What is Central Coherence and What Does it Have to Do With Autism?
Updated: Nov 7
By Patty Laushman
Do you ever feel like your thoughts are just spinning around in circles and getting nowhere? If so, don't worry -- it's not just you; many people have a hard time making sense of the world.
But for some, this confusion may be more than an occasional feeling. They may struggle to even make sense out of ideas or situations that others interpret easily. This could be related to something called central coherence.
In this blog post, we'll take a closer look at what central coherence is and how it can affect neurodivergent people.
What is Central Coherence?
Central coherence is a concept that describes the ability to derive meaning from a mass of details. Someone with strong central coherence looking at a forest will see the trees but recognize they make up a bigger concept -- a forest. People with weak central coherence see the trees and stay focused on the trees, not really generalizing them into the bigger concept of a forest. The thing is, though, having a have weak central coherence also produces some unusual superpowers!
People’s ability in this area exists along a spectrum, with some people being able to easily create meaning from a bunch of details and see the “bigger picture,” or having strong central coherence. Others struggle to “see the forest through the trees” so to speak, and would be considered to have weak central coherence.
Weak central coherence is a perceptual-cognitive style that has been linked to autism. According to this theory, most (but not all!) autistic people struggle to generalize the details around them and combine them into a more meaningful narrative.
As one example, autistic people may focus on people's mouths when they speak which leaves them missing the other important details of facial expressions -- eyes, eyebrows, forehead, etc. These details combined create the bigger picture and clues to what the speaker is thinking or feeling, and this missing information results in the autistic person not being able to "read" facial expressions.
Interestingly, weak central coherence can be linked to both deficits and assets. For example, someone with weak central coherence may lack general understanding related to literature or social stories but have exceptionally strong skills in areas that require focused attention on details, such as math, science, engineering, technology, art, or music.
Thus, weak central coherence is an important part of understanding autism and how it affects individuals across all spectrums.
Taken to an extreme, having issues with central coherence may also create problems related to fixation on details, reading comprehension, overly literal thinking, and an inability to generalize information to other domains.
What Are the Signs of Strong Central Coherence?
People exhibiting strong central coherence are able to draw abstract conclusions from a text or conversation, categorizing information with ease, as well as being able to understand complex and abstract concepts.
They are also good at applying knowledge they have gained in one setting to other similar settings. This is an invaluable trait that helps individuals navigate quickly through different situations, better grasping the feelings and intentions of those around them.
Those who possess strong central coherence often adapt easily to new environments and quickly pick up on social cues that help guide their behavior in any situation.
What Are the Signs of Weak Central Coherence?
Those who experience weak central coherence can be identified by their preoccupation with the details of a situation, rather than seeing the larger picture.
They can tell stories that don't make sense to others because their stories contain so many details that it's hard for others to follow along if they are not familiar with where all the details are coming from.
They may excel in reading pieces of text yet be unable to summarize what they have just read.
They often struggle to generalize or categorize objects or information and are subject to working at a slower speed due to their challenges with understanding patterns quickly.
Tasks may take longer than they "should" because the person may get frequently distracted by some detail that popped up that is so much more interesting.
Boiled down, this experience is characterized as finding it hard to move away from focusing on tiny items to creating meaning from that information.
What Causes Weak Central Coherence?
Weak central coherence has several potential causes. In some cases, it may be caused by difficulty with sustained attention -- the ability to focus attention despite distractions or fatigue.
In other cases, issues with visual processing of information may be involved. Autistic people may struggle to make sense of visuals due to an inability to recognize patterns or differences in tone or color.
Finally, rigidity and restricted interests can also cause weak central coherence as autistic people may become fixated on specific tasks to the degree that they are unable to move on until the task is completed.
How To Mitigate and Even Improve Central Coherence
The ability to focus for extended periods on details is a huge strength in some domains, but if weak central coherence is holding you back in some way, and you are looking for ways to improve your central coherence or mitigate the effects, you've come to the right place.
To set expectations, this is challenging to do. Realistically, you shouldn't expect to become a completely different person, but there are definitely some things that you can do to improve your qualify of life if weak central coherence is a problem.
Let's take a look at some tips and tricks for strengthening your central coherence!
Practice Answering Questions You Ask Yourself While Consuming Information
Asking yourself questions about information you are consuming and then answering them is a great way to improve your central coherence. This helps you to better understand the information that you are trying to learn or process.
For example, if you are reading something, start by asking yourself simple questions periodically about the material like, "What did I just read?" or "What is the main point of this story?" This will help you to focus on the key pieces of information that need to be remembered.
Break Content Down Into Small Chunks
Breaking down content into smaller chunks makes it easier for us to process and understand it. For example, if you are reading an article about a particular topic, try breaking down each paragraph into manageable chunks of information and then focusing on one chunk at a time.
This will help you stay focused on the task at hand and ensure that all of the important points are remembered.
Use Visual Organizers
Visual organizers such as flow charts and diagrams and spreadsheets can be extremely helpful when it comes to improving central coherence. They allow us to make sense of complex information by breaking it down into smaller, categorized chunks and arranging it in visually appealing ways. Plus, they make it easier for us to remember what we have learned!
Give Yourself Visual Reminders and Routines
If you get so caught up in details that you forget what you are supposed to be doing, using visual reminders such as sticky notes or even alarms can help keep us focused and on task throughout the day.
Having routines also helps with not having to constantly remember what you are hoping to accomplish during that time. Having set times during which certain tasks must be completed allows us to focus more easily on those tasks rather than getting distracted by other things going on around us.
Incorporate Structure in as Much of Your Life as Possible
When trying to improve your central coherence, it’s important to incorporate structure into as much of your life as possible. Try making lists or creating schedules that break down large tasks into smaller chunks that are easier to manage.
If breaking down tasks is too difficult for you, ask someone with stronger skills for help. As an autism life coach, much of my work involves helping clients break down their goals (and their daily chores) into manageable lists of tasks.
Try setting aside specific times for certain activities each day and sticking to them. This will help train your brain to expect certain activities at certain times and prepare itself for those activities accordingly.
Finally, try putting away or turning off distractions such as phones or televisions during times when you need absolute focus on a task. This will prevent any unnecessary mental clutter from interfering with what needs to be done.
Reduce Visual Distractions
Minimizing visual distractions is also important when trying to accomplish a task or work toward a goal. You don't need those details distracting you! Try studying or working or doing household management tasks in a quiet location or during a quiet time without televisions on or people nearby. This will allow you to focus more closely on the material at hand without being pulled away by other stimuli around you.
Are There Any Benefits to Having Weak Central Coherence?
Weak central coherence is common in autism, but that doesn't mean that this type of thinking has only drawbacks. In fact, weak central coherence can lead to several distinct advantages in terms of problem-solving and information processing.
Autistic people often demonstrate more detail-oriented thinking and a greater ability to focus on certain tasks for extended periods of time when compared to those without ASD.
This capacity allows those with ASD the opportunity to bring their expertise to bear on complex problems and can even help them excel in areas where intricate details matter.
Individuals with weak central coherence tend to process information differently
than their peers. It is suggested by research that they do best when presented with visual rather than auditory stimuli.
So while it's natural to want to take steps to improve your central coherence, keep in mind that there are benefits to having a brain that works the way yours does, so look for ways it can be your superpower and own it!