Weak Central Coherence Causes Shared Attention Deficit In Autism

A relationship between two features of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that were previously thought to be unrelated is detailed in new research by The University of Queensland.

The findings, from a study led by UQ School of Psychology researcher Dr Daniel Skorich, may provide a better understanding of the social functioning difficulties of people with autism.

Dr Skorich explains:

“Autism is a multi-faceted disorder characterised by distinct clusters of features. One of these clusters relates to the ability to share attention with others, and to focus attention on the objects or events on which someone else is focused. People with ASD show a decreased tendency to do this.

A second cluster is related to information processing, where people with ASD process information in a less integrated manner, referred to as ‘weak central coherence’. Our research suggests that weak central coherence actually causes the shared attention difficulties.

We found that the information processing needed for self-categorisation—the process of coming to see oneself as interchangeable with other members of groups to which we belong—is weaker the more autistic-like traits a person possesses, which in turn predicts the decreased tendency to share attention.

So it seems that the decreased tendency to see oneself as part of a group is at the heart of the differences people with ASD show in their social interactions with others.”

Weak Central Coherence

The weak central coherence theory (WCC) suggests that a specific perceptual-cognitive style, loosely described as a limited ability to understand context or to “see the big picture”, underlies the central disturbance in autism and related autism spectrum disorders. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, as well as repetitive behaviours and restricted interests.

The weak central coherence theory attempts to explain how some people diagnosed with autism can show remarkable ability in subjects like mathematics and engineering, yet have trouble with language skills and tend to live in an isolated social world. The theory is among the more prominent conceptual models that try to explain the abnormalities of autistic individuals on tasks involving local and global cognitive processes.

Uta Frith, of University College London, first advanced the weak central coherence theory in the late 1980s. Frith surmised that autistic people typically think about things in the smallest possible parts. Her hypothesis is that autistic children actually perceive details better than neurotypical people, but “cannot see the wood for the trees.”

Daniel P. Skorich et al
Exploring the Cognitive Foundations of the Shared Attention Mechanism: Evidence for a Relationship Between Self-Categorization and Shared Attention Across the Autism Spectrum,
Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (2017). DOI: 10.1007/s10803-017-3049-9

Image: University of Queensland