How autism affects seeing the ‘big picture’, Difficulties with Central Coherence

Individuals with autism may have difficulty seeing the ‘bigger picture’.   Frith (1989) suggested that the theory of weak central coherence may help explain some aspects of this within autism i.e. how children and young people with autism process information.

As highlighted by (Happe´ and Frith 2006) an inability to see the bigger picture refers to the detail-focused processing style proposed to characterise autism.

For example, when someone is interacting with the environment, or recalling information, most people will be able to recall the gist of something e.g. a story or a conversation.  Children and young people autism may sometimes become fixated or overly focused on details.  This can often impact on their understanding of the actual meaning or appreciation of the nature of a situation or context.

When this happens children and young people can often get lost in the minute details, rather than pulling together different sources of information and seeing the whole situation.

For example, when someone who can see the bigger picture looks at an endless length of trees, that person would see ‘the forest’. But a child or young person with autism who can’t see the bigger picture would only see lots of individual trees or may focus in on the soil that the trees are planted.

Difficulty in this area can affect a child’s learning and development – for example, after reading a story, the child might remember the small details but forget what the overall meaning of a story.

The ability, however, to focus on detail can also be a strength which can support the child or young person’s development and learning. For additional information on the strengths and skills of student with autism please click here.