March 28, 2021

Why autistics are faster at solving Where’s Waldo?

Last updated on February 6, 2023

O Waldo, where art thou?

Autistics take 20–30 seconds on average to find Waldo. Ready to time yourself? See how quickly you can find Waldo in the beach scene below, initially published in the United Kingdom as Where’s Wally?


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Uta Firth, Waldo, and the beach

Uta Firth is a German developmental psychologist that has pioneered much work in autism. Among those she has mentored as students are Tony Attwood, Simon Baron-Cohen, and Francesca Happé (all significant researchers in autism).

In the 1980s, Developmental psychologist Uta Frith found that many autistic children are exceptionally good at finding Wally. She put forward a model called the weak central coherence theory, a regrettable name in my opinion. Her term refers to the detail-focused processing style proposed to characterize autism. While she interpreted this as a core deficit in central processing, newer research has demonstrated superior local processing and a preference for local processing (rather than a deficit).[1]

Uta asked both autistics and non-autistics to look for Wally in an A2-sized (16.5 × 23.4 inches) picture, which depicted a crowded beach with people doing all sorts of activities.

While all subjects in the autistic group took only 20–30 seconds to find the target, most people in the predominant neurotype group had to struggle to complete the same task. Some took much longer, while others could not complete the task without a hint.

Before we begin scanning the page for Waldo, we engage the most adept neurons at recognizing Waldo’s distinct image. For example, because Waldo has red on his clothes, we call upon the red neurons. This way, we create a mental picture of Waldo and have our “neuron detectives” ready to intercept him.

Since autistics have more neurons in these hyperconnected islands, we are better detectives in all the areas focused on sensory tasks. Think of each neuron that looks for the colour red, for instance, as a single detective. So while a neurotypical sends out 10 red-seeking detectives, we send out 100 red-seeking detectives. Because we have so many more ‘detectives’ on the job, we are faster at locating which red items are and are not Waldo.

We are generally more agile in discriminating things our senses can detect, like differences in pitch, small size, and colour changes. And yes, finding Waldo too.

If you think about the image below, the neuron group will find Waldo before the single neuron, simply because there are more of them. And our neurons have a preference for looking for the details.

One of the experiments Firth conducted was having autistic children do puzzles right side up and upside down.[2] Autistic children were equally good whether the puzzle was right-side-up or upside-down.  Remember from the first post  [3] of this 9 part series, Martin talking about how he realized that his ability to draw came from his difference in seeing (local over global). Well, when you focus on the local it makes no difference what direction the puzzle is in. I know—we detest the puzzle logo, but I do find this information awesome!

In neurotypicals, there is a tendency to go for the gist and lose the details. A neurotypical will give the overall meaning and drop the details when telling a story. This is probably why I love when Kendall (my best friend and’s VP) tells me stories that he has read. He relates the whole story with tons of particulars! And he remembers these stories in tremendous detail from reading them long ago. He is a raconteur/ancedotist. (Kendall also remembers everyone’s name from the entire history of the world! *exaggerated for effect).

Uta was correct about the preference for detail. Still, her theory on not being able to give the meaning was incorrect. If needed, we can provide a global perspective —I have seen that she has updated it to a preference, not a disability.

We are captured by the detail and have a challenge making sense of the whole picture. Professor Francesca Happé Ph.D. developed a theory describing it as a style of information processing across the entire population. You will find more of the weak coherent processing style in the parents of autistic children—and this was, in fact, found to be true.

Firth suspected that autistics would be better at finding Wally by focusing on the details but missing the big picture. She was correct that we focus on details, but we do NOT miss the big picture. Instead, we have a disinclination to engage in something we feel will not be helpful. We can use a strong central coherence when needed.

So just how do autistics solve the Where’s Waldo problem?

The Where’s Waldo Problem involves learning to search and detect the desired object—namely Waldo.

So we use spotlight attention to locate Wally but will use our global attention to identify an optimal search pattern once we have done the puzzle several times. Chief data scientist Randy Olson computed the optimal search strategy for finding Waldo in 2015.[4]Here’s Waldo: Computing the optimal search strategy for finding Waldo (Olson, 2015) | Randal Olson I suspect autistics unconsciously figure out the pattern. We are, after all, pattern-finders. This is known as using our global attention.

So how do we find Wally faster? There are two primary ways that we do this. The first is to scan for Wally meticulously inch by inch or locally. The second is looking for patterns, globally, of where Waldo might be.

This dual process makes us optimal Waldo locators!

Spotlight attention

Autistics are better at spotlight attention. Spotlight attention means that what is within the focus area is enhanced, while outside of the spotlight is diminished. We excel at this! We can switch back and forth if needed. We can make the spotlight bigger or smaller as needed.

Let us divide attending into 2 different categories:

  1. Zoom in—imagine a microscope—attending to tiny details
  2. Zoom out—attending to the whole picture.

Autistics excel at zoom in (spotlight attention) but can switch to zoom out when needed. The research finds that irrespective of our development and symptom severity, we reliably outperform non-autistics on visual search. [5]

This advantage is because of where we prefer to put our attention, rather than us being limited by our perception—preference over disability.[6]Local & global processing in autism


A valley of intelligence

Autistics have a very detailed focused style. It is a style of processing that gives more weight to local detailing than to the overall meaning or the overall gestalt. Platisted and colleagues (1998) were the first to publish research showing that autistics are faster and more successful than neurotypicals at certain visual-attentional tasks.[7]  [8] Plaisted found that autistic children were faster at detecting ‘odd man out’ tasks.

It is interesting to note that the Odd-Man-Out Reaction Time test (OMO RT) is reliably correlated with high intelligence. [9] Until about 1988, autism was thought to be a disorder of intellectual disability. However, in 2014 research found that half of autistics function in the normal to above-average intelligence. While the normal graph for intelligence looks like a sloping hill, the intelligence graph for autistics looks like a sloping valley. The majority of autistics have lower than normal or higher than normal intelligence. We are, in fact, capable of performing many tasks better than neurotypicals. These findings have led researchers to describe autism as a disorder of high intelligence. [10]



4 Here’s Waldo: Computing the optimal search strategy for finding Waldo (Olson, 2015) | Randal Olson
6 Local & global processing in autism
This article
was written by:
Dr. Natalie Engelbrecht ND RP is a dually licensed registered psychotherapist and naturopathic doctor, and a Canadian leader in trauma and PTSD, and she happens to be autistic; she was diagnosed at 46. And not only does she happens to be autistic, but her autism plays a significant role in who she is as a doctor and how she interacts with her patients and clients. Kendall Jones is a musician and sound engineer from Louisiana, with an affinity for both music and language. He was diagnosed late in life, at 61.


Although our content is generally well-researched
and substantiated, or based on personal experience,
note that it does not constitute medical advice.


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