Virginia Woolf and Autism

In February I wrote about Virginia Woolf and her attempt to go beyond words and literature. Recently,  I have come across a book titled Thinking in pictures: and other reports from my life with autism by Temple Grandin. I was captivated by these particular words:

I think in pictures. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full colour movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR type in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures. [1]

Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin


What fascinated me about this fragment was the fact that autistic mind not able to cope with language-based communication chose pictures as an alternative form. This conclusion instantly brought me back to Virginia Woolf. At the beginning of The Waves thereis a fragment when every character announces what they see (and rarely hear). Later we find out that every object they described refers to their personality, as if their perception defined them as individuals. They do not talk about their feelings, about events in their lives- they only tell what they see.[2] When I compared these two fragments – Woolf’s and Grandon’s- it occurred to me that in The Waves Woolf, in a strange way, wanted to communicate in images; still using language, she attempted to allow the characters to communicate in their perceptions, to omit the level of linguistic understanding and metaphorically go back to “the roots”.  What I mean by “the roots” are the first attempts of a human to write down oral communication, namely,  first proto-writing systems which were  based mainly on pictograms- images that resembled objects or ideas and had literal, as opposed to ambivalent, connection with them.

Thus, it seemed that Woolf perceived images as something much more instinctive and therefore natural/truthful  to human soul than words. Paradoxically, however, being a novelist, and not a painter, she decided to combine them and paint with words.

[1] Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures: and other reports from my life with autism, London, 2006. p. 3

[2] Virginia Woolf, The Waves, London, 2000, p. 5-6.