Temple Grandin: Why Visual Thinking Is A Different Approach To Problem Solving

Visual thinking is the key to avoiding supply chain risk.

Visual thinking is the key to avoiding supply chain risk.

Getty

Mathematically inclined engineers calculate risk and visual thinkers can see risks. That means visual thinkers can even see the solutions to problems. When I first started my career as a designer of cattle handling systems in the 1970s, I believed everybody thought in pictures the same way I did. Before I drew the plans for a steel and concrete structure, I saw the finished structure. But that’s not how most plans are designed, I now know. Today, facilities and equipment I have designed are in almost all of the large beef processing plants.

The visual thinkers, similar to me, have invented and created much of the really clever equipment used today such as intricate conveyor systems and ingenious packaging rigs. The mathematically inclined engineers designed infrastructure such as refrigeration systems, boilers, and electric power systems. I have observed this division of labor on every project I have worked on: There are two distinct kinds of design and engineering talent.

Losing Skills in the Clever Engineering Department

Since I am way past retirement age, the people I personally worked with in the 1980s and 1990s are either retiring or have already left the industry. They are not getting replaced because schools have removed skilled trades classes such as auto repair, drafting, welding, and machining. This has led to more and more specialized equipment being imported from countries that have kept their skilled trades, and has enabled the European companies to keep a steady supply of young clever inventors to create the next food processing plant or automated warehouse. 

Recently, I toured two large food processing plants in the central U.S. and the division between the “clever engineering department” and the infrastructure became painfully obvious. Many of the conveyor systems are now being made by companies based in Holland and Germany. In the past, we had lots of clever people in the U.S. to build this equipment on our own soil.

Dyslexic, Autistic and ADHD Should Grow Up to Build the Clever Equipment

When I was three, I had no speech and had severe autism. I grew up with lots of hands-on activities and learned to use tools. But many kids today are never being exposed to tools, and that is a big mistake.

Over the courses of my career, I worked with many talented inventors and welders who were either dyslexic or very socially awkward. If they were children today, they probably would be shunted into special education with an autism, dyslexia, or ADHD attention deficit diagnosis, and likely would never get the opportunity to learn how to use tools.

Today when I attend autism meetings with parents and teachers, more often than not, I am seeing smart kids who are ending up with disability labels when they should be in a shop inventing things. These parents of teenagers on the autism spectrum tell me that their son or daughter loves to build things with Legos but they were never given the opportunity to learn how to use tools. Elementary school children should be taught to use tools both creatively and safely. When I was eleven, for example, I took woodshop in school and practiced with hammers, screwdrivers, handsaws and pliers. It gave me the confidence to explore tools more and more as I grew up.

The Mathematicians Need the Visual Thinkers to Prevent Disasters

Let’s get back to my original opening sentence that mathematicians calculate risk and visual thinkers see risk. There are some serious recent disasters that could have been avoided if a visual thinker had assessed the risks beforehand. Two vivid examples were the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown in 2011 and this year’s Boeing Max crashes. 

Since I spend hours sitting in planes while traveling around the world to give talks, I like to read and always purchase multiple newspapers and magazines. When I read articles about each one of these disasters, my mind starts processing everything as photographic pictures. When I put all the bits of information together, I see the whole picture. And when I finally put the pictures in my imagination together, I often think, “How could you make this mistake? It was so obvious.” 

For the Fukushima reactor meltdown, my imagination saw water flowing over the sea wall and flooding the Fukushima site. The next scene in my mind was the plant being flooded, and the basement filling with water. The electrically driven emergency cooling pump would now be underwater and drowned. Simple watertight doors would have kept vital emergency equipment dry. 

During my many years of working on many projects, I have learned that the mathematical mind does not see ways a system could break. Stupidity is not the cause of this problem. It is a lack of visual thinking. There is no way I could design a nuclear reactor. That is a job for the mathematically inclined engineer. However, the visual thinkers should be involved in designing the safety systems. A visual thinker can see different possible ways systems can break and simple ways to protect them.

How Could You Trust a Single Fragile Sensor?

The Boeing max crashes in October 2018 and March 2019 are another example of a lack of visual thinking. When I learned how important the angle of the attack sensor, and the part it played in downing the flights, I was shocked to discover how fragile it truly is. It is a delicate little finger that sticks out of the side of the plane, near the cockpit. It measures the angle that the plane is flying. If the angle becomes too steep, the plane may stall. When a plane stalls, the wings lose the ability to lift. My analysis is based on reading multiple sources of information such as U.S., European and Asian newspapers, pilot’s blogs, ground radar, and technical information on aircraft design. Since the first Boeing MAX crash in October of 2018, I have read over a hundred sources of information. When I collect information from many sources, my mind assembles a video of what happened. Basic information about the single broken angle of attack sensor appeared in multiple sources. When I look at an angle of attack sensor on an airplane, it is obvious to me that a bird striking it could cause severe damage.

There is no way I would trust a single sensor that could be easily damaged. In both Boeing Max crashes, a single broken sensor was the most likely cause. In both aircrafts that crashed, the consensus seems to be that a broken sensor caused the plane’s automated flight computer to repeatedly push the plane’s nose down. The computer thought the plane was stalling when it was flying normally.

In other existing aircraft, the computer does not rely on input from a single fragile sensor. Input from two or three sensors is used. When I think about this visually, it becomes completely obvious. There were other mistakes that Boeing made such as not requiring pilot training. But reliance on a single fragile sensor is a mistake a visual thinker would not make. When I was getting ready to submit this article, two new pieces of information appeared. The National Transportation Safety Board submitted a report that concentrated on the pilots becoming confused when multiple alarms sounded. The emphasis of the report was on the pilots. On September 29, 2019. The Wall Street Journal released a story about a Boeing military plane with a similar computerized anti-stall system. It relies on more than one sensor and the computer can be overruled by a pilot pulling back on the control column. I looked up the KC46 military tanks and I was shocked to learn that it looked like a passenger jet. Further internet searches revealed that it was derived from the Boeing 767. It appears that there may have been a lack of communication between different parts of the company.

It is now time to get the MAX planes back in the air. Some airlines have had to cancel hundreds of flights due to a lack of aircraft. I would be the first person willing to fly on one of them if I receive a clear explanation of how they were fixed. Tell me in simple language. Vague language such as we care about your safety is not acceptable. There must be no lawyer talk or public relation nonsense. Tell me step-by-step the remedies to fix sensors, computer programming, and pilot training.

The Science Behind Different Kinds of Thinking

There are scientific studies that clearly show that some people are “object visualizers” similar to me and others are “visual spatial pattern thinkers.”  Maria Kozhevnikov and Olesya Blazhenkova from Harvard and the University of Singapore state, “While object imagery refers to representations of the literal appearance of individual objects and scenes in terms of shape, color and texture, spatial imagery refers to representations of the spatial relations among objects.” People I have talked to who are mathematical thinkers tell me they see patterns, instead of photo realistic pictures.

Mathematically inclined engineers are pattern thinkers. They calculate risk instead of seeing it. These different types of thinking are described in my book The Autistic Brain. The first step in learning how to fully utilize the abilities of the different types of thinkers is to be aware of their existence. When both kinds of thinkers work on a project, their skills will complement each other.

">

Mathematically inclined engineers calculate risk and visual thinkers can see risks. That means visual thinkers can even see the solutions to problems. When I first started my career as a designer of cattle handling systems in the 1970s, I believed everybody thought in pictures the same way I did. Before I drew the plans for a steel and concrete structure, I saw the finished structure. But that’s not how most plans are designed, I now know. Today, facilities and equipment I have designed are in almost all of the large beef processing plants.

The visual thinkers, similar to me, have invented and created much of the really clever equipment used today such as intricate conveyor systems and ingenious packaging rigs. The mathematically inclined engineers designed infrastructure such as refrigeration systems, boilers, and electric power systems. I have observed this division of labor on every project I have worked on: There are two distinct kinds of design and engineering talent.

Losing Skills in the Clever Engineering Department

Since I am way past retirement age, the people I personally worked with in the 1980s and 1990s are either retiring or have already left the industry. They are not getting replaced because schools have removed skilled trades classes such as auto repair, drafting, welding, and machining. This has led to more and more specialized equipment being imported from countries that have kept their skilled trades, and has enabled the European companies to keep a steady supply of young clever inventors to create the next food processing plant or automated warehouse. 

Recently, I toured two large food processing plants in the central U.S. and the division between the “clever engineering department” and the infrastructure became painfully obvious. Many of the conveyor systems are now being made by companies based in Holland and Germany. In the past, we had lots of clever people in the U.S. to build this equipment on our own soil.

Dyslexic, Autistic and ADHD Should Grow Up to Build the Clever Equipment

When I was three, I had no speech and had severe autism. I grew up with lots of hands-on activities and learned to use tools. But many kids today are never being exposed to tools, and that is a big mistake.

Over the courses of my career, I worked with many talented inventors and welders who were either dyslexic or very socially awkward. If they were children today, they probably would be shunted into special education with an autism, dyslexia, or ADHD attention deficit diagnosis, and likely would never get the opportunity to learn how to use tools.

Today when I attend autism meetings with parents and teachers, more often than not, I am seeing smart kids who are ending up with disability labels when they should be in a shop inventing things. These parents of teenagers on the autism spectrum tell me that their son or daughter loves to build things with Legos but they were never given the opportunity to learn how to use tools. Elementary school children should be taught to use tools both creatively and safely. When I was eleven, for example, I took woodshop in school and practiced with hammers, screwdrivers, handsaws and pliers. It gave me the confidence to explore tools more and more as I grew up.

The Mathematicians Need the Visual Thinkers to Prevent Disasters

Let’s get back to my original opening sentence that mathematicians calculate risk and visual thinkers see risk. There are some serious recent disasters that could have been avoided if a visual thinker had assessed the risks beforehand. Two vivid examples were the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown in 2011 and this year’s Boeing Max crashes. 

Since I spend hours sitting in planes while traveling around the world to give talks, I like to read and always purchase multiple newspapers and magazines. When I read articles about each one of these disasters, my mind starts processing everything as photographic pictures. When I put all the bits of information together, I see the whole picture. And when I finally put the pictures in my imagination together, I often think, “How could you make this mistake? It was so obvious.” 

For the Fukushima reactor meltdown, my imagination saw water flowing over the sea wall and flooding the Fukushima site. The next scene in my mind was the plant being flooded, and the basement filling with water. The electrically driven emergency cooling pump would now be underwater and drowned. Simple watertight doors would have kept vital emergency equipment dry. 

During my many years of working on many projects, I have learned that the mathematical mind does not see ways a system could break. Stupidity is not the cause of this problem. It is a lack of visual thinking. There is no way I could design a nuclear reactor. That is a job for the mathematically inclined engineer. However, the visual thinkers should be involved in designing the safety systems. A visual thinker can see different possible ways systems can break and simple ways to protect them.

How Could You Trust a Single Fragile Sensor?

The Boeing max crashes in October 2018 and March 2019 are another example of a lack of visual thinking. When I learned how important the angle of the attack sensor, and the part it played in downing the flights, I was shocked to discover how fragile it truly is. It is a delicate little finger that sticks out of the side of the plane, near the cockpit. It measures the angle that the plane is flying. If the angle becomes too steep, the plane may stall. When a plane stalls, the wings lose the ability to lift. My analysis is based on reading multiple sources of information such as U.S., European and Asian newspapers, pilot’s blogs, ground radar, and technical information on aircraft design. Since the first Boeing MAX crash in October of 2018, I have read over a hundred sources of information. When I collect information from many sources, my mind assembles a video of what happened. Basic information about the single broken angle of attack sensor appeared in multiple sources. When I look at an angle of attack sensor on an airplane, it is obvious to me that a bird striking it could cause severe damage.

There is no way I would trust a single sensor that could be easily damaged. In both Boeing Max crashes, a single broken sensor was the most likely cause. In both aircrafts that crashed, the consensus seems to be that a broken sensor caused the plane’s automated flight computer to repeatedly push the plane’s nose down. The computer thought the plane was stalling when it was flying normally.

In other existing aircraft, the computer does not rely on input from a single fragile sensor. Input from two or three sensors is used. When I think about this visually, it becomes completely obvious. There were other mistakes that Boeing made such as not requiring pilot training. But reliance on a single fragile sensor is a mistake a visual thinker would not make. When I was getting ready to submit this article, two new pieces of information appeared. The National Transportation Safety Board submitted a report that concentrated on the pilots becoming confused when multiple alarms sounded. The emphasis of the report was on the pilots. On September 29, 2019. The Wall Street Journal released a story about a Boeing military plane with a similar computerized anti-stall system. It relies on more than one sensor and the computer can be overruled by a pilot pulling back on the control column. I looked up the KC46 military tanks and I was shocked to learn that it looked like a passenger jet. Further internet searches revealed that it was derived from the Boeing 767. It appears that there may have been a lack of communication between different parts of the company.

It is now time to get the MAX planes back in the air. Some airlines have had to cancel hundreds of flights due to a lack of aircraft. I would be the first person willing to fly on one of them if I receive a clear explanation of how they were fixed. Tell me in simple language. Vague language such as we care about your safety is not acceptable. There must be no lawyer talk or public relation nonsense. Tell me step-by-step the remedies to fix sensors, computer programming, and pilot training.

The Science Behind Different Kinds of Thinking

There are scientific studies that clearly show that some people are “object visualizers” similar to me and others are “visual spatial pattern thinkers.”  Maria Kozhevnikov and Olesya Blazhenkova from Harvard and the University of Singapore state, “While object imagery refers to representations of the literal appearance of individual objects and scenes in terms of shape, color and texture, spatial imagery refers to representations of the spatial relations among objects.” People I have talked to who are mathematical thinkers tell me they see patterns, instead of photo realistic pictures.

Mathematically inclined engineers are pattern thinkers. They calculate risk instead of seeing it. These different types of thinking are described in my book The Autistic Brain. The first step in learning how to fully utilize the abilities of the different types of thinkers is to be aware of their existence. When both kinds of thinkers work on a project, their skills will complement each other.