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Context Blindness

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"Understanding autism as context blindness is the cornerstone of an autism friendly approach."
- Peter Vermeulen

Context Blindness is a theory developed by Dr. Peter Vermeulen, a psychologist and the co-director of the Center for Concrete Communication in Belgium.

The human brain is very sensitive to context and this contextual sensitivity plays a crucial role in many cognitive abilities that are affected in ASD, such as face perception, emotion recognition, the understanding of language and communication, and problem solving. Context refers to the circumstances or events that form the environment within which something exists or takes place. Context reveals and directs our perception and therefore influences and directs our response.

For example, there is no one correct answer to any of these questions:

  • What is the polite way to greet someone?
  • What is a good birthday gift for a friend?
  • What does a woman feel when you smile at her?
  • Can you touch someone's hair?
  • What is the ideal distance between you and another person?
  • What would you tell someone about yourself?


It all depends on the context.

Contextual sensitivity works at a subconscious level to: help us focus on the essential; make the world around us more predictable; and help us to find the right meaning in vague situations when multiple meanings are possible.

The concept of context blindness unifies the existing cognitive models in autism (theory of mind/extreme male brain, executive functioning, central coherence) and offers a unique and practical understanding of autism. Difficulty seeing and understanding context can explain why individuals with an ASD have difficulty with communication, social interaction, flexible thinking and behaviour.

For example, a young man with an ASD was taken to see an apartment into which he would soon be moving. The current tenant's furniture and belongings were in the apartment when he viewed it. After taking a tour he responded that he could not live there. While this might easily be interpreted as resistance to change or a difficulty with transitions, after some probing it was discovered that it was the result of him misreading the context. He thought that he would have to live with someone else's possessions and that there would be no room for his furniture and personal items.

Pushing the "context-button" helps people with ASD to understand the world around them and to cope with its demands. How can we "Push the Button"?

  • Ensure that we explain our actions and choose words carefully to avoid misunderstanding
  • Teach emotions in context. We never see facial expressions without the context that helps us to understand them.
  • When teaching social skills it is not just teaching the what and the how to do it; it's teaching the where and the when to do it.
  • Begin with what a person is familiar with and what they will recognize and teach at a slow enough place to ensure understanding.

To bring this back to the person-directed-planning process, context blindness is one of the reasons that pre-planning preparation is so vital to success. Becoming familiar with an individual and how they interact and communicate can provide insights into how they see the world and may help to prevent misunderstandings or missed opportunities. People who are close to the individual should be able to help establish a clear context for the planning meeting so that the person at the centre of the plan can participate to the fullest extent possible. Think carefully about how things are presented, avoid ambiguous meanings and check with the individual to ensure that he or she is comfortable and understanding the context and what is being said.

Remember that often we are supporting absolute thinkers in a world with multiple possibilities.


From MyBoyJens - a mother's blog
Saturday, December 20, 2008

Context Blindness

We have just been to a seminar in Stellenbosch by Dr Peter Vermeulen from Belgium (he has written "I'm Special") delivering a talk on his theory of "Context Blindness" of Autistic people. He gave us an overview of some well known theories and observed that with most of these theories one fact runs through…that of the Autistic person not being able to identify "context". We make sense of our world largely by contextualizing things e.g. a black thing in the lounge would normally (contextually) be a TV set as opposed to being a microwave (which it was in his example). We would not expect to have a microwave in the lounge but Autistic people do not necessarily see this as being a problem. Many of the behaviour which may seem inappropriate displayed by the Autistic person may in fact be "logical" e.g. they may see a glass of water and want to drink it even if it may be the glass in front of the lecturer. The key to understanding the behaviour is to understand what goes on in the mind. A theory that has taken him (Dr Vermeulen) years to develop seems so simple once described in this way. He gave us dozens of examples. What I got out of it most profoundly was the fact that our communication with these individuals must be as unambiguous (concrete) as possible, try not to cause confusion & clarify! It is like learning a second language he says. We must be clear and predictable but also include variation, thereby building in flexibility. E.g. a red light could mean stop, but could also mean to continue to go if you are half way over the intersection (not easy for an autistic to know if he has been taught that a red light means stop) but the red light may also mean to backtrack if you are walking and may not make it over in time! There are many meanings to the same red light depending on the situation. Things neurotypical people can grasp within a mille-second of time is not "built into" the Autistic brain. There is no way (as yet) of having an operation to "fix" this as is runs right through the whole brain…In other words, when teaching these kids one has to build in flexibility but still make it predictable enough so as not to have the child "panic". Teach exceptions rather than rules (along with the rules). Remember one word does not = one meaning. We must also explain our actions for these kids to understand why; as they do not have the conceptual framework we have (to try to understand more than the literal meaning). They are contextually blind. Ros Blackburn described Autism as trying to build a 1000 piece puzzle without the picture…

One of Jens' tutors has introduced very successfully a timer. I initially thought, oh no, this is going to stress him. But, he loves it as it creates structure and the concept of "time" and "later" makes better sense now. She also would lay out the whole sessions' work ahead so that he knows what comes next but also building variations into each project and talking about what things might mean – asking "why?", often and giving possible solutions. All of the above is not so much a revelation as SNAP has adopted many of these principles in their daily training of the kids but I think having it "spelled out" in these terms just makes our understanding of it so much more easy and to "develop" (mostly by seeing what works for your kid as each child is different) implementation strategies.

For those interested I want to highly recommend the book by Temple Grandin called "Thinking in Pictures" – brilliant. Temple is an adult autistic engineer having studied animals and esp. cattle and designed many world famous cattle-chutes. She describes how she thinks and has had hundreds of interviews and researched many studies about Autism – astounding!

Posted by Helga at 7:34 PM