If you have autism, people have probably told you that you “don’t see the big picture.” Or that you “fixate on things.” I know I hear that all the time. Repetition is comforting to me. And like most people with autism, I have a lot of problems relating to people. “Restricted and repetitive patterns” and “deficits in social-emotional reciprocity” are both diagnostic criteria. But it’s not really obvious (to me anyway) why those two things come together.
Enter the weak central coherence theory. It says our main deficit is that we’re great at picking out details, but we have a lot of trouble figuring out how they fit into the big picture. It also implies that we have problems filtering information because we don’t always know which details are relevant and which aren’t.
That makes a lot of sense. Every autistic person I know notices some things and not others. And there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to what we see and what we don’t. My friend tells me I sometimes come up with this “weird Gwen wisdom” that surprises her. She thinks I don’t know when I’m being insightful. And she’s right. It seems like a lot of autistic people know things instinctively, but we can’t access that knowledge consciously enough to articulate it on a regular basis.
She also says I post a lot of off-tone stuff on Facebook. She’s right about that too. I’ve seen my autistic friends do the same thing. It’s a good tell.
Autistic people connect details intellectually to figure out what something means. We come up with some interesting ideas for sure, but we can’t always organize them in a way that makes sense to other people. That’s why we come off as strange and even schizophrenic sometimes. It took me three hours to write this post because I spent so long trying to figure out which details were important and how to tie them into a readable narrative.
The weak central coherence theory could also explain why some of us function better than others. People on the high-functioning end of the spectrum can learn to filter out things that don’t matter, like background noise. The kids lying on the supermarket floor screaming don’t have that capacity. Asperger’s eggheads naturally don’t want to see the connection between our obtuseness and another person’s decidedly less dignified symptoms. But it’s there.
Some scientific support for weak central coherence: autistic people have better connections within brain regions than between them. That’s probably why we develop special interests. (“Restricted” sounds reductive.) Becoming specialists not only means we can make good use of those dense connections, but that we don’t have to switch our attention that much either.
The evidence even comes out on brain scans. Studies show that autistic adults’ brains each have vastly different wiring when compared to neurotypical brains. We do develop the ability to see connections between things, but we each take a different route to get there.
It will never be natural for us though. We think so much differently. When we talk, especially about social things, it’s obvious from our tone that this is something we’ve learned. We’re wielding this information. We are proud that we know this and we have every right to be. But we’ll always have to work things out consciously, while neurotypicals don’t even have to try. Social skills are all about instinct and immediacy. We can learn how to use them when we have to. But it’s exhausting.
On the plus side, we do tend to be more logical. We see patterns everywhere. It’s the only mode of thinking that makes sense to us. And we have a harder time lying to ourselves like many other people do because of it. So whenever you’re beating yourself up about being that weird smart person, just remember that the worst thing about having autism can also become the best.
*Picture from Autism Speaks.