Poor Cognitive Shifting and Weak Central Coherence in High-Functioning Autism

Cognitive shifting is the mental process of re-directing one's focus of attention away from one fixation and toward a different focus of attention. Cognitive shifting refers to the conscious choice to take charge of one's mental habits and redirect the focus of attention in useful, more successful directions.

Studies in the area of cognition have noted that children with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) have problems with updating the scope and focus of their attention. This particular attentional difference may stem from an innate inability to reorient attention rapidly.

This deficit ties in with other neurological differences of HFA (e.g., sensory hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity). Together they impact directly on the core tasks of learning. For instance, the sudden appearance of a very strong odor from the cafeteria may prevent the child from concentrating on what the teacher is saying.

Further on the matter of sensory issues, middle-school students with HFA frequently report that they find it difficult to tolerate the normal noise, mess and chaos of the passing periods in which students are going to their lockers and/or moving on to the next class. Students on the autism spectrum cope with what are essentially neurological insults by any of a number of means (e.g., withdrawing from the toxic stimuli, melting down, leaving the situation, shutting down, etc.).

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism
Related to problems of attentional deficit are (a) impairment in the employment of visual attention, (b) problems in attending to both auditory and visual information, and (c) problems in attending to many visual items simultaneously. Throughout the school day, HFA students may claim they are over-stimulated and overwhelmed neurologically, or they may blame others around them for their distress.

Central coherence is the ability one has to focus on details as well as wholes of a given situation, and to follow through on plans in a variety of areas. It is also the ability one has to focus on what takes priority and what is important. Many children with HFA hyper-focus on details rather than wholes, and have odd focusing of attention. This is called “weak central coherence'.”

This has obvious consequences on performance of the short and long term core tasks of learning. Being able to see “the big picture” is part of what students need to be able to do in order to learn a variety of tasks over the course of their education.

“Weak central coherence theory” 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 spectrum disorders. The theory attempts to explain how some children diagnosed with HFA can show remarkable ability in certain subjects (e.g., mathematics and engineering), but 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 HFA children on tasks involving local and global cognitive processes.

In addition to poor cognitive shifting and weak central coherence, it's important to remember that kids on the autism spectrum may have several other attentional problems going on at the same time. For example:

• There are inattentive kids who are struggling with motor planning or sequencing (i.e., the ability to carry out complex actions, to plan and sequence ideas). For example, there are several steps involved in this process of getting dressed. A youngster with sequencing problems may be able to do only two or three steps at a time, and easily gets lost on the way to his shirt or shoes. For many things “typical” kids do effortlessly, an HFA youngster with sequencing problems has to remember each step.

• Visual-spatial processing problems cause deterrents to concentration. The HFA youngster with this issue doesn't need glasses, he simply has difficulty organizing what he sees. For instance, if the parent hides something in the youngster's bedroom, instead of searching in each corner or looking under things, he may get stuck looking only in one part of the room. The youngster with this problem may be over-focused some of the time, and unfocused other times. He may have difficulty connecting what he sees with what he hears, which obstructs attentiveness, and so he may appear easily side-tracked or lost.

• Auditory processing problems make it difficult for the HFA youngster to make sense of the things she hears. If you give her four or five directions, she may only get the first two and seem not to be concentrating on what you have instructed her to do.

Since difficulty paying attention is widely associated with ADHD, this disorder tends to be the first thing parents, teachers and therapists suspect. However, there are several other factors that can contribute to attentional problems. To avoid misdiagnosis, it’s important that these other factors (which are not always noticeable) are not disregarded.


Here are some of the other factors that may make an HFA youngster struggle to pay attention:

1. Stress or trauma: Kids can appear to be inattentive when they have been impacted by trauma. Children who have witnessed violence or other disturbing events may demonstrate a persistent sense of insecurity called “hyper-vigilance,” and those whose home lives involve acute stress may develop these symptoms.

2. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): Children with OCD have an added source of distraction. They not only have obsessive thoughts, but feel they have to perform rituals or compulsions to prevent bad things from happening (e.g., tapping, having an obsession about needing to fix something in order to avoid something terrible happening, focusing on needing to go to the bathroom to wash his hands, counting in his head, compulsively lining things up on his desk, etc.). Then when the teacher calls on this student, but the student doesn’t know the answer to the question, it looks like he wasn’t paying attention.

3. Learning disorders: Auditory processing problems could cause a youngster to miss some of what the teacher is saying – even if he’s listening. If a youngster is struggling with math, he may welcome distractions that allow him to think about something else, or avoid completing the assignment. Kids with undiagnosed dyslexia may fidget with frustration or feel ashamed that they can’t seem to do what the other children can do, and be intent on covering up that fact.

4. Anxiety: Some anxious children are extremely worried about making a mistake or embarrassing themselves. Sometimes they take an unusually long time to finish their work in class, not because they are daydreaming, but because they are struggling with perfectionism that requires them to do things exactly the right way. 
Also, some do not turn in their homework, not because they didn’t do it, but because they are worried that it isn’t good enough. A youngster with separation anxiety may be so preoccupied about something bad happening to his mom or dad while he is apart from them that he is unable to concentrate on what the teacher is saying. A youngster who seems to be inattentive in the classroom could have chronic worries that parents and teachers are not aware of. Anxiety tends to “lock up” the brain, making schoolwork hard for the anxious child.

Parents and teachers are the key members of every team. They know the HFA youngster best. They know the subtleties of what he can and can't do at home, school, and with classmates. Bringing in qualified professionals can help the team better understand the youngster’s strengths and areas of challenge. A psychiatrist or psychologist can look at the youngster's attentional difficulties, the family dynamics, the role of anxiety or depression, etc., and then make suggestions.

To make an accurate diagnosis, a professional should collect information from several people who have observed the HFA youngster (e.g., parents, babysitters, teachers, coaches, etc.). These individuals should be asked to fill out a rating scale in order to capture an accurate assessment of the frequency of symptoms.

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