Thursday, November 5, 2009

Asperger Syndrome and Central Coherence Theory

What is central coherence, and how can different drives for central coherence affect communication?

Allow me to share a vignette:

Shari and Kevin have just celebrated Thanksgiving.

Shari recounts her experience of the holiday in their couples counseling session. "I was exhausted," she states, "I had no time off from the kids or work to really prepare, had to clean and prepare the house and yard for company, shop, cook for 11 people, manage relationships with Kevin's family members and get this kids ready, ALL while keeping my cool. It was exhausting and miserable. I'm never hosting Thanksgiving again."

Kevin recounts his account of the same holiday. "It was quite lovely. We had turkey, homemade stuffing, homemade cranberry sauce, homemade pumpkin pie. I played chess with my brother and beat him four times, a personal record. I also made spiced cider that was delicious, and adjusted the recipe I normally use by adding peppercorns. It was a nice holiday. I'm looking forward to next year's celebration."

Q: Which person is telling the truth?
A: Both

Q: Which is more valid, her perspective or his?
A: Neither

Is it truly possible for two people to have such starkly differing views of an event and both be referring to the same Thanksgiving? A resounding YES! Welcome to the duplicitous world of life with an Aspie, where there are no right or wrong perspectives - only different perspectives.

Central Coherence Theory
People with ASD often have difficulties with central coherence. Central coherence can be described as getting the point, or gist, of things. It is the ability to pull information from different sources, experiences and schemas, both internal and external, to glean a higher meaning. Lacking central coherence can leave an individual vulnerable to misinterpreting of situations and communications.

In our vignette, Shari was able to describe her experience in a global fashion, pulling relevant internal and external details in, while leaving less relevant facts out. This was important to her ability to communicate and justify her sense of misery. She knew, "intuitively, what facts to include in her efforts to incite in the listener a sense of empathy for her - after all, who wouldn't be miserable after participating in the holiday she described?

Kevin, who lacks a sense of central coherence, was not just largely unable to include the details of his or her emotional experience of the holiday. For Kevin, these details were irrelevant to his message - what happened during the event, what was eaten, etc. He was unaware that Shari was having a miserable experience, and could not understand, given the factors he attended to during the event, why she was unhappy. "He can't see the forest for the trees" is a common criticism heard by Aspies regarding their ability to synthesize information to get the gist of a situation.

People without ASD often have a high need for central coherence in their efforts to understand situations. Aspies approach situations in a detail-oriented fashion, often through one channel at a time. The disparity between these two approaches to understanding and dealing with life can cause distress in relationships, leaving partners feeling they "speak different languages".

De-personalizing Disparate Neurology

While opposite approaches to collecting and synthesizing information can leave couples frustrated at times, it is crucial that both partners remember that Aspies who attend to data which do not include feelings often are not doing so due to indifference. Remembering that neurological differences are often the underlying causes of these differences can "de-personalize" what might otherwise feel hurtful. Communication skills such as active listening can help couples learn to listen to each other with their hearts - and the language of the heart is universal.


Anonymous said...

I am not sure about central coherence being absent in Aspies, because I work as an engineer and can always see the big picture....though many of my colleagues are caught in the web of details. Maybe they're the ones with Asperger's and I'm just eccentric....?

Anonymous said...

Good science to explain bad chit chat.

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Anonymous said...

This sounds like the classic ability of nts to turn christmas into an endless misery when if they simply had the ability to pace themselves & share (accepting that there can be more than one form of empathy) then they could make an event intended to be fun, just that

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michael crosby said...

so, i don`t understand. i lack central coherence, apparently. having a more balanced view of things, not letting it make me upset is bad ? i should have seen it shari`s way ?

you didn`t explain at all how kevin reacted to shari, neither did you explain what the appropriate thing was to do.

what i saw was that shari didn`t communicate appropriately to kevin what her needs were, kevin didn`t have the opportunity to see what her needs were, and so shari got frustrated. i don`t understand how shari not communicating her needs is supposed to make kevin not able to function appropriately.

as far as i know, this is something that we teach all people from childhood. to communicate appropriately what your needs are. and if you don`t, whether you`re nt or autist, you won`t get what you need.

i see nts do the very same thing as kevin. no one seems to be immune from having to learn to say "do you need something ? can i help you ?" and no one seems to be immune from taking on more than they can handle and not asking for help.

Nat said...

I think I understand what is meant by "central coherence" here, though the example was not at all helpful to this as the major difference in the accounts was the expression of emotion, and both parties supplied details in their accounts which supported how they said they felt. Kevin's list of enjoyable highlight's do seem (at least to me) to be coherent, and I imagine that they would be so to a non-ASD person as well.

The concept did come across from the paragraph under the subheading; and this kind of mirrored something I have been accused of from time to time. By it is also contrasted by the view expressed by the first comment here: my own experience leads me to believe that do not lack "coherence" and can often see the big picture to an extent that rivals or even surpasses others.
NB: I say "accused of" because in my experience it has come down to communication, or different 'alien' understanding, rather than a lack of understanding on my part. It can be a lot of work reorganising one's thoughts for others though and I do find my ability to communicate in a way that will seem coherent can be compromised in situations of extreme stress (in such case it tends towards dump of the data).

Also, and I'm not sure if this observation is relevant: to me, Kevin's account sounds like the socially lubricating, "fine thanks, how are you?" response that doesn't show deep insight that non-ASD people are always looking for...

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Anonymous said...

I've been diagnosed with PDD-NOS, similar to Aspergers... and I'm a woman. To me, this he said/she said didn't reflect to me an Aspergers personality vs. a neurotypical, since I related more to the woman and feeling overwhelmed (common with Aspergers). I found this a very typical men have a good time, sit down and think everything's wonderful and woman are exhausted doing all the work, while the guy seems oblivious... and this is coming from an Aspie!

Oemlike said...

Agree with PDD NOS anonymous that this seems more like differing expectations for men and women around a holiday. I'm self diagnosed and know many NT men who will be just as oblivious as Kevin.