Theories of autism: Weak central coherence

Okay; this is my third post about a specific cognitive theory of autism, a theory that attempts to explain the outward signs of autism as the results of something different about the autistic person’s brain or mind.

The weak central coherence theory was first advanced by German-born psychologist Uta Frith of University College London in the late 1980s.  She describes weak central coherence as “an information processing style” that tends to process “details at the expense of global meaning.”  Put another way, autistic people are very good at noticing details, but we struggle with seeing the “big picture”– we might see every tree but miss the forest.

Incidentally, here’s a link to a presentation by Frith on various Cognitive Theories of Autism.  It’s been one of my most helpful sources for this series of posts.

The funny thing is that, while the name of this theory of autism refers to a weakness, the most clear evidence of it is seen in a person’s strengths at tasks that depend on being detail oriented.

Frith’s video gives several examples of visual tests that seem to indicate that this focus on details is an area of strength in people with autism and Asperger’s.

One comment I have is that I think these traits can be true of anyone who is detail oriented, whether they are autistic or not.  Frith says that many of these things are true of the relatives of a person with autism, even if they don’t have autism themselves.  This is certainly the case in my family– we are all pretty detail oriented!  In that sense, this theory may cast too broad a net (whereas others I find too narrow), but I think Frith is definitely still on to something.

1.  The Block Design testblocktest

This is a puzzle that is used as just one part of an IQ test called the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale.  You have a red and white pattern printed on a piece of paper and nine cubes that are half red and half white, divided diagonally.  The object is to arrange the nine cubes in a square so that the pattern visible on top matches the pattern on the page.

Well, it turns out that on average, people who are on the autism spectrum are able to complete this task faster than people who aren’t.

I find this sort of puzzle easy and fun, myself.  I haven’t read Frith’s paper about this, so what follows is just an uneducated guess, but I would suspect that people who focus mostly on the “big picture” would have more trouble with this puzzle for a couple of reasons:

  • The picture on the paper doesn’t have any lines separating the pattern into nine squares.  As a result, your eyes might be distracted by the diagonal lines in the overall pattern (How do I make those wavy “arrow” patterns?) and have trouble seeing where to make the divisions.Since I know that I’m looking for nine squares, I have no trouble mentally “drawing” those lines onto the pattern on the paper.  Then it’s simple to see that all nine parts are the same thing– a square that’s half white and half red, divided diagonally.  The only difference is in the orientation.
  • Another distraction is the fact that the blocks are 3-dimensional objects with 6 sides, but you only need to be concerned with the side facing up.  If you aren’t able to focus on just one side of each cube, you can spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to turn them so that the right side is facing up.  The truth is that all you need to do (at least for the example in the picture) is turn every block so that it is half red and half white on top.  After that, you don’t need to pick up any of the blocks again; you can just turn them in place until you have all the pieces you need. It’s kind of like one of those story problems with extra information just to throw you off.

2.  Locating embedded figures

This is another puzzle that people on the autistic spectrum typically do well at.  The task is to find a simple image or shape that is embedded somewhere in a picture or a jumble of lines that is designed to distract you:


Do you see where the box is in the image on the right?  I don’t have trouble finding it, because there’s only one square in that image, and the rest I can figure out from there.  Here’s another one:



In this case, it took me about 2 seconds to find the clover and about 3 more seconds to realize that it’s rotated 90 degrees clockwise from the original image.

Anyway, these sorts of puzzles can be fun– there are puzzle books full of them.

3.  Copying impossible objectsimpossible-objects

Apparently, people on the autistic spectrum have an easier time re-drawing an impossible object like the one at right from an example than non-autistics do, on average.

Maybe this is because a focus on details makes the apparent “3D-ness” of the image (which is what makes it appear “impossible”) less distracting?

4. Resisting optical illusions

A note in Frith’s video says there is some controversy about this, but apparently there is some thought that autistic people have an easier time resisting optical illusions like the one below, in which the two orange circles are identical, but their contexts make one look larger than the other:


I find that I can switch between seeing the orange circle on the left as smaller than the one on the right, and seeing the two circles as the same size.  I depends on what information I focus on.  I have no idea if this differs from the way it works for other people, as illusions are a very subjective thing.

5.  Picking out the item that breaks a pattern

This example is from Frith’s presentation.  I’m afraid the only image I have of it is small and blurry:


Can you tell which object in each picture doesn’t fit the pattern?  The one on the left is easier, because the object is defined by a single trait, its color.  In the picture on the right, the different object is defined by a combination of two traits– it’s a green cube, whereas all of the other objects are red cubes or green circles.

Other things that may be connected to weak central coherence:

I think that all of the examples above were cases of what Frith calls “superior perceptual discrimination,” which is just one of many effects of being focused on details rather than the “big picture.”  (But all of those puzzles were fun, so I wanted to include them!)

What are some others?

  • Rote memory: Some autistic people are extremely gifted at remembering huge amounts of information, such as the first 5,000 digits of pi or (in an example that Frith includes) all the buildings in the skyline of Tokyo, which a man is able to draw from memory!At the same time, difficulty with the “big picture” can make it harder to read for meaning than for memory in a passage of text.  Frith points out that usually it is possible to do both; it is only when demand on the brain becomes great that a person tends to default to whichever they are stronger at.
  • Learning by storing specific examples:  I think this means that I am more likely to learn about a subject by recording specific examples exactly as they are in my head.  (This might take the form of… oh, I don’t know… a list?)  If someone asks me to talk about why I love Rich Mullins’s music, I will probably tell them about my favorite song, “Everyman.”  Then I might tell them about “Calling Out Your Name.”  Then “Growing Young.”  Then “Hard To Get.”  And so on….A person who is good at seeing the “big picture” would be more likely to learn by forming a “prototype,” an imaginary guide or sketch that might not perfectly match any specific example, but gives them a place to get started.  Perhaps they would be more likely to talk about the influences of Native American heritage or an Appalachian background on Rich’s music.  They might be able to paint a picture of what his music was about. Now, I can do that too, but it’s because I have listened to all 99 of the songs that Rich Mullins has released.  (You might arrive at a different number depending on what you count.)  And I do it by returning to my mental library of examples and examining them carefully to pick out the themes, so it’s not a quick process.  A Rich Mullins fan who is gifted at seeing the “big picture” might be able to start by describing Rich’s music in general even if they haven’t heard a lot of his songs– and it might take them longer to come up with specific examples of the themes they’ve identified.

    As Frith claims in her presentation, we’re talking about a whole different system of storing and retrieving knowledge.  And the neat thing is that both have strengths and weaknesses!  Sometimes a “prototype” can jump to the wrong conclusions.  If you forget that it’s not intended to be a perfect example, you can be misled.  There are a lot of little things like this that people don’t remember exactly right because they’re working from a prototype.   For instance, Sherlock Holmes never said “Elementary, my dear Watson” in Arthur Conan Doyle’s books, the line “Play it again, Sam” was not in Casablanca, and Captain Kirk never said “Beam me up Scotty” in any episode of the original Star Trek.

    The weakness of my detail-oriented focus is that it can take me a very long time before I feel confident in what I’m working with.  I don’t really feel like know a subject until I have every example neatly lined up in my mind.  That’s one reason why I love things like the NFL schedule– 32 teams, 16 games, 4 divisions, 2 conferences.  All orderly powers of 2!

    But that’s a standard of perfection that’s not achievable in a lot of fields of information.  For example, if I’m given the task of grading a stack of papers, the course instructor may start me out by showing me how he’d grade one:  “This student didn’t address point 2 of the assignment, so take off 10 percent,” and so on.  But no matter how complete their instructions are, invariably there will be something on the first paper I grade that wasn’t an issue on the example.  What if the student gave lip-service to addressing point 2, but it’s clear they didn’t understand it?  What if they did address it, but they mostly did so in the section where they were supposed to address point 3?  How lenient should I be?  And so on…  I’ll get better at doing it myself eventually after seeing enough examples, but that requires a patient instructor– and I know that some bosses don’t like being pestered with questions!  So while I might be really good at a meticulous task like editing or grading, I’m not very good at being confident that I’m doing it right.

  • Insistence on the sameness of details: If you notice details right away, it can really bug you if some little thing is out of place.  This can be really good if your job is to find and fix the thing that is out of place.  It can be not so good if your job is to ignore the thing that is out of place so you can get your work done.
  • Perfect pitch: Apparently about 30% of the people diagnosed with autism have perfect pitch, the ability to identify the key of a tone the instant they hear it.  That’s a much higher percentage than exists among the general population, even accounting for musicians who train their sense of pitch carefully.This most definitely does not apply to me, by the way.  I play my guitar in whatever tune it happens to be in at the moment.  I do seem to be able to pick out the chords of a song after I’ve heard it once, but I always end up transposing it into whatever key is easiest to play!
  • Savant skills: These are the skills that some autistic people become famous for, like the examples I gave above of extraordinary rote memory skills.  I don’t really know much of what to say about this, since I don’t fall into the category of a savant, and neither do most people on the autistic spectrum.  Most of these things are just personality traits that make some skills easier and others more difficult.

I can give one example of an area in which I’ve recently realized I have an easier time in than many, though I don’t know if it’s related to this theory of autism.  That area would be spelling.  If I see a word that is spelled differently from the way I am used to seeing it, whether I wrote the word or someone else did, I usually get a sense that something is “off” about it.  The “shape” of the word feels wrong if the wrong letter is doubled, for example.  Cinncinati looks strange to me, as does Cincinatti.  Both of those words feel faintly uncomfortable to me, because I’m used to seeing and typing Cincinnati.

I always thought I was pretty good at spelling, but it never occurred to me that others might not have this sense that a word is somehow “wrong.”  For them, spelling would be a more grueling ordeal of rote memorization.  “It’s the second N that’s doubled, not the first N or the T.  And there’s not really an obvious reason why.”

Based on what others say, I really don’t think they are spelling words wrong just to annoy me.  It’s just not an area of strength.  A person could type Cinncinati and not have a sense that it “looks wrong.”  It’s a tedious matter of memorization for them, and really, why is it important when their meaning is still plain to anyone?

I can identify with that feeling, because I’m that way with faces and names.  I try to remember who people are, but my brain just has a hard time matching names with faces.  If someone seems to know me but I don’t remember their face, I play along, hoping they don’t realize it.  It’s pretty embarrassing that this happens with people I’ve known for years, but it does!

Anyway, it’s about time I wrapped this long post up.

I recently saw an amusing discussion online about things like this “weak central coherence” theory.  The name does seem to be a case of focusing on the negative, since this is really a case of a difference that brings strengths as well as weaknesses– like any human personality type, really.  Is it really a “weakness” to be less susceptible to an illusion or to be more capable of noticing details?  There are other cases of using rather negative descriptions of things that could be seen as positive– for instance, the autistic trait of adhering to proper grammar instead of using slang is sometimes described as “speaking in an inappropriate social register.”

A wry autistic poster commented that “if we were to walk on water, doctors would say that we cannot swim”!  😀

I think that this is a case of God making us each different as individuals– and that’s something that he sees as “good,” not as a problem!


  1. 1) “Schizophrenics resisting optical illusions” – and here

    The second article talks about “bottom-up processing and top-down processing.” I think bottom up processing = seeing the trees and top-down processing = seeing the forest.

    Christopher Badcock has written about autisms similarities and differences with schizophrenia before. He describes a scale with autism at one end and schizophrenia at the other. Normal is in the middle.

    VPA is a medicine for schizophrenia. So I guess VPA is supposed to move the schizophrenic down the scale back towards the autistic end, but not going that far, instead just moving to the normal centre. A fetus affected by a mother taking VPA will resemble an autistic. I guess the fetus got pushed too far down the scale.

    Perhaps there are medicines that can move people along the scale in the other direction. If there was a medicine that made normal people schizophrenic, might it make autistic people normal?

    2) I have been reading a few Aspergers forums. There have been a few cases lately of people breaking the law, and part of the defence case is that the person concerned has Aspergers. In the Aspergers forums there is some disquiet about this – although one can see how Aspergers could lead to making mistakes and breaking laws, people are also uncomfortable with using Aspergers as a get out of jail free card, and especially uncomfortable with the idea that some people might be faking Aspergers, just as previously criminals have faked mental illness to avoid prison.

    I think a criminal would find it easy to fake the body language and deficits of someone with Aspergers, but they would not find it so easy to fake the strengths of an Aspie. So anyone who wishes to use their Aspergers in their defence should be challenged to pass a block design test! (Or some such other test where Aspies do better, we’re not all great at block design.)

    On the subject of Aspergers as an excuse, and why it is both right and wrong –

  2. Hi,
    I want to use the clover diagram in a presentation, but cannot see a reference or where to contact the author of the page.
    With regards to copyright, is anyone aware of how I can access this with permission?

    • Hmm; I’m afraid I’m not sure. It’s been a while since I wrote this post, and I don’t remember where I found that specific image. (I just tried to find it again with Google Image Search, but that came up empty.)

      I know that there are “find the hidden shape/picture” puzzle books that have lots of puzzles like that in them, though. You could look for one of those to use as an example. Overall, your main source would be the Uta Frith presentation that this post links to.

  3. Great post – I like your analysis and description of your own experiences. My son seems to have very similar experiences, though he cannot express them as wellas you can (he has classic autism).

    In my opinion, the theory of weak coherence (with all these fascinating examples), while being useful in stimulating research, seems to be stretched too far in the attempts to cover as many aspects of autism as possible. Some specialists are unaware of the pitfalls of the theory and alternative explanations (I don’t mean Theory of Mind or executive dysfunction here)) and in their work focus on such notions as ‘thinking in detail’, or the ‘fragmented world’ of autism, leaving other aspects (e.g. Gestalt perception) outside the scope of their interest (i.e. they themselves ‘do not see the wood for the trees’) While ‘fragmentation’ is real, it is not present at all the stages of perception and functioning. Ozonoff et al. (1994) hypothesize that autistic individuals do indeed focus on details at the expense of seeing the big picture, but do this at a conceptual, rather than perceptual, level (adapted from Bogdashina 2005). I think, to apply weak central coherence to all aspect of autism seems an unnecessary simplification.

    • Can I share my thought about ‘savant skills’?
      Savant syndrome is thought to be a rare condition in which persons with serious problems/disabilities have some ‘islands of genius’ which stand in a mark contrast to things they cannot do. Only 10% of people with autism are said to have savant skills (such as, e.g., musical or artistic ability). However, I’d say(because of their different perception and cognitive functioning) ALL autistic individuals have skills that non-autistics are not aware about (because they are ‘invisible’ or they just cannot imagine they exist because these skills are ‘useless’ in NT world), e.g,, the ability to appreciate colours, sounds, etc. much better than non-autistic people, the capacity to memorize the ‘whole picture’ (often without interpretation), spelling (you mentioned it), etc. – these are things an ‘average’ person is very ‘weak’ at, while even non-verbal autistic child can do easily. We just cannot see it, but it doesn’t mean these skills and abilities do not exist.

      • Thank you for your thoughtful comments, T.O. I think you make a very good point. How can someone know that they have an unusual ability if they don’t know how or where it could be useful?

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