Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Doctor of Philosophy


In response to the call for first-hand accounts of individuals experiencing autism, this study addresses the need for qualitative investigation of the thinking and learning of gifted adults with Asperger syndrome (AS). The findings represent a broad phenomenological ‘map of the landscape’ of the experience of the participants and take the form of: (a) five case study reports; and, (b) a conceptual framework for understanding thinking and learning in autism, which was developed from the research literature. The need for such a framework is particularly relevant for professional development of teachers of students with AS in mainstream schools, however, the framework also addresses the need for information and understanding concerning thinking and learning by: parents of children with AS; life partners of individuals with AS; and, individuals experiencing AS.

Utilising phenomenological case study methodology, five in-depth case studies were conducted and analysed employing interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA). The case studies were interpreted in the light of an iterative review of the neuroscience and autism research literature, which was also used to construct the conceptual framework for teacher professional development: the ‘Thinking, Memory and Learning Framework’ (TML).

The five themes emerging from the case studies of thinking, memory and learning are: (a) compensatory learning; (b) self-referential thinking vs. externally oriented thinking; (c) enhanced perceptual functioning and giftedness; (d) temporality; and, (e) language. The primary participants as a group demonstrated a distinct cognitive profile while displaying some within-group differences. Their narratives exposed existential problems with the trustworthiness of knowledge and identity formation: this led to the superordinate theme of ‘Knowledge and the knower’.

The conceptual framework that is an outcome of this doctoral study illuminates the thinking, memory and learning of gifted individuals with AS and has implications for the development of teachers’ understanding of learning per se. It also indicates a hierarchy within explicit mental learning activities with learners with AS benefitting at the lower end of the hierarchy and being challenged at the higher end. Pedagogical insights based on the findings are proposed. This thesis presents a new perspective on thinking, memory and learning in gifted individuals with Asperger syndrome.



Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.