More about Central Coherence

One of the three so called ‘cognitive styles’ is Central Coherence (CC), e.g. combining single elements into a meaningful whole. Most people with Asd have (considerable) difficulty with this and experience the world as fragmented. They have a strong tendency to focus on details. If, when painting a wall, one would skip a quarter square inch, normal people (‘neurotypicals’) would rarely notice, while most autistic people would observe this immediately.

Autistic people with weak CC have to assemble ‘the bigger picture’ time and again, detail by detail. This has advantages too. Neurotypicals easily make mistakes when incorrectly jumping from a few known elements to a whole. That way they are more susceptible to optical illusions. A magician has more trouble fooling an autistic than a non-autistic person. Another advantage of weak CC is being able to concentrate on details. A fine example is the famous Dutch calligrapher Kees Momma. With his autism its easier for him to concentrate on the shape of separate letters than for someone who sees them automatically in the context of a word.
This has led a number of experts not to see weak central coherence as a deficit but rather as a quality. They don’t accentuate the trouble in seeing ‘the big picture’ but emphasize the ability to do justice to details.
The leading British autism-expert Simon Baron-Cohen, for instance speaks of ‘excellent attention to detail’.
Van Dalen who has written insightful about his own autism, calls weak CC ‘overselectivity’ and connects this phenomenon with other autistic traits and experiences.
The Belgian autism expert Peter Vermeulen calls weak CC ‘context blindness’ and stresses the inability to put perceptions in their context. Other misconceptions can arise when objects or situations aren’t recognized after only one element has changed.

For design Central coherence is probably the most important autistic characteristic, with the exception of sensory issues. People on the spectrum are easily disoriented, have trouble recognizing people, objects and situations, due to imperfect stimulus processing and flawed representations in the brain.

Temple Grandin gives important advise which can be taken as a call to everyone involved in designing for people with autism:
“Maintain a stable, ordered secure environment. The autistic child simply cannot function if there are too many daily changes….. The autistic child is unable to bring order to his world. You must provide that order in his environment.”


Baron-Cohen, Simon, Emma Ashwin, Chris Ashwin, Teresa Tavassoli and Bhismadev Chakrabarti, ‘Talent in autism: hyper-systemizing, hyper-attention to detail and sensory hypersensitivity’, In: Philosophical Transactions of Royal Society. Biological Sciences (2009) (July), 364, 1377–1383.
Vermeulen, Peter, Autisme als contextblindheid, Leuven/Gent, Acco/Autisme centraal, 2009 en ook Vermeulen, Peter, ‘Autisme als contextblindheid’, In: Wetenschappelijk Tijdschrift Autisme 3 (2007) (december) 92-104.