Autism as Context Blindness – by Peter Vermeulen

What is a nice birthday present for a good friend? What do you do when the bell rings? What do you put in your suitcase when you go travelling? How do you react when you see tears on a person’s face?

  • Autism finds issues with ambiguity and uncertainty,
  • Context can help answer apparently simple, yet surprisingly complex questions,
  • Context blindness can be an asset or an issue, so
  • Autism friendliness can help to alleviate communication issues.

No doubt you can answer each of these questions. But what if you were asked to give the one and only correct answer? You would probably reply: “It all depends…”. A nice birthday present for one of your friends could be quite inappropriate for another. The bell may be a signal to remove the cake from the oven, go to your next class, or exit a building because of fire. What you pack in your suitcase depends on the destination and length of your journey. And reacting to tears of happiness is quite different from reacting to tears that are the result of making onion soup. A “correct” answer for all of these questions depends on the situation, and another word for situation is context.

There are no absolutes in our world. Nothing has an absolute meaning. Not even simple stimuli that we think of as being quite straightforward and unambiguous in their meaning, such as a red traffic light for pedestrians. That only means ‘stop’ or ‘wait’, doesn’t it? Well, not always! It depends on the context. In the context where you have not started to cross the street, it indeed means ‘stop’. But, in the context where you are halfway over the crossing, a red traffic light actually means the complete opposite: ‘don’t stop! Hurry up!’ What is true for a red traffic light, is true for all stimuli in the world: their actual meaning depends on the context. Therefore, the human brain, through its evolution, has learned to make sense of all the input to the senses by taking context into account.

In the last two decades, research in a variety of disciplines, from philosophy to psychology to computer science, has revealed surprising and remarkable facts about the role of context in several aspects of human functioning. We now appreciate that a good sense of context contributes significantly to our adaptability and survival skills. Furthermore, contextual sensitivity plays out in different arenas, from sensory issues to language/communication, to social skills. When we see someone raise his hand, it could mean the person wants to say something, is waving goodbye, or wants to stop a taxi. To cope with these ever-changing meanings, the human brain developed a remarkable ability – contextual sensitivity, to unravel the inherent ambiguity of stimuli and respond appropriately to it.

Autism as Context Blindness

Research into the role of context in human information processing has revealed that contextual sensitivity is crucial in exactly those areas known to be affected in autism: social interaction, communication, responses to sensory environment and flexibility in thoughts and behaviour. This has led to the hypothesis of context blindness as the common pathway in the so-called ‘deficits’ in autism. Interestingly, at the same time, lack of contextual sensitivity can account for many of the cognitive assets in autism, such as the ability to think very logically without being disturbed by contextual elements, such as emotions.

Context blindness refers to a reduced spontaneous use of context when giving meaning to a stimulus. To put it more simply: the autistic brain thinks in an absolute way, rather than a relative, contextually defined way. Remember the scene in the movie, Rainman where Raymond is trying to cross a street? In Raymond’s mind, when the sign displays “Don’t walk” (similar to a red light in Europe) it means only one thing: “Don’t walk.” We laugh when the sign changes from “Walk” to “Don’t walk” and Raymond stops in the middle of the intersection, but to a context-blind brain this is what the stimulus tells him to do.

Another example: When the doorbell rang, the mother of a seven-year-old boy with autism asked him to open the door. He opened the back door instead of the front door. His reaction was logical, but his choice of door was out of context.

The consequences of Context Blindness

The lack of contextual sensitivity can explain the many behavioural characteristics of autism. Take emotion recognition for an example. Recognizing emotions in other people is very difficult for people with autism, not because they lack empathy or because they are insensitive to the feelings of other people, but because there is no direct link between facial expressions and emotions. Facial expressions are inherently ambiguous (a tear could mean sadness, happiness, a cold, or even onion soup…) and therefore very confusing for an autistic brain.

Communication, another area of challenges for people with autism, requires also a huge amount of contextual sensitivity. Every word in the dictionary has many different meanings. So, if you read the word ‘bank’ it could, depending on the context, refer to a financial organisation, a building where financial transactions are being done or the bank of a river. Sensory stimuli are equally contextually experienced: it is the contextual sensitivity in our brain that sets the filter: sounds you hear in a certain context will go unnoticed in another context. But if your brain has difficulties grasping and using context, stimuli are being processed in an absolute way (on-off), resulting in hyper- and hypo-reactivity, well known issues in autism. And, if your brain is thinking in absolutes rather than contextually defined relatives, it will also struggle with all the (unpredictable) changes in the world.

Actually, for an absolute brain like the autistic brain, the world is very confusing, frustrating and threatening. What a confusing world, where a red traffic light sometimes means ‘stop’ and sometimes ‘don’t stop’, where a facial expression could mean a zillion different things, where sometimes there is dessert after lunch and sometimes there isn’t. Trying to create some predictability in this highly-volatile world, through routines and stereotyped behaviours, is a very human reaction. Autistic behaviours are actually nothing more than normal, human responses to a world full of ambiguity and uncertainty.

Autism friendliness: 90% clarity and predictability and 10% normal friendliness

Once we understand how the context blindness in autism leads to uncertainty, confusion, stress and anxiety, it becomes obvious that the biggest need of people with autism is not all kind of well-meant programs for changing their behaviour (e.g. social skills training, emotion recognition training). What people with autism want is that we create a world for them that is less uncertain, less confusing and less ambiguous. Clarifying the world through concrete communication and offering predictability are therefore the cornerstone of autism friendliness.

We need to help an autistic brain find the meanings it cannot find itself, because of its blindness for context. I like to name this ‘pushing the context button’. So, for example, when you know there won’t be time enough for dessert at lunch time, you can already point out that ‘we are in a hurry’ and that there will be no dessert, but that there might be a little sweet bite later, in the afternoon break. This will help the child with autism to become as flexible as another, non-autistic child, who will already – based on all kind of contextual cues –  have figured out that there is no time for dessert.

The moment we clarify context for people with autism, they become as flexible, communicative and “social competent” as non-autistic people.

Peter Vermeulen, PhDPeter Vermeulen, PhD has more than 30 years of experience in the field of ASD. Currently he is a senior lecturer and consultant at Autisme Centraal, a training center in Ghent (Belgium). He has written 15 books on autism, some of which have been translated into several languages.