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Focusing on Smudges and Missing the Big Picture

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Getting hung up on the details and missing the big picture* is a recurring theme at our house. From my understanding of Asperger’s, it is a fairly common occurrence to get lost in those details.

When Connor does his nightly reading, he often flips from the cover to an inside page, several times, to compare the cover photo to an inside photo. He’s fixated on seeing if the pictures are an exact match, or if there is some detail missing. He will flip through the book, counting the pages, instead of just reading. Sometimes he will count the number of letters in words. Twenty minutes of reading is sometimes an exercise in how much patience I can muster after a very long day.

And always I remind him, “you’re getting lost in the little, unimportant details. The big picture is in reading and understanding the story.”

Sometimes our conversations are the same way. He may dial in on a particular word I’ve used, and soon we’re off on a tangent that’s completely unrelated to the original topic.

It’s a slow, arduous process. But it’s a challenge that we continue to work on daily, because I know this will be the cause of much frustration and misunderstanding in his life if he doesn’t learn how to step back and see the larger picture. I worry that he will struggle as an adult if he can’t get past reading too much into little details, and completely missing the larger point.

With any luck, persistence, time, and maturity will work some magic. I would hate to see him miss out on seeing a beautiful masterpiece because he was too busy zeroing in on the individual smudges.

*Edit:  the clinical term is called central coherence (thanks Sharon!).


About Flannery

Kid, husband, dogs, my mother, full-time job, maximum stress, minimal relaxation...sooner or later I had to vent. AND we moved from California to Texas. I could start a whole other blog about that.

10 responses »

  1. I love this post, Flannery — it’s a good reminder for all of us. Maybe our kiddos tend to do it a little more, but I think we’re all a bit guilty of zeroing in on some detail that we think is critical — only to miss what the whole experience is about. Here’s to hoping your reading time starts to go a bit more smoothly!

  2. Loved this one! Great post. And reminder as I perseverate on one or two things with each of my boys. .I definitely need to remember to look at the big picture.

  3. The word “perseverates” comes up again and again in my son’s IEP meetings, and always has negative connotations. It’s tough to teach kids on the spectrum when perseverating is useful (because sometimes it is) and when it’s not.

  4. My oldest stepson is like this to a T. He wasn’t diagnosed with Asperger’s at the time and the Autism wasn’t even in our vocabulary. Frustrating doesn’t even begin to describe it. He had a slew of other diagnoses like Tourett’s, OCD, ADD. To my eyes he was just a jerk. But since my little girls have been diagnosed…and the long journey that got us here I see him through completely different eyes: those of compassion. It’s not his fault. .

  5. I do agree with you about getting lost in the details, I do it all the time. 🙂 I try to stretch myself and my kids with looking at the big picture. However, my reason for doing so many times is because I become too overwhelmed by the big picture. There is too much information to process and it causes my head to become chaotic. I will focus on some detail that interests me to help soothe my brain, or come up with a “distraction” to try to stop the overwhelming feeling.

    Possibly Conner is doing that??

    My son Daniel does this especially, with reading. Reading in general is quite a challenge with him and it takes a lot of patience to try and work with him on many days. He may ask a ton of questions about one single detail (he does that with one word too) or he will get stuck on an image and will not move on with the rest of the story. He finds words to be overwhelming and “cluttery.” Though, I understand why he does it much of the time it is still challenging. 🙂

    I can relate to the challenges you are going through. I hope reading time gets better!

    • Katrina Phillips

      I think this is an excellent point, about getting “overwhelmed by the big picture.” my husband and I have discusses this in a chicken/egg dilemma way… We were in the backyard, and I was taking in all the grass, and thinking on something Carly Fleischman had said once about the reason it takes her longer to process things is because she has SO much more to process than a non-ASD person. She used the example that if your desk 100 papers on it,but hers has 10,000 on it (don’t remember the exact numbers she used) then even if you both processed at the same speed, it would take her much longer to get through her 10,000 papers than your 100. You have to imagine that each of those 10,000 papers are the “details” and the level of detail being taken in. Tito Mukhopadhyay gave a similar description about looking at something as ordinary as water pouring into a glass. You see a person put water in a glass. HE sees every reflection of light on the faucet, the movement of millions of particles of water that are all catching light and bending it, all the while hearing every sound wave created amplified far beyond what you or I hear. The entire scene is so simple to most, yet SO intense for him, that he voluntarily shits down his vision most of the time because it is just too overwhelming.

      So, back to my looking at the grass and my chicken/egg problem. Imagine that in your backyard, instead of walking out and seeing a sea of green lawn, you see every.single.blade.of.grass. EVERY single one. My husband and I pondered, which comes first? If you have a highly linear way of thinking (which many ASD people seem to, and I happen to – so I can empathize), AND you happen to have an excruciatingly keen ability to pick up EVERYTHING you see (which, as a highly visual person, I kinda get this too), how do you determine which is the cause and which is the effect? Are you processing things slower because your mind is taking in every single blade of grass infront of you on a singular blade by blade basis? OR, and this is the interesting thing for me to ponder, OR is it that the you are able to take in such a heightened level of detail the *because* of the fact that your mind is willing to slow down, process things slower, take in allllll the details. And maybe, in the midst of your mind taking in all of this information about a million blades of grass that, on the surface, appear to be all the same, you stumble upon that one – that one slightly varied blade of grass that has some small smudge, if you will, of detail on it that is captivating by its very uniqueness…. and in the overload of sensory information coming in, taking in all these blades of grass, you find a momentary calm in refocussing all of your energies on this one thing, so that you do not get lost in the ocean of details trying to overtake you?

      I get your point you are trying to make about stepping back to see the big picture. But, I also see the gift in finding the details that are overlooked and seem insignificant to others. There is beauty to be found in the dust mites floating in a beam of sunlight or in an unexpected swirl of rainbow in a drop of oil in the street. But there is also chaos in too many details when you are not prepared for them – too many faces in a room, too many words on a page, too many points of beautiful, vibrant, overwhelming color in a painting. I think the intake of detail, it is an extraordinary, if somewhat harrowing, gift for many Autistic people. It can fill their lives with so many experiences that are passing the rest of us by unnoticed, but it can also overtake and overwhelm. Like I said, I get your point about seeing the bigger picture, but I do not think this always something that can be controlled. I cannot stop myself from seeing every popcorn kernel in the carpet, every magnetic letter under the table, every puzzle piece on the floor. I walk in a room and I see it ALL. My husband walks in and sees the dining room. In the backyard though, I can walk out and see a blanket of green grass. But I wonder what my son sees…

  6. Oh my goodness yes! My daughter is the same way! She just got her school yearbook and spent all evening counting the teachers, administrative staff, students in each class, comparing the photos…and this morning she picked it back up and went right back to counting! My other girls or I would be recounting memories and looking for our friends. She also zeros in on words and badgers me about them until I am at my wit’s end (it’s a cookout not a picnic, coat not a jacket etc). I need to figure out how to teach her to see the whole picture.

  7. My son is the same way for sure. Love this post!

  8. Allie has the exact opposite problem with reading…she reads too fast and gets the gist of the story but not the details. Either way they are both missing the whole picture, as you said.

  9. I identify with this a lot!! My husband’s always telling me I get hung up on details, and lose focus on the big picture. I’ve only been diagnosed with OCD and tics so far but my therapist seems to think something else is going on, so maybe it’s an Aspie trait… but I can see how it could be an OCD thing, too.


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