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.