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Autism as Context Blindness

Context matters when reading the emotions in another person.

Having contextual sensitivity is paramount to navigating not just social situations, but is also key in making decisions about other scenarios such as when to hasten your pace when crossing the road or what to do when the fire alarm sounds. For the latter scenario, if the fire alarm sounded in a routine drill, it would be appropriate to react in a calm and orderly manner. Someone who does not have the contextual sensitivity to process that the fire alarm was a part of a routine drill would have otherwise panicked.

Recent research has revealed that the absence of contextual sensitivity can bolster our understanding of exactly those areas known to be affected in autism – namely, social interaction, communication, and flexibility in thoughts and behaviour. This has led prominent researcher and educator, Peter Vermeulen, to hypothesise context blindness as the common pathway in the cognitive deficits of those with autism.

More specifically, contextual blindness is defined as “a reduced spontaneous use of context when giving meaning to a stimulus” (Vermeulen, 2012). That is, when someone has context blindness, they have trouble making sense of details appropriate to their situation. Going back to the example earlier, someone with autism may not understand that if while they are crossing the road, the flashing green man turns to red, they would have to quickly get to the other side instead of stopping. The red man typically signals for us to stop and wait, but in a different context such as the one outlined above, it could mean the exact opposite.

In the field of autism education and interventions, emotion recognition training is hugely popular. Typical materials used for the training are photographs of facial expressions of emotions – smiling face for ‘happy’, crying face for ‘sad’, sneezing for ‘sick’, so on and so forth. Even though teaching children with autism to recognise emotions in this rote manner can help to some extent, they do not fully capture how we understand emotions because a person’s facial expression is rarely taken out of context in real life. We look at context as much as we look at facial expressions when trying to figure out what someone feels – we observe their body language, what they say, the situation they are in, and cross examine that with our past experiences with similar situations.

Context and situational information play an even bigger role in emotion recognition than the facial expressions do (Carroll & Russell, 1996). Our brain spontaneously and reflexively encodes the context before using the information to process the emotions in others. Another problem with standard emotional recognition training is that it is one-dimensional – there is an assumption that there is a direct relationship between an emotion and its corresponding facial expression. However, if we were to take facial expressions out of context, we might also find them to be ambiguous in the same way that people with autism do.

Having tears in your eyes does not necessarily mean that one is sad, it could also mean the one feels happy. Depending on context, people could have tears in their eyes because they were cutting an onion, or that they were having an allergic reaction. We rely on contextual information to differentiate one emotion from another, and when a person with autism finds it difficult to empathise with others, it is because they are affected by context blindness.

To more effectively teach emotions and social understanding to people with autism, we should go beyond social rules and sentence scripts, and should be adding context to the materials that are presented to them. For example, when teaching socially inappropriate behaviour to children with autism, it is important to specify which context said behaviour is inappropriate and which context the same behaviour is appropriate. Elaborating on this, we need to teach that shouting is inappropriate and disruptive in the classroom, but shouting is a very appropriate (and even desirable) behaviour if they are in a dangerous or threatening situation.

To build social competence in our children, we should also focus on teaching them social contexts in addition to teaching specific social skills (e.g. how to initiate a conversation). In another example, we should teach them the nuances between starting a conversation with someone while you’re waiting in line at the coffee shop and from starting a conversation with someone you’re visiting at the hospital. These are different contexts that require different contextual attunement. In the former, it would be appropriate to make a comment about the weather but it would raise an eyebrow if that was the thing you opened with when talking to a patient in the hospital.

Social competence demands having contextual sensitivity and requires more than just knowing social rules, and this is something that people with autism often struggle with. It is thus important to move beyond rules and scripts and to emphasise social context to build a stronger sense of social understanding and social competence.

Written by Jacelyn Lee


1. Carroll, J., & Russell, J. (1996). Do facial expressions signal specific emotions? Judging emotion from the face in context. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 70(2), 205-218. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.70.2.205

2. Vermeulen, P. (2012). Autism as Context Blindness.

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