• Understanding Autism from the Inside

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Autism and Central Coherence: Missing the Forest for the Trees


When someone is said to “miss the forest for the trees,” it means that they are unable to discern the overall pattern from a mass of detail; to see the big picture, or the broader, or more general meaning of things; they do not get the “gist” of it. This is often said of people with autism spectrum disorders, and is often correct. The reason for this difficulty of seeing the big picture, the difficulty in generalizing information is a deficit in central coherence.

What is Central Coherence, or Central Coherence Theory?

Central coherence refers to an in-built propensity to form meaningful links over a wide range of stimuli and to generalize over as wide a range of contexts as possible. It is the ability to focus on both details as well as wholes, to synthesize information from different sources and experiences to glean a higher meaning; to get the point, or gist, of things. People with autism are thought to have difficulty seeing the whole picture. This style of cognition is termed “weak central coherence.”

What is Weak Central Coherence?

Weak central coherence refers to a limited ability to understand the context in which events occur, a proneness to get lost in the details, and an inability to see the “big picture.” This results in autistic individuals being extremely detailed oriented, but losing site of the task at hand. Weak central coherence also affects the ability to generalize, and learn from one’s mistakes. Language comprehension skills are also affected. The autistic person will take words literally, and find it difficult to understand metaphors or sarcasm leaving them vulnerable to misinterpreting social situations.

Difficulties with Weak Central Coherence

A person with autism who has difficulty seeing the wholes, or gets lost in the details can have difficulty with reading comprehension, and make navigating school very difficult. It can be exhausting when one detail of a lesson, lecture, assignment, or test question grabs your focus and you lose sight of the whole picture. If one detail captures your attention while reading a text, it is easy to lose sight of what the text is saying. This results in the need to go back and re-read the text several times before comprehension can be achieved.
Literal thinking can cause communication difficulties and misunderstandings when confronted with metaphoric language, humor, or sarcasm. This literal thinking is also responsible for an intense focus on what is “right” regardless of the context of the situation. This rigid-type, or “black and white,” thinking when it is inadaptable makes it difficult to learn from previous situations—also known as difficulty with generalizing.
A child who learns that the stove is hot will intuitively learn that other household items are also hot, and therefore, not touch them. A child with difficulty with generalization, or weak central coherence, will only understand the stove is hot after touching it, or being burned. This child does not, however, apply this new found knowledge to the toaster being hot, or other items that are intuitively drawn from the realization of what “hot” means. They may need to touch the oven to learn it is hot, and then the toaster, and then the toaster oven, and the iron, and so on. The relative concepts of things that are hot are not generalized over a wide-range of contexts. They do not see the relative “sameness” of the situations.

Although there are many difficulties connected with the weak central coherence that autistic people experience, there are many things of this cognitive style that can be seen as assets. Being detail oriented and being able to focus intently—seeing what others would miss—can be a very useful skill. There are many fields of work and study that these individuals can excel in and even surpass their neuro-typical (NT), someone without autism, peers. Literal thinking can be an asset in analysis, and makes it easier to find, and point out inconsistencies in language, and or written instructions. Black and white thinking can be rigid but is often accompanied by a very high, immovable moral standard. This type of thinking leaves no room for compromise, and no “grey area.” Actions are perceived as black and white; right or wrong. The perceived disabilities of those affected by weak central coherence, in the right environment, can be a source of strength.


Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert, contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, on the autism spectrum.

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