The Autism Files: Where’s Wally?

Do you like Where’s Wally books?

I personally hate them. If I can’t find him within seconds then I get frustrated and annoyed and usually end up slamming the book and chucking it down in a thoroughly bad mood.

A lot of people with autism view the world from a different perception from most other people. (Please note that although I am making generalised statements, I am also careful to say ‘most people’ or ‘a lot of people’ because of course there will be wide variations within people.) One of the areas in which many people with autism are different is their visual perception of details. Many people with autism have a very good eye for details. They may be able to find a dropped hair pin quickly. Or notice changes in a room’s decor or layout that are quite subtle.

Uta Frith (a developmental psychologist) talks about how many people with autism are exceptionally good at finding Wally quickly. She has put forward a theory termed ‘central coherence’ which refers to the ability to see the bigger picture. For a lot of people with autism, this is something that they find very difficult. Their attention to and focus on detail can result in not being able to ‘see the wood for the trees’. So while someone with autism might be able to find Wally really quickly, they might also struggle to give a wider perspective on what is happening across the whole picture. Likewise someone with weak central coherence might struggle to understand the gist of a story, a comic or a conversation because they can only focus on the individual details.

Apply this to the perception of the every day world and I think you’ve got a recipe for very anxious living. You might have read my earlier sentences about being able to find things quickly and thought that sounded like a good trait to have. And it would be. But imagine if you could never turn it off. If every single thing, situation and environment that you looked at was made up of each tiny detail. I think this would be exhausting and stressful. If you looked at someone’s hair and didn’t just see ‘hair’ but saw each individual strand. And if any of those strands were out of place or twisted and that bothered you, this could become highly distressing.

Someone once told me of a young man who simply could not walk into the living room of his own house after an armchair had been moved from one side of the room to the other. His central coherence was so weak that once the chair had moved, the room was no longer his own living room. He could not enter it because it was not the room he had expected it to be.

There are two faces to every coin, and two sides to every story. For people with autism there might be some benefits to being able to focus so intensely on details- this article suggests that people with autism are more skilled at using airport screening cameras for example. But there are also complex difficulties with not being able to read or understand generalised concepts and situations, and the immense stress that can come from having to focus in on every little detail of every single thing you see.

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2 thoughts on “The Autism Files: Where’s Wally?

  1. Pingback: The Boston Cookie Theft | The Aspie Antiquarian

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