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 won’t see 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 that because a “different way of thinking” is different from calling autism a disease or disorder.

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

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, supposedly, 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 talking at the front of the room often turned into gibberish that I couldn’t understand. I would have to focus hard to get that to stop. Even in high school and university it sometimes happened, and during my forty year career investigating accidents and handling personal injury claims, it occasionally happened on the phone.

So I don’t disagree with this. But in my own case, although I have always focused intently on detail – it was my chief skill in doing investigations – 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. In elementary school, at recess outside when everyone was playing, I was always alone, year after year.

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

Watching so-called normal people over the years, it seemed to me that very few of them saw the forest. In workplaces, among my fellow workers, supervisors and managers, everyone seemed to be lost in relationships with each other, quarrels, love affairs,  political intrigues and the pursuit of personal advancement.  I rarely encountered anyone trying to see the bigger picture.

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

If weak central coherence is an autistic trait, then humanity as a whole must be turning autistic.

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

  1. A most interesting article, Alan. I shall reflect on this. I have my own thoughts about humanities selfishness as a collective and I don’t think they can get off the hook by saying they are autistic. My son is Asperger and is incredibly bright. He isn’t good in social situations by he is empathetic, much more so than average. I think selfishness and an obsession with the “I” are the reasons our society is failing.

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  2. On the Wikipedia page for Weak central coherence theory, towards the bottom, there is the following that might partially explain the problem you see in the theory:
    Recent studies suggest that people with autism are able to process globally when they are instructed to do so, however they process information locally when no such instructions are offered (Mottron et al., 1999; Plaisted et al., 1999; Rinehart et al., 2000
    Naja Melan claims that neurotypical people are often biased to overemphasize one context and neglecting all other contexts. This he states is an expression of WCC, as compared to autists who have the possibility of consciously focusing on multiple contexts if deemed appropriate by them or requested.

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  3. Hmm. I always thought the gibberish speech thing was due to my “superman hearing”; other (background) sounds blanking out certain segments of the words making them unintelligible. But perhaps it is not a case of either/or but rather either and possibly both, depending on the individual.
    I figured out for myself that I have the condition, after 50 years of dealing with the peculiarities. This came about as a result of noticing I had several (young) friends who had be formally diagnosed as Autistic. It didn’t change anything for me, but it sure explained a lot about life past.

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    1. I know what you mean re the background sound issue – that has been a big problem for me on the telephone, even now. The gibberish though – I think it was, for me, just that the words seemed to carry no meaning – as if my mind had reverted to age 1 – I like your last line – yes, recognizing autism didn’t change things for me either, but understanding the past is a kind of relief isn’t it?


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