertheless. The people are very nice and understanding, too – just last week I explained to one of the teachers (who recently told me I could get my first cord next month) that I’m a little insecure with people I don’t know well sometimes and that I’d feel better if he’d help me buy my first set of white pants from his teacher at the “real” capoeira school one of the next weekends, and he didn’t laugh at me but said it was okay. Feeling welcome and safe with them helps me relax and do my best 🙂

            1. I’ve always found martial arts schools to be pretty accepting of people who are a little different. Maybe that’s part of what kept me in class initially when I struggled a lot with learning the physical skills. Everyone was always so patient and understanding and willing to help.

  7. Gestalt and detail aren’t stable or constant for me. I find that big-picture has a normative or social-societal aspect. I invest most in details (I do DIY and teach woodwork in a special educational setting), but there’s always a big-picture contextual-horizon in play as well. When I move out from what is entirely personal or private, into the world which involves others, then I find that others might or might not support what is my horizon or gestalt. Where others cannot support my big-picture horizon or gestalt, then it is likely that they and I will not see eye to eye on the details that our respective contextualising allows for.
    Anxiety can attach to working with horizons and details differing from those worked with by others. My degree of investment in managing my details and my horizons, can see me not do so well across conventionally anticipated performance. So face-blindness, and spatial and temporal disorientation.
    I associate gestalt with zeitgeist. It seems to me that autistic and social-societal persons read zeitgeist differently. So taking differing detail and gestalt from that zeitgeist.
    Verstehen I see as understanding. I have a physical-spatial sense of the term, rather taken from reading Heideggar. So its that which stands under the being we end having: the ground of our being which our own effort holds in place; so verstehen speaks to the metabolism of how we actively create and sustain ourselves through our meaning-making. As we bounce backwards and forwards between detail (thing) and gestalt/horizon (that bounding which sends us back to our authoring centre), me give ourselves understanding. Allegorically the process is like eating: we process food or meaning, it having much to do with otherness; and we take out live-giving nutrition and meaning, growing body and being in that process.

    1. This is great background on gestalt and verstehen. I found both so hard to grasp in the context of philosophy, probably because as you say it was being presented from a normative point of view that I had trouble relating to. Great point! (and now I feel a bit less dumb about how hard I found the concepts to comprehend)

      1. I find the movement between detail and horizon or gestalt, sweetly demonstrated in how Emma and Ariane relate to one another and work together ( ).
        Emma appears to find detail fascinating and life-giving (the verstehen bit). There is then a sense of her gestalt in what of her person she communicates; and that person strong and broad.
        Emma’s detail-gestalt dynamic sees a contextualising society evaluate Emma in the manner Ariane (her mother) gives testimony about. That testimony speaks to the nature of Ariane’s own detail-gestalt dynamic. The verstehen part of Ariane’s dynamic gives her a being which at first-presentation differs in some respects from that of Emma.
        Then across relation, a mother-daughter relation, with all that this relation entails, we see the detail-gestalt dynamics coming together: being different, but working together; working with and for each other.
        In the video linked to, Emma and Ariane are jointly speaking at a conference of some significance and weight. Much has gone into what has led to this moment, on the part of myriad persons. Zeitgeist in that setting, is all that the event and moment mean for all the persons partaking, so attaching to what is manifesting/radiating from all the pulsating persons present and represented in what the event/moment is.
        Emma reads this zeitgeist, processes what she sensorily-cognitively reads, participates in that event moment across what her processing yields. Her participation being transformative of that event-moment. Her gestalt and verstehen come to inform those present and those later viewing/hearing record of that event/moment. Her gestalt and verstehen are somewhat unique and fresh, somewhat brought into being for a first time, and by her person. Gestalt and verstehen are life-mediating and worked by persons.
        I then especially like the relation/interaction part, where Ariane does what she terms “resisting” (this a term coming from RPM, repeated prompting method): where what she lends Emma from her own detail/gestalt/verstehen dynamic and metabolism, is momentarily crucial in Emma coming from delightful absorption in detail, to where she can act to communicate her gestalt and verstehen to others, and such as see these others value Emma highly.
        So gestalt and verstehen and zeitgeist are themselves instance of gestalt and verstehen and zeitgeist. Everything in collective human occurring is constantly changing. Gestalt and verstehen and zeitgeist (and the other terms they sit with) are abstracted from the stream of becoming, to be tools if we choose what management they provide to the process of becoming. They are, I think, useful tools to a project intending acceptance and inclusion to the diversity we find amongst ourselves. Each person works the detail/gestalt/verstehen dynamic-nexus individually and differently (indeed uniquely), and does so because their sensory-cognitive processing (reading of zeitgeist) is unique.

        1. I watched the video of Emma and Ariane yesterday and greatly enjoyed it. Thank you for the reminder to check it out. 🙂 I’m going to reread your comment a few times to absorb it all because you’ve packed a lot into just a few paragraphs but yes, the dynamic between them is very positive and complementary.

      1. I love dictionaries. The one I love most, and the touch of it might be of importance, is the Novo Dicionario Aurelio, 1a edicao, Rio de Janeiro, no indication of year, I bought it in Lisboa in the early eighties.
        “Zeitgeist” as explained by Wahrig Deutsches Woerterbuch, 1986, Muenchen, “die ein Zeitalter charakterisierende Haltung”. The Concise Oxford Dictionary, Oxford, 1982, defines Zeitgeist as “spirit of the times; trend of thought and feeling in a period”.
        My problem isn’t as much explaining a word like Zeitgeist to others, my problem is that I first and foremost need to explain it to myself. Do I love the dictionaries because of my lack of understanding what might seem obvious to others?
        Or am I pretending an absolute understanding that is anyhow impossible to achieve and it’s just me that insists on black and white not being able to live with fluidity, ambiguity, incertainty?
        Mind you, I don’t always agree with dictionaries and I’m known for correcting mother tongue speakers. Hmm, that might be due to a different autistic capability…

  8. I also no A->B and B->C in spatial information without knowing the relationship between the two. In fact, my reliance is so strong that I will actually drive from A->C by going through B (the familiar connector) in many instances, and in preference to learning the new route, unless I know that I will be doing A->C fairly frequently.

    In my case, though, this doesn’t correlate with not pulling together big pictures in other contexts. It’s only spatial information for which I don’t develop the Gestalt map.

  9. I have a set of exercises that I have to every single day. Every single day for years. I am still not able to do them backwards without missing something important. Or out of order. If I start in the middle because I want variation I get lost. One of them entails kneeling with opposite side hand and foot stretching out. Sometimes I will stand there with same side hand and foot and wonder why my balance is so poor that day. What can I do but laugh at myself. Years at least 12 years of doing the same bleeding exercises.

    1. Oh my gosh, yes. My husband and I sometimes do freeweights together and if I deviate from the order, I’ll have to ask him if we did this or that exercise because even thought it was two minutes ago, I’ll have no idea. :-/

      1. Due to a twisted ankle, I recently needed crutches to be able to walk. It felt as if I, all of a sudden, had four legs and four arms whereas I normally only need two legs for walking. Once I sat down for some minutes, I needed to figure out from scratch how to use all those limbs. Reminded me of my son on skis: he seemed to get into a knot, unable to move. Only when it occured to me to take his stiks (sorry, I don’t know the right word) he ran off on the skis.

  10. I love maps. I use maps frequently. I have loads of them. I love them for their practical uses as well as for their beauty and designs. Often, from where I am standing I do not know what is north, south east, west — even left and right, and (strangely) what is the meaning of up and down. I know that it is difficult to believe me when I say that I have to consider for a moment (it is rarely automatic) what is up and what is down. For instance, if someone were to shout at me “Look up!” It takes me a moment to recognize that I should look up. I wear rings on my left-hand fingers and that helps to remind me that “left” is in my left-hand direction.

    1. This makes total sense. I routinely goof up right and left when giving verbal directions and use my hands to orient myself to right/left when I need to be absolutely sure. It’s so strange to me that people have an absolute sense of right and left in their head.

      1. I can’t tell left from right, my mother can’t. Just imagine the two of us in a car having to find our way!
        Partners and friends of my children more often than not have the same problem.

      2. One of my friends (who has an aspie brother and believes she is on the spectrum, too) once stepped out of my door and asked me “where is right?” when I told here to go right to reach the train station, even though it was in visual range, just at the end of the street 😀 Her reaction confused me at that time, but now I understand it a little better

      3. I was lucky enough to be born with a small birthmark on my right hand, between two fingers. I routinely used to look at this as a kid. It has become less noticeable in time, however, I guess having my hands look different from the get-go helped me get down right and left, even if sometimes it involves me bizarrely checking my fingers :D. When people start talking about the right and left of another person, however, it gets super confusing. For example, if I am looking at picture of a person who is facing me, and the question is, which object is on the right, I get confused between, does it mean MY right, or what would be the right if I were standing where that person is standing?

        1. To figure out another person’s right and left, I need to either identify mine first and flip it (if they’re facing me) or mentally put myself into their physical position if they’re facing in another direction directly in front of me. That often results in a considerable delay in responding, as you can probably relate to. 🙂

        2. I have the same sort of birthmark! I just mentioned it in my comment, before I read yours. Mine’s on the right side of my right index finger. I also get very confused about whose right, because people don’t specify often enough. If I didn’t know better I would think I’d written your comment 🙂

      4. I’ve been taking piano lessons since I was about 5, and I remember one time my teacher told me to play something with my right hand. When I didn’t start right away she asked me what I was doing, and I explained to her that I had to check which hand was which. Luckily for me I have a conveniently-placed birthmark on the side of my right index finger. I still have trouble telling the difference without thinking about it a little.

  11. A great article as always, I like the subject about the big picture. It is something I find most people have trouble defining when you ask them. or maybe I do not get it.Using your example of a shop, this is how I view things. The big picture scope does not give any information that is not already assumed because it is a shop, but the detail does as it is specific about the shop at the time when one is there. I tried to put it in a nutshell hope it makes sense.

    1. The way my husband described it to me is that when he walks into a place, he is able to quickly identify keep elements of the place, like “where to start” in a restaurant or other public place. I tend to notice minor details first, like what the person standing closest to me is wearing or the color of the floor or how warm or cold it is. I seem to have to process all of that to clear my mental queue before I can get on to the task of identifying where I need to go or what I need to do to accomplish my desired task.

  12. Brilliant description of being detail-oriented. I also have trouble with navigation; I research routes using Google Street View so that the scenes look familiar as I travel down the various roads. Once I’ve travelled a route I can repeat it (my memory is good for that) but if there’s a diversion for some reason I quickly get lost and rely on road signs to get me to a place I recognize.

    1. Google street view is a blessing. I seem to need quite a few repetitions before I have a route down, but I do have a great memory for random details along a route, so I’ll remember where in town Wal-Mart or know that I saw an Autozone on the way to the Town Hall, while my husband will need to look that type of thing up the first few times. I won’t know how to get to any of them but I’ll be able to describe nearby landmarks or that we pass it on the way to some other place and from there he can usually work it out. 🙂

      1. Oh this is so much like me too! I have been living, for 27 years, in this small town, where, really, only 3 streets constitute the shopping center, and to this day I can only navigate my way to the grocery store directly. I cannot make my way to any other shop without a moment of panic about how to get there. It works for me then, to go to the shop in my mind and backtrack until I meet myself halfway or so. I see the shop and find landmarks backwards. Goodness knows why I cannot do it forwards, but I cannot.
        The left and right thing too! Many a time I have found myself, sometimes dangerously, with no idea where I am, only to discover that I am at the wrong end, be it street, passage, mall. Scary. Even more scary because my daughter also has this problem, and the thought that she could land up somewhere unsafe used to terrify me (she now has a GPS yay)
        I love maps too, but I have to turn them in the direction we are travelling. I simply cannot read them any other way.
        Then there is the small matter of taking down directions. I HAVE to write down instructions! I think in pictures, but my pictures invert; my picture says left, the instructions say go right. TRUST the instructions.if you want your marriage to last!
        I wont even start on airports!
        Thanks for an awesome blog! I am new here and have MUCH to explore! 🙂

        1. I have terrible trouble doing things backwards, which seems to be the opposite of you. I can go to a place, but reversing a route in my head is nearly impossible. I will literally need to follow reverse directions, whereas many people seem to be able to mentally reverse the course and backtrack to where they came from. This has resulted in funny things like I know how to drive to a favorite running spot one way and how to drive home another way but cannot drive there on the “home” route or drive home on the “going there” route. :-/

          1. I don’t actually backtrack to where I came from, because I am still going there (and anyway I would never remember how I got to where I am going in the first place because I have no sense of space at all); rather I go to where I want to be in my head, then I go HOME from there, until I reach a point that I can get to from where I am. I can always get home, IF I follow a very familiar route (remember this is a very small town and I have lived here for 27 years). This is also all a matter of perhaps 5 or 6 blocks between where I am and where I have to be.

            Yes, it must be very funny to someone that doesn’t get it (like my brother) to not be able to go somewhere and home on the same route! It is funny to me too, ONCE I’m home! 🙂

    2. Yes! Google Street View is awesome! I pull it up once in a while to get an idea of what my destination and the immediate area looks like. So helpful.

  13. Oh then you will love my new blog series, which is basically all about words, where they come from and what I think about them and me drawing them as nicely as I possibly can. Next post in that is up the day after tomorrow.
    “Design”, in this context, was more meant as “Why is this thing the way it is and not different”, but graphic of course plays into that, too.
    And no problem at all – I love when people actually WANT to hear or read my monologues about words.

  14. This makes me think of some issues I’ve had with learning to drive. Lately I’ve been trying to drive in busier areas, which means more cars, pedestrians, stoplights, turning lanes, etc. It makes me nervous, because I’m not always sure where to look, so I’m usually worrying that I’ll miss seeing something important. I’m hoping that’ll get better with practice, because I can’t think of any other way to work on it.

  15. I think your connection between the detail view and faceblindness and “place blindness” is spot on. I have exactly the same difficulties. The detail orientation part is very useful in my job, but I do have prosopagnosia and while I can picture individual features of people I know well (like, my mother’s nose) it is very difficult to assemble them independently. I rely heavily on maps and advance directions to avoid getting lost. I will remember certain details along the way (a bush, a particular store, etc) but not how to get from one to the next. I often feel as if I am driving in a fog, and somehow I just emerge at the other end :P. Directions are not enough without a map, because if I miss a turn, I don’t know how to get back to where I needed to be. Also, people who give directions based on map directions totally throw me (e.g. turn south when you get to the stoplight). Unless I’ve lived somewhere for a while I don’t have any sense of which way is which, I have to right and left and see the image of the map in my head. I do use the sun to orient myself directionally to some extent while driving if i get lost, however the compass doesn’t always help because roads that start off going one direction curve another way and this throws me. Before going somewhere new, I review the map extensively on google maps and print myself directions. However, I generally also copy a simplified version of the map. Writing/drawing things helps embed them in my mind’s eye so I can call them up for that “big picture” issue when I get lost or turned around (I also take the copied map with me, even if I have a real map on hand). However, a lot of it is driving around to familiarize myself with an area and which parts connect to which other parts. I think it’s a lot how our brains work. We have a pathway which may not be the most efficient pathway, but it’s the one we know 😛 so if we have to double back to get to “known territory” instead of taking the shortcut to the grocery store, so be it. However, traveling those other pathways just for exploring purposes does help me when I get lost later. I’ve gotten lost to the point of extreme frustration just trying to exit out of parking lots though :P.

    1. Yes! I find compass directions completely useless in driving. How do people use them? My husband is very compass-oriented and will talk about things like the north side of the house or the east side of the Home Depot (!) when describing things. Also, we have a road in town where the “south” direction at some points goes north and vice versa because it follows a U shape passing though town. So even knowing that I need to travel north doesn’t help on that road because I might actually need to use the road labeled South to go north from certain places in town. Gah.

  16. This big picture discussion also reminds me of the expression “can’t see the forest for the trees.” This is me all over of course. However, it took me at least 9 years to work out what that expression means. I will forever have it associated in my mind with Kurosawa’s movie “Throne of Blood.” This is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” In both stories, at one point, some people sneak up by disguising as trees. When I was watching this movie at some point, someone made a joke about not seeing the forest for the trees (which I had heard before but not understood) and then I decided it must be some sort of literal interpretation of that. Now, when I hear the expression I see that scene.

    1. I still don’t entirely understand “can’t see the forest for the trees” because when you look at forest, it’s pretty much all trees anyhow.

      Your association with the people dressed as trees is really funny. Isn’t is interesting how we pick up certain momentary associations and they just stick “forever”?

      1. I think (many years later) that what the expression is really supposed to mean is similar to seeing the “big picture” vs seeing the details. In the expression, the forest is the big picture, and the individual trees are the “details.” I, of course, am one of those people who can’t see the forest for the trees in terms of looking at the details instead of the big picture, not to mention the weird samurai film associations. A lot of these expressions threw me for years. Another one that took me forever to figure out, in my opinion due to very poor “spoken punctuation,” is the expression “A stitch in time saves nine.” For the longest time I thought it was some weird thing I couldn’t understand somehow relating to “the fabric of time” and perhaps the book “A wrinkle in time” :P. Now if people would just speak the commas “A stitch, in time, saves nine (stitches)” then I wouldn’t have to struggle so much…

        1. I know exactley what you mean about the stitch in time expression, I never got it, and finally ignored it if anybody used it, which is not many today. So thanks for the commas.

  17. Yes! So true.. It is why my husband sometimes thinks I am insulting him or focusing on his “flaws” when I describe him starting with a detail…like when he asks if I like a shirt and I say, “Well it’s tight around your hips…” or if I say, “Oh I didn’t notice it was you with those glasses…they make you look like a different face…your dad maybe? Could you take them off.” I can get hung up on details…thus new glasses that I am ok with are important for me to buy him…he misunderstands this as being critical but really it is so I can recognize him in a way…I dont know if that makes sense…Also when my friends near the end of their pregnancy I can sometimes have a tough time relating because of the adjustment of details in the body…it seems so “wrong” to normal people but to me I am not passing any judgments or having expectations…I am just adjusting my lens and noticing the details to the point that it may affect how I interact at times…
    Great post.

    1. Oh gosh, I never thought of this but you’re so right. I think I do the same thing, pointing out “irrelevant” details when people are looking for a big picture opinion on something like clothing. :-/

  18. I definitely relate! Shortly after learning how to drive I started my first job (as a nanny) in a new town. The internet at the house had not been activated yet, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Instead of being able to use MapQuest (before Google Maps), I was stuck with a phone book and a big metro atlas of the area. This forced me to develop an accurate mental map . . . to this day when I imagine the roads leading out of my small hometown I have it rotated 180* based on my childhood ideas of which road went “up.” Having the idea of which way was actually north was helpful, although like you said, not a full solution for knowing which way to turn at an intersection. I took the lesson though and made sure that when I moved to other places I frequently reviewed a real map when learning a new route instead of just getting the step-by-step instructions. My other strategy (before I had a smart phone) was to keep a tiny notebook in my car with simplified instructions on how to get to important places so that I wouldn’t mix up the way to the grocery store with the way to the post office.

    1. I used to love the maps that came in phone books. And whenever we went on trips, I would be the keeper of the maps (and those TripTik things provided by AAA), following our route with my finger or a pen. And yes, I think of certain places as having an “up” based on the map I’ve seen. 🙂

  19. THIS. It’s very much why I can spend hours anxiously poring over a map to figure out how to get from point A to point B even though the time it takes to do so would be about 5 minutes, from every lane change I make to the turn signals I have to do and the trees I drive/walk past. I’ve lived in the same place for quite some time now so I know the route and I know I know the route but I still rely on my GPS to get around.

    But I am also moving later this year! It’s going to be interesting, to say the least. All I really know for sure is where I’m going to be living and the surrounding area, but as for navigating and knowing where everything is without taking the wrong road? That’s going to take some time.

    1. Give yourself plenty of time to get acclimated after you move! I’ve moved a bunch of times in the last ten years and I find that it takes me about a year to really know a place well enough to get around without being constantly dependent on GPS or someone else’s help.

      1. Thanks! I learned the hard way that this applies to vacation, too. On my trip, I had been planning to walk everywhere…until it rained. Out of frustration I decided I would take the Metro back to my hotel, and I didn’t even plan out all of the routes I could take or the back-up plans to my back-up plans. This was an impromptu decision I made, and It just went downhill from there. There was a stop that was closed for renovations and I found myself in unfamiliar territory. I ended up cutting my losses and walked the rest of the way back to my hotel. Had it not been for the map in my hand, I would have had a meltdown!

        1. Yes! I’ve had similar experiences on vacation. Last summer we took a vacation that involved a lot of different hotels and when I booked them ‘ they all looked so close to the train stations we’d be arriving at. In reality, even with maps we had to stop people on the street and ask for directions nearly every time.

  20. When I had to drive 800km on roads I’d never driven before I did the whole trip beforehand on Google maps street view just as Robin describes 🙂
    This is all really interesting, thanks for a fascinating post. When I go somewhere new I love to spend as much time at the beginning exploring, checking out all the different side streets in town or roads in the countryside.

    I don’t have GPS on my phone or in my car, but actually I don’t think I would be able to use it while driving – the words would interfere with my concentration on the visual which is more important for me. I check things out on Google maps before leaving, or my own maps (I love maps!), and when I’m driving and might not be able to stop to check I write a wee list for when I’m hitting new areas eg turn left 4 streets after Smith St, the one just before is “Banks St”, tun 2nd right big roundabout etc etc”. Once I’ve done it I have remembered some things as cues (probably couldn’t tell you what as it’s happening though). After a few times I have my own mental Google street view and can direct people anywhere I’ve been with lots of useful tips that usually just confuse them because they don’t see them the same way “You know that yellow tyre place is two blocks before High St, and there’s that seat under an oak tree on the corner”… That’s the way I also work out how best to get from one part of the city/region to another running a street view film in my head.

    Funny though, my husband who is NT can only go certain routes to different places and if he has to go from one to the other he will return as far back as possible to take his usual route to the second place. I’m aspie and would never do that – I also see it as a waste of time & petrol though!

    1. Oh my gosh, that Google maps run through sounds like a project in itself. 🙂

      That’s interesting about being concerned that the words would make driving harder. I do find myself constantly glancing at the visual display on the GPS and often use the visuals to confirm or doublecheck the auditory directions because I find them a bit hard to follow (and often turn too soon or too late – my GPS does a lot of “recalculating”).

  21. Ooo. This must be why I love maps. I can look at maps for hours just picking out patterns and details. In the military my drill sergeants were surprised I was so good at maps, better than most of the boys, since most girls had such a hard time with them. However, looking at maps doesn’t guarantee I can do without when I need to go somewhere. I usually have a set of written directions to go along with the visual overhead map in my head.

    When I was a kid my dad would take us on long drives after church and randomly drive down roads eventually ending up back at home. He helped me to not be afraid to get lost while driving. It didn’t matter if I knew what road I was on. How I found my way around was based on the sun (hint: don’t try this at noon). If I was north of the freeway that travels in a south west to north east direction, I know that heading towards it will eventually stop my lostness because I’ll run into the freeway. Sometimes, I get lost on purpose so I can learn new areas of town.

    Now that I’m fairly proficient at the layout of my town I live in I can give some very detailed and vivid directions to others. I can even draw a pretty good map of all the roads with labels.

    1. I never understood where that stereotype of women being bad at using maps comes from. I love looking at maps, especially of transit systems. Also, the ones that used to come in National Geographic magazine!

      Great suggestion about using the sun. That works well for me when I’m on foot, running or walking a trail. Probably because I’m moving fairly slowly and can easily stay oriented to the sun’s position as time passes.

  22. I personally find the down side to this way of thinking is that it takes me longer to learn and find the better option in doing something, and even when someone points it out, unless they actually explain in detail or show me I never believe them! In terms of places/directions, its taking literally years to realize theres a shortcut I could take to work. Or in my part time job, spending months doing a task longer and going overtime because I dont have time to go through all the details and prioritize which things should be done first (so I end up doing everything and tasks that other people seem to quickly judge if they can skip or not). And very recently, when it comes to dealing with a broken down boiler, having house mates get annoyed at me because I’m dealing with each problem as it comes (this being the detail) and not confronting the apparently ‘obvious’ future problems that also need to be fixed (this being the bigger picture I think). This same way of thinking I personally think brings out my best qualities too!
    So yeah, I think this applies to many different aspects of life. Personally I think it would be cool to do more research into this area, I feel it probably consequences in a lot of the differences between someone who is autistic and someone who is neurotypical.
    And does anyone else find it impossible to navigate towns but super easy to navigate the countryside? I never get lost when I’m in a forest or a field, each little part seems so different, yet when I’m in a city all the houses look the same and I can’t even retrace my steps!

    1. I have trouble with direction and orientation, and I am certain that I am an autistic person, but being 61 years, I do not have a formal diagnosis. My adult son has an Aspergers diagnosis. He has superior abilities in orientation and directional memory (among other things.). For instance, he will know the exact location of a particular house after having seen it one time if there was something about the house that was of interest to him: an architectural detail; an interesting cat in the yard; a scary dog in the yard; a fragrant bush nearby. We are often stunned by his spatial memories. We live in a large city.

      On the other hand, I was an extreme wanderer from the time that I was able to walk. I cannot tell you how I was able to find my way back home. A few times I was brought back home by local police. This was the early 1950s in a very small town on the outskirts of a small city. My early wanderings set up a life-long pattern. I never learned to drive, but I have always been an avid walker. I enjoy getting lost, and then finding my way back to safety. I have a strong sense that my ability to find my way through a strange area is “intuitive” and not logical. I don’t know how to explain it.

      1. There is someone who comments here occasionally that is a lot like your son in terms of spatial memory. They’re able to build detailed visual maps of places in their head after being to a place just once. I think that must be almost a savant type of ability and one that a person is especially naturally gifted at (rather than being inherent to being autistic).

        I enjoy getting lost and wandering on walks too! Some of my best memories are a result of just wandering off to explore a new place.

    2. Totally agree with the downsides you pointed out. I was once working on a data analysis project for a statistics class and got so lost in tiny details that I ended up having to start over quite late in the course because the model I ended up with had serious “big picture” flaws that I’d completely missed in my excitement over a few intriguing details.

      I definitely find it easier to navigate in natural settings, like in the woods. I think that’s because I know how to use the sun and natural features (streams, rivers, valleys, ridges) to orient myself. I’ve never gotten truly lost in the woods, though there have been times when I’ve gone hours out of the way and had to work hard to get back on track and find my starting point.

  23. I am quite amazed at the level of awareness you guys have. I don’t really know what I notice first. I mostly zone out of everything, so much that I often miss the door of my building, especially if I come from the more unusual direction of the two.
    I always use a map if I have to go somewhere new in town, planning the route beforehand with the timing given by the city’s public transportation website. I mostly remember where places are once I get there, though, provided that I didn’t rely on other people to bring me there.

    1. I think I’ve become more aware of things like this since being diagnosed and reading about how others perceive the world (both autistic and NT). Also, my husband’s way of seeing the world is so drastically different–he offers me a good contrasting perspective against which to gauge my own perception.

      1. Yeah, sometimes I do feel like asking people how they see things. I have not really talked about such things even with those to whom I disclosed my condition, except a few Aspies.

  24. When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time
    a comment is added I get several emails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove me from that service?
    Bless you!

  25. I am completely the opposite of you. I am a super big picture thinking. Are aspies just the extremes of humanity? I am def an aspie. But, I do not get many other aspies because of my big picture thinking and their detail focus. It is like talking in two different languages.

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