Abstract thinking is a level of thinking about things that is removed from the facts of the "here and now", and from specific examples of the things or concepts being thought about.
Abstract thinkers are able to reflect on events and ideas, and on attributes and relationships separate from the objects that have those attributes or share those relationships. For example:
a concrete thinker can think about this particular dog; a more abstract thinker can think about dogs in general.
a concrete thinker can think about this dog on this rug; a more abstract thinker can think about spatial relations, like "on"
a concrete thinker can see that this ball is big; a more abstract thinker can think about size in general
a concrete thinker can count three cookies; a more abstract thinker can think about numbers
a concrete thinker can recognize that John likes Betty; a more abstract thinker can reflect on emotions, like affection.
** IMPLICATIONS FOR LEARNING **
It is hard for many people to understand the difference in concrete and abstract thinking and how hard abstract thinking can be for people with autism. There are so many abstract concepts that we understand but we take that understanding for granted.
Many people with autism tend to be very concrete and literal thinkers, which means that teaching abstract concepts needs to be done in a concrete way, this is typically accomplished through the use of visuals.
As always, the first task for teachers and parents is to correctly understand the problem. Students with abstract thinking problems might be reasonably effective learners and processors of information in select domains.
Having identified the difficulty with abstract thinking, parents and educators should become familiar with the compensations they can implement and procedures to gradually improve the student's ability to think abstractly.
** STRATEGIES **
Take into consideration these abstract concepts: time, relationships, multiple representations, non-verbal communication, inferences, social interactions, and idioms. Many of this concepts are easily understood by the average person, but for some people with autism these concepts can be incomprehensible. This is not to say that they can not be taught to understand them, but it is not always able to teach in the typical way (i.e. verbal explanation).
1.Use visual representations and repetition
For example, when teaching the concept of time passage, saying "We're going to go to the park on Friday?" to a person who has no concept of time or when Friday is, the meaning is lost. Therefore, using the calendar as a visual show what day it is today and writing on the calendar "PARK" on Friday then you have a visual representation of when that thing is going to happen. This can be supplemented by identifying the current day of the week, counting how many days are left, etc. This visual support is extremely important because without it the original statement may be meaningless.
2.Adjust language accordingly.
Avoid the use of language that is at too high a level of abstraction or link abstract language with its concrete equivalent.
For example, in encouraging a student to study hard, a parent might say, "You've got to give it your best shot and study real hard." "Give it your best shot" is a metaphor that might be too abstract; "study real hard" is a literal or concrete equivalent.
3.Using concrete meanings to support comprehension:
Be as concrete as possible in all your interactions.
Avoid asking vague questions such as, "Why did you do that?" Instead, say, "I did not like it when you slammed your book down when I said it was time for gym. Next time put the book down gently and tell me you are angry. Were you showing me that you did not want to go to gym, or that you did not want to stop reading?"
Avoid asking essay-type questions.
For example, when learning to add and subtract, first graders commonly rely on their fingers or other physical objects to represent the abstract numbers. The children's conceptual transition into the world of abstract numbers is supported by the representation of those numbers in physical things that can be seen, held, and moved.
Similarly, concrete thinking high school students might be able to understand an abstract social arrangement, like the caste system in India, by comparing it to social cliques they are familiar with in their school. Discussing similarities and differences between that which is unfamiliar and distant (i.e., abstract) and that which is familiar and close to home (i.e., concrete) is a valuable way to help students grasp the abstract concept.
4.Facilitating the Development of Abstract Thinking
There are no known exercises in abstract thinking that have the effect of turning a concrete thinker into an abstract thinker across domains of content. Sometimes practice with brain teasers or math and logic problems is suggested as a means to facilitate more abstract thinking. However, there is no evidence that practice of this sort enhances abstract thinking in a generalizable way. That is, a person can improve performance with brain teasers, math problems, and logic problems with no transfer to other domains of thinking. Therefore, attempts to facilitate increasingly abstract thinking should be made within all relevant academic areas (e.g., math, literature, science, social studies), without expecting that improvements in one area will yield improvements in another area.
If possible, similar language and analogies should be used (e.g., by parents and teachers) across areas so as not to overwhelm students with too much information or too many comparisons.
You should not expect that exercises in abstract thinking in a therapy context (e.g., a speech-language therapist using workbook exercises in abstract thinking) will transfer to other academic or social domains.
Think out loud with the student in an organized and compelling way to facilitate the child's development of systematically higher levels of thinking, better organized thinking, and better problem solving.Out-loud thinking about important topics can be organized around the following thought processes:
searches for explanations (e.g., why and how questions)
searches for analogies to make the subject matter more understandable (e.g., "Let's think about what this might be like in your life"; "What are other examples of this?")
searches for alternative perspectives (e.g., "Are there other ways to think about this? How might other people think about this?" )
ways to organize the topic and make connections (e.g., "I think there are three separate issues here that we should consider in order"; "Let's try to think about what this might be connected to")
ways to evaluate (e.g., "How can we decide if this is a good thing or not?")
ways to draw inferences (e.g., "If this is true, then what else must be true?")
Think out loud with the student about issues that are interesting and important
5. Highlight the thinking process:
In connection with abstract thinking, discussions with adolescents should highlight the words concrete and abstract (e.g., "That is how the story might be interpreted in a concrete way.... But now let me give you a more abstract understanding.").
Explore explanations, but also explicitly describe this explanatory thought process as a way to derive explanations; they should not only explore analogies, but also explicitly describe this analogical thought process as a way to see connections; they should not only make organized connections, but also explicitly describe this organizational thought process as a way to become more organized in thinking.
Talking about the thought processes and giving them a name facilitates an understanding of those thought processes, how to use them, and when to use them.
6. Use illuminating and motivating analogies:
Just as finger counting makes abstract numbers and arithmetic operations more concrete for six year old children, so also meaningful analogies make abstract material more concrete for older students.
For example, in explaining the three branches of government to a concrete thinking high school student, a teacher might say, "When your parents create rules for you, they are functioning like the legislative branch of government. When they enforce those rules, they are functioning like the executive branch. When they try to resolve conflicts between you and your sister, they are functioning like the judicial branch." This use of analogies connects the unfamiliar with the familiar, thereby making the abstract and unfamiliar more concrete and understandable.
Use external supports as needed:
In logic, Venn diagrams (overlapping circles) are used to concretely represent logical relationships among propositions.
Similarly, a time line flow chart might be used to represent relationships among events in time. Models of the solar system are used to represent relationships among the sun, planets, and moons.
When a product that needs assembly is opened, there is usually a sequence of pictures showing exactly how to put the object together. Each of these two- or three-dimensional representations of the organization of that which is represented can be considered a "map," a concrete representation of more abstract relationships. The map guides one through unfamiliar territory and if you don?t know the territory, you need a map!
Other graphic organizers can be used to represent other relationships and organizational systems.
8. Gradually remove the supports:
For example, a graphic organizer with boxes and connecting arrows, used to represent narrative organization for elementary school students, might be gradually transformed into a simple outline for middle schoolers.