4 Fun Ways to Teach Abstract Thinking

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“What’s your favorite color?”  This question has always eluded Declan.  It is a question I have taken for granted from my other 2 children.  One will yell, “Yellow!”  The other, “Pink!”  But when we ask Declan, his answer varies from “Spiderman!” to “Buzz Lightyear!”  It is in those moments we realize we are looking at the concrete thinking of Autism.

Concrete Thinking

So what is concrete thinking?  According to dictionary.com, concrete thinking is defined by “thinking characterized by a predominance of actual objects and events and the absence of concepts and generalizations.”  The contrast of concrete thinking is abstract thinking, or the ability to think in terms of patterns or general principles.

A person who is a concrete thinker will look out the window to check the validity of the statement, “It is raining cats and dogs outside today!” and be confused when all they see is heavy rain.

Concrete Thinking and Autism

It was pointed out to me by one of Declan’s Speech Therapists that Declan can answer “Who” “What” and “Where” questions, but he was unable to answer “How” or “Why” questions.  Declan’s mind, like others on the autism spectrum, has a hard time generalizing concepts or thinking in a free form.  Declan, like some other parts of his thinking, tends to be rigid, or inflexible.  Declan is not trying to be difficult, he simply doesn’t understand the question.  “Why” is an abstract question and hard for Declan to comprehend.

In some ways, concrete thinking makes sense, when you talk about the mind of a person with Autism.

In the process of learning, when a person learns to do something, they learn to do the steps of the process A-Z.  For example, when I learn to make scrambled eggs.  I know I need a pan, I need to put it on the stove.  I need to turn the stove on to make my pan warm.  I need to break my eggs and use something like a fork to scramble them.  I need to put my eggs in my pan to cook them.  Great!  But let’s say the next day, I want sunny side up eggs.  I know enough about the egg making process to know I will need a pan.  I will need eggs.  I will need to put my eggs in the hot pan, but I will need to change my process. Overall, I have the general idea to make a successful egg breakfast.

In some cases, if a person with Autism is taught to make scrambled eggs, they can make scrambled eggs.  They are not able to generalize the pan, eggs cooking process to change the outcome from scrambled to some other version of an egg breakfast.

Teaching Abstract Thinking

So Declan’s speech therapist told us that Declan could not answer”How” or “Why” questions.  She didn’t end the conversation then, either with a “well, that’s that….see you later!”  She told us we could try to help him.  Try to help his mind think in a more abstract way.  Heck, just a couple of years ago Declan wasn’t talking, and now he could answer “Who” “What” and “Where” questions.  So, there’s a chance he can learn to let his mind bend a little.  Let’s give it a try!

Talk the Process Out

Declan’s ST told us to ask a “how” or “why” question, and answer it for Declan.  If he hears the responses for “Why” we do things, it might start to make sense to him.  For example, “Time to put the milk back in the refrigerator.  WHY do we put the milk in the refrigerator?  To keep it COLD.”

My daughter came up with another way to talk the process with him.  When we realized Declan could not answer the question, “what is your favorite color” although he could name every color in the rainbow, she took the task on to help him answer the question.  Since he loves Spiderman, my daughter felt Declan loves the color red.  So she said, “When I say, “what is your favorite color” you say, “Red.””  About an hour later, she had him saying one word to the question, “What is your favorite color?”  “Red.”

Try to Break the Rigid Pattern When You Can

I know, this one is tough.  For Declan, if you do something a certain way one time, that is the way you are destined to do it forevermore.  In a sense.  I am trying to break this pattern.  For Declan, you only wear sneakers to school.  You only wear the red floatie at the pool, the green one at the shore.  You only eat chicken nuggets microwaved, not baked.  The list is long.  And tiring.

So I took on the simple change.  Wear the green floatie to the pool.  The red one is “broken.”  The mental turmoil he faced – he only wears the red one to the pool.  Just the red one.  But he wanted to go to the pool.  We all did.  We all sat and watched the mental turned physical struggle.  And finally he agreed to wear the green one if he wanted to go swimming.  A little victory.  But we broke a rigid thought/behavior connection.  The red floatie has been “fixed” and either floatie is suffice come pool swim time in Declan’s eyes.

Keep in mind, some things we are not able to break our rigid thinking around.  I am a vegetarian.  It would take A LOT to get me to eat a hamburger.  I am rigid in this thought.  Declan has his same limits.  But when it comes to the color of his floatie at the pool, I felt I had a chance to change the rigidity of thought.  And for me, for this issue – we had success!


What is more abstract than an art project?  Chalk, crayons, paint – all can be used to create something different from expected.  I always think of the movie “Billy Madison.”  In one scene where Billy is in Kindergarten he says, “Well, I made the duck blue because I’d never seen a blue duck before and I wanted to see one.”  Which is probably more typical of the abstract thinking developing at that young age.  To take the rigid picture of a duck and to reinterpret the image.

For a long time I did not think Declan knew what the sun or the moon were.  They were to far away to be real.  They lived in abstract world.  But he knows what a bird is.  He knows what a flower is.  By drawing or coloring those objects different than their typical image with him, allows him to change his concrete perception of those items.

Challenge the Literal Bug

I am sure you must face the literal bug of concrete thinking.  I know we do.

There are many times we joke around or ask a silly question to Declan, only to hear a concrete answer.

“Declan, you are a silly billy.”

“I not a silly billy.  I Declan.”

And the look of confusion to call him something other than his name!  Of course we face the literal one head on.  “I know your name is Declan.  I was being silly calling you a silly billy!”  Does he understand?  Well, he still says, “No I not!  I Declan!”  But as long as we challenge the literal bug, we may break the concrete thinking of taking the literal meaning of words.

The GOOD News

Let’s focus on the positive!  We have learners!  Finding a way to break the rigid or concrete thinking – that is up to our learners.  What fits them best?  Then let’s do that!  There are lots of ideas out there – here is a great link for teaching High Functioning People with Autism.  Find what works for you!  Sometimes your learner may even learn without you even knowing he has!

This weekend, a friend came over and asked Declan, “What is your favorite color?”  I waited to hear what he would say, and gasped when he said,

“Ummm.  I think Orange.”

I am still smiling in awe.



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