"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.