So Your Child Can’t Visualize?

If your child can't visualize, they might experience aphantasia. As a parent, you might worry. The important thing to remember is your child can be successful in school. They just need to be aware.
child can't visualize

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A peculiar trait we adults have is the belief that everyone thinks, learns, and solves problems just the way we do—and if we find out someone doesn’t we can’t help thinking they are either lazy or just not smart. As a teacher and administrator in public education for forty-plus years, I can assure you that we educators are not exempt from this thinking.

Your Child Has You Worried: Aphantasia and Children

If your child can’t visualize, they might experience aphantasia.

Where does that leave you with your child, who seems smart enough but is struggling with things that you think should be easy? As a parent, you worry and fret and ask the school to test the kid, and maybe even lose patience with them. 

The important thing to remember is that your child with aphantasia can be successful in all levels of school. They just need to be aware. Now I may not be able to set your mind at ease, but I might be able to help you begin to understand.

My Life with Aphantasia

For me, it started in 1950 when my kindergarten teacher told me I couldn’t draw. Not that I hadn’t already looked at other kids’ work and realized that. Later, I also couldn’t spell. I would study just before our weekly spelling tests and do alright, but forget remembering the words an hour or day later—and not complicated words either, simple words.

The “Readers Digest” magazine in those days had a regular article called “6 Minutes a Day to Perfect Spelling.” Today’s equivalent to Wordle. In eighth and ninth grade I did the spelling exercises religiously. Didn’t help much. I still have a high school paper in which I spelled naturally “natcherly.” My English teacher thought it was pretty funny. We had to take Latin and French in my high school. I spent three hours a night tediously looking up words and carried vocabulary flashcards wherever I went but never did well with passage translations because, like a child who has to sound out every word and loses the sense of a sentence, by the time I had looked up every word I had lost the sense of the passage.

My adviser in college wouldn’t recommend me to ranked graduate schools because – he said – I was an English Major who couldn’t spell. When I read books, I couldn’t picture the scene or characters and couldn’t pronounce or remember the characters’ names (so I often just skipped over names and then got confused about who was who). In last-minute prepping for the California Bar Exam, while others reviewed cases or rules, I focused on the spelling of “Plaintiff” and “defendant”—thinking that if I misspelled those the reader would dismiss the rest of the essay response.

I sometimes wish I had known that it was not my fault that my aphantasia likely contributed to some of my struggles. Also, had I known that there were other children like me, I wouldn’t have felt alone. On the other hand, not knowing resulted in my empathy for the struggles that children with learning differences often face in school.

So Your Child Can’t Visualize?

Your seven-year-old still draws people as “stick people.” Your 9-year-old can remember the basic plot of a story, but not the characters’ names or what they look like. Your child is reading okay, but continues to confuse “through” and “though”. Your child seems to randomly spell—maybe phonetically but always replete with errors. As they get older, their essay writing is slow on tests (because they keep looking in her head for synonyms that they can spell. They don’t tell you that.) Remembering vocabulary and pronunciation of Spanish or French is painfully slow and never lasts. They cannot remember scenes, can’t draw them, and they sometimes have trouble remembering people’s names and faces.

While there is no hard-and-fast rule saying all aphantasic kids experience these things, I have seen commonalities in my years as an educator. Maybe your child experiences some of these, maybe all of them. As a parent, this experience is counterbalanced by the competence they have acquired in alternate skills that will serve them well in life.

For example, your daughter listens intently to the teacher and remembers enough to be a reasonably good student. Your son appreciates the beauty of things he sees and doesn’t fight your desire to take him to the museums. Your child loves listening to music, even if they struggle with an instrument. Your child thinks logically and solves problems. I believe that your child’s own understanding of their struggles will help them be more sensitive to friends’, siblings’, spouses’, and supervisors’ imperfections and quirks.

child reading with his dad
Image of Steve’s grandson and son were provided by Steve with permission from his son.

Parents Trying to Cope with Aphantasic Kids

In keeping with the efficacious advice from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “DON’T PANIC!”

If you do not experience the learning challenges your child with aphantasia may be going through, you might be fretting and trying to “fix” the specific problems—spelling, reading, and writing descriptions, to name a few examples. Parents often have their kids tested for Special Education, but because the children have become adept at working around their areas of struggle, they probably won’t meet the qualification to be admitted. Parents have even talked to me about alternative schools, afterschool programs, back-to-basics tutoring, etc.

The thing is—because these alternatives promote a learning style that your child simply may not be able to adopt, they will probably make a marginal, insignificant difference, at best. Worth a try, perhaps, but don’t be surprised if your child becomes even more frustrated as a result.

Spelling is a very worrying issue for most parents—only because among educated people, basic spelling errors make the reader think the writer is lazy, stupid, or both. So, even though it may only help a little, spelling practice and studying spelling “rules” can be useful. Unfortunately, English has so many unusual and non-phonetic words, the rules will only be somewhat helpful, like a good dictionary. As for spell-checkers, your child’s spelling will often be so oblique to norms that spell-checkers may not be able to suggest the correct word.

Your child has already created a whole web of alternative learning strategies to get around these areas. They really need to believe that you think they are doing their best, are smart, and are worthwhile!

Other Things a Parent Can Do

The first and most important thing a parent can do is to really appreciate that your child has spent the six-hour school day working much harder and with different success than some other kids. Learning with aphantasia comes with its own unique set of challenges. So, when they get home, let them chill and do something they can be successful at.

One of the most important things for all school children is that they feel part of the social fabric of their classroom and school. Thus, developing their skill levels in common games and school-type activities is useful. Some of these activities are related (in research studies) to later helping with reading and math skills. These activities include throwing and catching a ball, kicking a ball for little ones, running, jumping rope, skipping, building/designing with blocks, playing board and card games, etc.

Because your child is toughing it out in school during the day, they need to engage in some relaxing, fun activities—like hiking, swimming, canoeing, skiing, etc.—when they get home, preferably with parents. Spending quality time with their parents goes a long way. The child knows they are supported and can see that support in their parents’ eyes.

There are no miracles here, largely because there are no terminal deficits. Your child with aphantasia can be successful in all levels of school. They just need to be aware of the things they struggle with, accept that they are struggling, and celebrate the beautiful world and their own advantages.

I didn’t know aphantasia existed until I was 74—just last year—when I read an article in the New York Times. Still, I somehow managed to get through college, grad school, and law school, and hold professional jobs most people think are pretty special.

If you know that your child has aphantasia, you can help make their path a bit easier than mine was. Do it!

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Thanks to both of you for your thoughtful posts.  I am no expert in aphantasia.  I did chair more than 300 IEP meetings for children who were either receiving special ed services or were being assessed because they were struggling in school.  What impressed me in those meetings were the variety of struggles kids had, and how limited were our tools for assessing and/or helping them.  It was humbling.  You can understand how challenging it is for a primary grade teacher to try to understand the learning paths of thirty students every year – how they manage to help so many of their kids learn to read, and why, even with all of their care and skill, they do not succeed with every child.  I am  left with amazement at how different our minds are – even within the subpopulation with aphantasia.

I am glad neither of you struggled with spelling.  It is pretty humiliating to have to look up so many words everyone seems to think are simple. I had and have far less difficulty spelling words that follow “regular” rules of phonics.  I have substantial difficulty with what we called “sight words,” those that are very common in the language – and partly because they are so common – do not follow the normal path for “sounding them out.”  

Thanks again for your thoughts.

I feel the same as the other responder.  I never had any difficulty in learning to read and it sounds, Steve, that you may have a form of Dyslexia as well as Aphantasia. I do, and have always had difficulty in remembering names and when I read a novel I depend on the remembered character rather than the name. Though if it is repeated enough in the novel it eventually sticks. My thoughts are basically words though I can recall music to a degree. I guess that as with all mental functions there are different degrees of Aphantasia.

I’m surprised that spelling and writing are something that people with aphantasia find difficult, as I would not have thought that there is a strong visualisation component involved in those activities. Maybe that is because for me, who cannot visualise anything, I developed a different way of learning to write and spell. For me I could always “hear” the words in my head and I was able to remember the alphabet by knowing how each letter was constructed, so I did not have any trouble learning to write and spell. In fact I feel that because I cannot visualise anything, I rely much more on words and descriptive phrases to remember things. On the other hand, I cannot draw anything from memory and am still limited to stick figures, so I understand that perfectly. I also feel, having lived in Japan for 10+ years, that had I been born there, where it is necessary to learn approximately 2000 kanji characters in order to read a book, I would have struggled much more. My attempts to learn kanji in adulthood, where most methods rely on visual association of the characters with particular scenes, were a complete failure.

You also mention music, but again I don’t see why being aphantasic should have any bearing on musical ability, since I don’t believe that visualisation is really a necessary skill for learning music. After all music is all about sound, and I can “play” a song in my mind, imagining how it sounds, without requiring any visual element, but maybe I am lucky in that way and some people cannot do that. To be both without sound and without vision must be very tough indeed.