Understanding autism
Understanding autism

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Understanding autism

2.2 Attention to detail

As you saw in Week 2, people on the autism spectrum often have a very good eye for detail, coupled with difficulty in ‘seeing the wood for the trees’, that is, in grasping the most salient aspects of a concept or idea. This thinking style is sometimes known as weak central coherence. Attention to visual detail has been studied with the embedded figures test, where the task is to find a simple shape such as a triangle, embedded in a larger figure. Some people on the autism spectrum find the embedded shape more easily and quickly than neurotypical people, suggesting that they are focusing on the details, not on the overall shape and identity of the figure (Happé and Booth, 2008).

A simple line drawing of a pram, with many geometric shapes and lines drawn over it.
Figure 4 Example of the embedded figures test. Can you pick out a shape within the pram figure that exactly matches the separate triangle?

This kind of visual eye for detail could be very useful in jobs such as quality control on a production line, where picking up subtle flaws in a product is crucial. Conversely, an autistic person may find it hard to work out what a whole object is from drawings of parts, or be unable to arrange apparently random sentences into a coherent story. This could, for instance, put a student at a disadvantage when trying to assemble information for an essay.

Weak central coherence could help to explain the narrow, specific focus of special interests and adherence to familiar routines in people with autism. Although changes to routines may seem minor and unimportant to a neurotypical person, for an autistic person, the feeling that everything is not exactly how they expect it and prefer it to be may provoke extreme anxiety.

Watch these video clips in which two autistic people describe their perfectionist tendencies.

Download this video clip.Video player: boc_aut_1_video_week4_surrey_autism_board_2.mp4
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I'm constantly going out and looking and assessing things I need to do. I put a lot of pressure on myself, because I'm never happy cause there's always something to do. But most people are happy where they work. But they never switch off from that. And that's why I was out this morning, because I was annoyed a bed that wasn't weeded So I had to do it. And it's never ending gardening any way.
But yeah. I always go back and assess what I've done I'm very particular. Right now I'm just getting me hair cut. I'm as fussy as anything, getting me hair cut. It's got to be spot on. You know, everything's got to be spot on.
I'm like, I'm obsessed with-- everything's got to be immaculate and it its place.
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Download this video clip.Video player: aut_1_wk04_andre.mp4
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I feel like some of the positive sides can be my motivation and my commitment. I can be very enthused. I can keep going back and doing things. In some cases, where other people may stop or get sick of it, I can have an extreme level of repetition that may enable me to get through or just to do certain tasks to a high level.
You know, maybe it's like I'm a bit of a perfectionist. You know, I like to sort of try and do things to a high quality, which is a double-edged sword. I mean, not all of the time. It can be good.
But in other cases, I'm just taking things too far, you know, there's no need for it. Or maybe it's just outside of my ability. It's hard for me to accept that there are things I can't do to a higher standard. That's what gets me, because I'm always trying to do it all, trying to do too much at times.
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Attention to detail by autistic people does not invariably show up in experimental tests. However, the theory does resonate with what a lot of autistic people experience, and also seeks to address strengths as well as challenges in the autistic thinking style. Next we will consider one more recent theory which aims to integrate some features of the approaches discussed so far.


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