Autism, Perseveration and Holding onto Thoughts

Like many autistics, all my life I have thought visually. My thinking is comprised of pictures, colors, shapes along with their sound and movement. Given that experience, I have had to learn how to hold onto new thoughts because it doesn’t just happen automatically. This is especially true if I see a novel thought while in a slightly (or more than slightly) elevated emotional state. It doesn’t matter if the emotion is negative or positive. Here is an example:

When I am looking forward to an event such as going on a trolley for the narrated Fall Color Tour, it generates a slightly elevated positive emotional state. I want to remember to stop at the grocery store on the way home to purchase an ingredient for a dish I am planning to make for dinner. If I have no way of storing or retrieving that information I will need to hold onto that picture until it happens.

As a child, the way I would hold onto a picture – a thought that was important that I didn’t want to forget – would be to talk about it over and over until the event happened. In the above example I might repeatedly ask, “Will we stop at the grocery store on the way home?” Even though the question would be answered very patiently several times I would persist in asking it. The function of the question in this case was not to get the answer, but instead to hold the picture in place – front and center in my head – so that I would not forget it. This is because a visual thought, if not stored and therefore retrievable, is literally, out of sight, out of mind never again to be found.

Today in my practice I work with many autistics that repeat things over and over. It is often referred to as perseveration. Sometimes the perseveration is happening because the individual is thinking about something he does not want to forget and hasn’t yet figured out another way to hold onto his visual thought.

Here are some ideas that have been helpful to me to me and to others I have worked with over the years:

  • Visually construct a garage or a parking lot in your head. Consciously think of putting the picture thought in the garage or parking lot. Once the thought has been visually parked it will be there when you go looking for it at a later time.Many times when I first start working with someone to use this idea I will have them actually draw their garage or parking lot on a piece of paper and draw in the visual thought they want to park. Once the thought is parked they can go onto to do something other than perseverating on that particular thought picture, knowing they will be able to find that thought later even though they do not keep it front and center in their brain by repeatedly talking about it. Typically, after a few times of using the drawing and with encouragement to put the drawing in their head, individuals drop the paper and pencil garage or parking lot once they indeed have the visual in their head.
  • Often, a visual thought can be jotted down or drawn so as not to lose it. We all do this when we make our grocery list or jot a note to pick up milk on the way home. I needed direct instruction, many reminders and lots of practice doing this before it became automatic for me to even think of using this strategy. I find autistic individuals I work with often need direct instruction and repetitious practice before the seemingly simple idea of writing it down becomes a viable everyday strategy.
  • Another strategy that works well is to visually pull up a future scene of when you need to remember your current thought. Directly create that picture thought of the future scene when you will need to have the picture reminder pop up.Using the above example I would think of driving home from the Fall Color Tour around 2:30 along with onions at the grocery store. My picture would be of me in the car with my watch at 2:30. On my watch I put the words “on my way home” because I know my brain may not co-operate if the time is different than exactly 2:30 when I am driving home.Often, when there is not the exact visual brain match to reality, my brain will boot the picture out which causes me to lose the reminder. Thus, I have learned to outsmart this.When the picture of me in the car with my watch is in place I add the picture of a building with the words “Grocery Store” and an open door where I put a picture of onions just inside the door.Again, I outsmart my exacting visual brain by using a generic box building with the words “Grocery Store” rather than a specific grocery store. I know that I have a few possibilities of grocery stores to stop at on the way home and want to make sure I get to decide in the moment based on other needs. For example, I only want to make one stop so will stop when I need to use the bathroom and pick up the onions at this same stop regardless of which grocery store is at the stop.

Hopefully, if you are autistic and have difficulty holding onto thoughts these ideas, might be useful for you like they have been for many others. If you know an autistic person who is prone to get stuck and perseverate please know that if the reason for the behavior labeled perseveration is for them to hold onto a visual thought, these ideas may be helpful alternatives.

It has been life changing for me to learn to work with my autistic brain rather than trying so hard to copy and display the behaviors of typical people. The copy mode is draining and even when I do copy it often doesn’t fit in well, sometimes appearing a bit robotic. It is unfortunate that most of the folks who are teachers and helpers of autistics are at a disadvantage when it comes to supporting and working with autistic thinking only because they do not understand how the autistic brain functions. I have learned that it is so much easier to respect my neurology and work with it than it is to learn to copy the behaviors of neuromajority folks. I hope more information for autistics on how to work with their neurology becomes available.



Endow, J. (2019).  Autistically Thriving: Reading Comprehension, Conversational Engagement, and Living a Self-Determined Life Based on Autistic Neurology. Lancaster, PA: Judy Endow.

Endow, J. (2012). Learning the Hidden Curriculum: The Odyssey of One Autistic Adult. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2006).  Making Lemonade: Hints for Autism’s Helpers. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press.

Endow, J. (2013).  Painted Words: Aspects of Autism Translated. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press.

Endow, J. (2009).  Paper Words: Discovering and Living With My Autism. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2009).  Outsmarting Explosive Behavior: A Visual System of Support and Intervention for Individuals With Autism Spectrum Disorders. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2010).  Practical Solutions for Stabilizing Students With Classic Autism to Be Ready to Learn: Getting to Go. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Myles, B. S., Endow, J., & Mayfield, M. (2013).  The Hidden Curriculum of Getting and Keeping a Job: Navigating the Social Landscape of Employment. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Originally written for and published by Ollibean on October 18, 2015
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