the A Muse: Part 1 The Drive for Central Coherence
It is said (Frith and Happe, I think) that autistics lack the drive for central coherence - the ability to put facts and experience and feelings, plus a whole lot of non-verbal information together and come up with a ‘big picture’. In contrast, autistics are said to be in the words of one luminary, ‘tyrannised by detail’ – in other words they can’t see the forest for the trees.
Interestingly, this theory flies right in the face of all those autistics, Temple Grandin among them, who have this extraordinary ability to visualise entire systems and if that’s not the big picture then what is? There are differences in the kinds of ‘big picture’ here obviously. One refers to systems and the others, of the kind that Frith and Happe automatically assumed to be universal, have an essential social element. It should be reasonably clear from Simon Baron Cohen’s work, that those who are exceptionally good at systematising really cannot have a significant deficit in finding the big picture at least as far as systems go. Yet again, we have proposed universal deficits - be it central coherence or imagination or even empathy, which on deeper analysis turns out to be only evident in situations calling for social nous. This is the kind of thing that is often called a lack of common sense, which is somewhat more accurate than a lack of central coherence in that it at least acknowledges that the deficit really does lie in seeing things outside of the common way. Mesdames Frith and Happe seem to be lending some indirect support for Baron-Cohen’s theories. It would be interesting to speculate that these researchers and many like them would score exceptionally well as empathisers and less well as systematisers. And this would have implications regarding just how far such empathisers can really empathise with autistic spectrum folk, given their own social biases as it were. Those whose theories have unacknowledged assumptions of social primacy may have very little ‘theory of autistic people’.
Not only are these sorts of deficits only deficits by virtue of context or presupposition, there is no acknowledgement that this drive for central coherence is not always a good thing to have. The old saw goes that some people put two and two together and come up with five. I suspect that the drive for coherence or the urge to make sense of things can lead to an invention of what’s missing in a picture or a deliberate dismissal of seemingly non-concordant data in order to come up with a comprehensible, but by now erroneous, whole. The autistic meanwhile, hung up on all these details that don’t fit is never going to have that problem. They will have other problems to be sure, but not that one.
This drive might also make some people more suggestible. Witness the extraordinary success of the Nigerian scam for example. The conman come smooth operator need only hand someone a plausible framework combined with a suitable incentive such as increased wealth or increased attractiveness to the opposite sex. The mark can then be relied upon to do all the heavy work in making a rosy picture out of very little. Pesky details offering clues to a different scenario will have been pruned, not by the con artist but by his victim.
We all know charismatic people, most of them upright citizens and we marvel or envy their ready charm and the ease with which they seem to relate to such a broad range of individuals. Perhaps their talent lies in being able to read people well enough to present them with the framework most suitable for them to fill in the blanks and think, what a lovely person or what a great idea!
Actually charismatic operators even very upright ones could present problems for even relatively socially skilled ASDs because reliant on the details as they are, they aren’t going to accept just any old ‘fill in the dots’ picture and problems arise when the charismatic person does not get the predicted response of ‘oh what a lovely person’ or ‘good idea’! etc.
An asset or a deficit, presenting people with plausible frameworks seems to me to be one tool for getting round the social world that an autistic could make use of, once he or she gets a handle on how prone people are to fill in the blanks by invention so to speak. They might as well fill in the blanks your way rather than leaving this to blind chance or mere inclination. I am not suggesting that this framework be untrue to the person. Faking it never works for an autistic. But think how lovely it would be if people could be guided into thinking that you are amiable, helpful but shy and really prefer to be left alone and they do!