April 9, 2021

Local & global processing in autism

Last updated on April 30, 2021

First, let’s do a quick test to see if you use local or global processing.


A quick processing test

Take a quick look at the image below, and then scroll down past the image until you cannot see it any longer…

An illustration of a tropical beach scene.

 

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Okay, is the image now out of view? Describe what you saw.


Local & global processing

  • If you said words like—a beach or a vacation, then you are a GLOBAL processor. You are a person who turns pieces of information into a meaningful whole.
  • If, instead, you said words like—a chair, an umbrella, the ocean, a sailboat, a ball, or sand, you are a LOCAL processor—a person who focuses on the details.

And as it turns out, autistic people tend to be local processors. In a paper from 2006Laurent Mottron et al. described a local processing preference as one of the eight enhanced perceptual abilities of autistics. This begins a 9-part series on enhanced perceptual functioning in autism, with this post focusing on Principle 1 of the revised Enhanced Perceptual Functioning (EPF) model.[1]Enhanced Perceptual Functioning in Autism: An Update, and Eight Principles of Autistic Perception, Mottron, 2006

Global processing style refers to attending to the Gestalt [an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts] of a stimulus or processing information in a more general and big-picture way, whereas local processing style refers to attending to the specific details of a stimulus or processing information in a narrower and more detail-oriented way.[2]Forest before trees: The precedence of global features in visual perception, Navon, 1977


Enhanced perceptual ability, principle 1

The default setting of autistic perception is more locally oriented than that of non-autistics.

Indeed, Martin Silvertant has an exceptional ability to imagine details. I can borrow his skill when I need to know whether I have considered all sides of an argument. I am a global or gets-the-gist-of-a-problem person. I can take research papers and reduce them to a few sentences. The wording of Principle 1: The Default Setting of Autistic Perception is more Locally Oriented than that of Non-autistics. All that is said about it can be translated into: Autistic prefer to see the details over the big picture, but this is a preference as opposed to a disability.

When given a choice, we prefer local over global. However, when asked to focus on global processing, we are equally skilled.[3]Global/Local Processing in Autism: Not a Disability, but a Disinclination, Koldewyn, 2013 Researchers increasingly find that we prefer one and have a disinclination toward the other, not a disability. In other words, we have a preference, not a disability!


MBTI & processing

The Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a well-known personality test based on the work of Carl Jung. It is based on recognizing patterns in people’s behaviour, and how they prefer to use their perception. Jung did not see local or global processing as a deficit. He felt that all preferences in our perceptions were valid. In fact, Jung encouraged people to practice their less preferred perceptual function. He said we need all of these differences for society to function well.

It fascinates me that when I have asked autistic people for their MBTI, they are most often an INxx. I am an INFJ, Martin an INTJ/P, and my friend Kendall an INFP. Ns are systemizers, meaning they pay the most attention to impressions or the meaning and patterns of the information they get. Ns are lateral thinkers that generate ideas to solve problems. That is a good description of our enhanced perceptions. But Ns are also big-picture people! We need both local and global processing to identify patterns.[4]Sensing or iNtuition MBTI

Is are introverts, which in the MBTI model means that we are “reflective” or “reserved”, we are comfortable being alone, and we like things that we can do on our own.[5]Introvert vs Extrovert MBTI

And the noteworthy thing, as you might have concluded, is that it seems IN correlates significantly with autism! Interestingly, people with S are local processors, while people with N are either local OR global processors.[6]The Learning Styles of Myers-Briggs Type Indicators (Cohen, 2008)


Local preferences

Autistics have these local-global differences in the brain’s visual and auditory areas. People often think I am psychic because I readily perceive microexpressions or slight skin colour changes. I hyper-systemize. This local preference allows me to be an excellent therapist. For more information on that, read the post below.

Autistics make excellent therapists

Autistics are not beholden to a global strategy when a global approach is detrimental to a task’s performance. It can be unfavorable to use solely a global strategy. Fortunately, autistic people tend to use both. For example, we are more adept than non-autistics at copying a drawing of an impossible figure, and recognizing the figure’s impossibility. This is because autistics can switch between local and global processing as needed; they are not rigidly stuck with a local strategy (such as identifying the lines of an impossible perspective in an impossible figure) that would be beneficial only in a particular task type.

M.C. Escher is famous for his impossible shapes. Which makes me wonder if he might be autistic. Sure enough,

Escher spoke about the months of pain and anguish one work caused him, and the fact that nobody would have a clue how difficult it was to make. His works do in fact have something inevitable about them, as if the solution he found was somehow obvious – but of course there are scores of drawings and mathematical diagrams behind each one. Some took him years to resolve. A doctor who collects his work told me without hesitation that he would now be classed as ‘high level autistic’.[7]M.C. Escher

We are only beginning to understand and speak about autism as a strength rather than a deficit. We are beginning to see autism in and of itself, and not as a deficit of neurotypical traits. Escher had to have both local and global processing abilities. As an autistic, I recognize his skills as autistic. The quote below illustrates how we are still truly misunderstood.

This intricate, seemingly impossible form of working has raised the question in some people’s minds as to whether Escher was actually autistic. Patrick Elliott believes he was, but Micky Piller, who spent many years studying her compatriot, thinks not. “As far as I know autistics have trouble in making and continuing friendships whereas Escher could do this very well. He was witty and able to have different points of view; he was a very liberal and open man. These are not the characteristics of an autistic person and I was very much surprised when this came up.”
Recent research has portrayed autism in certain forms as a beneficial rather than a problematic complaint and it is possible that Escher did possess some autistic traits but that they were not extreme and actually helped him creatively.[8]The many universes of Escher

 

An illustration of an impossible cube.


Non-autistic processing

In contrast, typical individuals cannot adjust to an impossible figure coinciding with a possible drawing. It took Martin a bit to understand what this meant, as he had trouble comprehending what a neurotypical might see. But once he understood it, he had a big realization. Martin said:

When I was about 5 years old, my teacher told my mother that I excelled at drawing compared to my classmates. While they were still drawing stick figures, I was already drawing people with volumetric limbs, complete with details such as hands and fingers. Everyone, including myself, always understood that as me having a gift for drawing.

But what I realize now is that this wasn’t pointing at my drawing ability itself, but rather my way of seeing things. My classmates were essentially drawing the concept of people—the Gestalt. Whereas I was looking at the details that make up people and trying to replicate that.

So yes, I did excel at drawing at a young age. However, my drawing ability probably emerged not out of an inherent facility, but from my proclivity to see the world in its constituent parts. My drawing ability just developed faster because I was paying attention to details in ways others were not. That’s actually quite profound! I had no idea that others saw the world differently—despite being aware of the double empathy problem, it was still hard to really comprehend.

Neurotypicals do better drawing realistic drawings when they turn the item they want to draw upside-down. This allows them to see how an artist or autistic sees, while not actually identifying what they are depicting or seeing.[9]Upside Down Drawing

The challenge Martin had in understanding what non-autistics see is an example of the double empathy problem. It is so vital for all people to realize that their version of reality is just that. It is THEIR version.

Generally speaking, when people with very different experiences of the world interact with one another, they will struggle to empathize with each other. This is referred to as the double empathy problem, by Damian Milton.[10]Autism & empathy

This difference in how autistics process information has turned out to be a preference for details, not a disability.[11]Global/Local Processing in Autism: Not a Disability, but a Disinclination (Koldewyn et al., 2013) Using a metaphor, autistics prefer to see the forest for the trees—and even the trees’ branches and leaves. But we see the forest, too.


These findings highlight our enhanced perception, and account for our autistic peaks of ability. And they appear to be surprisingly consistent between autistics.

This article
was written by:
dr-natalie-engelbrecht

I’m a dually licensed registered psychotherapist and naturopathic doctor, and a Canadian leader in trauma, PTSD, and integrative medicine strictly informed by scientific research.

And not only do I happen to be autistic, but my autism plays a significant role in who I am as a doctor and how I interact with and care for my patients and clients.

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