In her 2008 book, Autism – A Very Short Introduction, psychologist Uta Frith discussed the “weak central coherence” theory.

This is related to the tendency of autistic people to focus on detail. Walking through a forest an autistic person will see the trees and things on the forest floor – ferns, horsetails, fungi, insects, tiny toads, etc – but, supposedly, they aren’t interested in the forest as a whole.

Many autistic people get very focused on the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, but are less interested in the picture. 

Frith says this might be a “completely different way of processing information” that leads to a “different form of intelligence.” Researchers were interested in the idea because it might explain both the lack of social skills and savant abilities in one go. Both just the result of a different way of thinking.

I like it, because a “different way of thinking” is different from calling autism a disease.

Anyway, that led to the ‘weak central coherence theory’, which she explains thus:

Why is it called weak central coherence? It is a reference to the normally strong drive for meaning. With strong central coherence there is a pre-set preference towards perceiving wholes rather than parts. We perceive a drawing of an object and not a jumble of lines; we hear a sentence and not a jumble of words.

So autistic people don’t have an instinct for perceiving wholes. We are good at perceiving the trees, but not the forest.

With respect to the ‘jumble of words’, when I was a boy in school, the words of a teacher at the front of the room often sounded like gibberish – a ‘jumble of words’ that were meaningless to me. I would have to focus hard to get that to stop. Even in high school and university it sometimes happened, and throughout my forty year career investigating accidents and handling personal injury claims, it could happen when I was on the phone.

So I don’t disagree with this. But in my own case, although I always focused intently on detail, I was always looking for patterns too. I loved the trees, and I loved the forest.

Some would say that means I’m not autistic, but using any of the autism criteria (the DSMs, ICD-10, etc) I easily get double the score required to be autistic.

Here is the problem I see with the Weak Central Coherence theory.

Watching so-called normal people over the years, it seems to me that very few of them see the forest. In workplaces, among supervisors overseeing my work, and the managers above us lost in their own inexplicable mental machinations and political intrigues, I rarely encountered anyone trying to see the bigger picture.

It looks to me as if ‘weak central coherence’ has taken over this society, which may be one reason why we’re so poor at solving collective problems now –  declining incomes, decaying infrastructure, the all time high public and private debt, pollution, wars, global-warming, etc.

If weak central coherence is an autistic trait, then maybe humanity as a whole is becoming autistic.

There’s some food for thought.

3 thoughts on “Autism | Weak Central Coherence | Who can’t see the forest?

  1. It’s very rare for any humans to see the big picture. Life is normally focused on the small details, with little concern for bigger issues — until they come and slap you upside the head. Point being: that isn’t autistic, it’s human.


  2. There’s a desperate search to understand autism, and it leads to a lot of generalizations, which I think applies to Frith’s idea. And, like anyone else, researchers tend to hang on to a theory and push it for all it’s worth as the truth, or at least an important part of the truth. Isn’t that also losing sight of the forest? Add in that psychology is the least scientific of the sciences as far as reproducibility is concerned. Else why is there so little agreement, and why have so many seemingly explanatory theories been wipe out? Think about Baron-Cohen’s male brain theory. It’s been some time since I’ve even seen it mentioned as a serious aspect of autism. Not a week goes by without another report on some new discovery about the possible cause of autism. It really boils down to that old bogey: when you’ve seen one autistic person, you’ve seen one autistic person.


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