The autistic spectrum: From theory to practice
The autistic spectrum: From theory to practice

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The autistic spectrum: From theory to practice

4.5 Central coherence and cognitive style

Despite variations in ToM performance between sub-groups, the approach as a whole provides a compelling explanation for problems in the areas of social interaction and communication. However, it offers no obvious explanation for symptoms in the third ‘triad’ area, such as impoverished imagination, restricted interests and repetitive behaviour. Frith (1989) and Happé (1999) have proposed that these behaviours reflect a different kind of atypical functioning: a distinctive cognitive style , characterised by difficulty in ‘global processing’, that is, in coordinating aspects of reality to form ‘coherent’ wholes. Global processing is a strategy we use for selecting, perceiving and remembering the meaningful and relevant elements from disorganised masses of information. The cognitive style in autism relies, instead, on good visual and rote memory to process the details of the information rather than the overall gist or meaning.

This approach challenges an image of autism as a disorder characterised exclusively by impairments, and draws attention to skills that have beneficial features. For instance, tolerance of repetition and sameness, and the capacity for accuracy have potential uses in therapy and education (see Section 6 ). Obsessive attention to detail may foster special talents. The work of Stephen Wiltshire ( Figure 3 ), for instance, displays a grasp of precision and detail way beyond the scope of most artists. Pring and Hermelin (1997) have studied the development of Stephen's gift, and argue that his capacity to ‘filter out’ global impressions of his surroundings fosters his talent for producing perfect perspective drawings from memory.

In light of such contemporary insights, the cognitive style of Luria's mnemonist with his ‘savant'memory, coupled with his literal approach to information and his social eccentricity, is strikingly similar to that of a person with ASD.

Frith and Happé's central coherence model can be seen as co-existing rather than conflicting with the ToM approach, since it uses different concepts and explains different symptoms. However Baron-Cohen et al . (2002) propose that ToM deficits and idiosyncratic information processing are essentially complementary aspects of a broader socio-cognitive style, characterised by poor social and emotional understanding, coupled with efficient skills in certain ‘non-social’ domains.


Cognitive style : A set of cognitive or information processing strategies which characterise how an individual approaches the world.


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