A look at context blindness and autism, how difficulty understanding context occurs and what can be done about it.
Recently my husband and I drove several states away to attend a friend’s wedding. It was an evening wedding, and I came prepared with a beautiful, slightly formal, emerald green dress and gold accessories, including gold stilettos with a big gold bow at the ankles.
We arrived at the wedding and, as we looked for a place to park, I began to notice the other guests filing into the church. Their attire was extremely different from mine. They looked beautiful and elegant in a “We are off to the Kentucky Derby” kind of way.
I realized that I had missed the memo. As gorgeous as my dress was, it was wildly inappropriate for this particular event. My mistake was not lost on the other people surrounding me, and I felt very uncomfortable.
For people with autism, these kinds of situations can happen many times on a daily basis. It’s called context blindness. Context blindness and autism often go hand and hand and I would like to spend some time in this article exploring this topic and how we can help our kids with autism experience it less.
What is context blindness?
Simply put, context blindness is when someone does not notice the context of the situation they are in. This can cause them to act, speak, or dress inappropriately. It can also make them fearful or concerned about other people’s actions, because for them, they don’t seem like they match the context of the event.
To carry my example forward, I showed up in my outfit and immediately understood why it was not the correct choice. Someone with context blindness may not have picked up on the why, yet could still endure the uncomfortable feelings.
This could mean being afraid when someone is celebrating loudly, instead of joining in. To someone with context blindness, someone running and screaming and crying in joy, might look the same as someone who is very upset. If all you see is the action, and not the reason behind it, it can be frightening.
Honing in on one part of something and missing the rest can be a blessing and a curse. The ability to focus so hard that the rest of the world fades into the background is great when you are trying to work on something. Only seeing one thing and missing other important details while having an important conversation—not so much.
This is why many people on the autism spectrum find ways around things like eye contact, in order to have a meaningful conversation. If they are so focused on making sure they are looking into the person’s eyes, they may miss what they are saying.
Context blindness can include missing key factors such as body language, tone of voice, misunderstanding facial expression, or the socially appropriate way to conduct oneself in a particular location or event. Missing these “memos” can result in social faux pas.
Not understanding the context around someone’s emotions is called mind blindness. It’s an inability to understand the context of emotional response. It’s like seeing a picture of someone crying, but only their face; you have no way of knowing what caused them to cry.
How does autism as context blindness affect people?
Outside of being made to feel uncomfortable, there are things about being blind to context that affect daily life. This means that it happens frequently and repeatedly. Over time this can take a toll on someone, their relationships, and their ability to enjoy their life to the fullest.
Why it matters
We know that there is a direct relationship between mental health and social interaction. Studies show that social situations’ negative effects can worsen depression and anxiety. Depression and anxiety bring their own host of problems to an already difficult situation.
- withdraw from activities they enjoy
- self harm
- feelings of worthlessness
- avoiding social interaction
This is obviously not an exhaustive list by any means, just these symptoms alone, though, could prove dangerous and painful.
Where it matters
Dr. Peter Vermeulen, PhD wrote in his paper: Autism: From Mind Blindness to Context Blindness: “sensitivity plays out in different arenas, from sensory issues to language/ communication to social skills. When we see someone raise his hand, it could mean the person wants to say something, is waving goodbye, or wants to stop a taxi. To cope with these ever changing meanings, the human brain developed a remarkable ability, contextual sensitivity, to unravel the inherent ambiguity of stimuli and respond appropriately to it.”
Without it, someone may act or speak in a way that conveys a different meaning. This can alienate friends and family, and cause the person to withdraw from their loved ones. It can also cause problems in interactions with law enforcement, school staff, or authority figures such as a boss or manager.
Context sensitivity is important basically everywhere you go. From dealing with public places, parties, to private conversations at home. The ability to interpret situations with all the information processing needed, gives an overall picture that influences or “clues” someone into the appropriate response.
Here is an example from Dr. Vermeulen’s work: “When the doorbell rang, the mother of a seven-year-old boy with autism asked him to open the door. He opened the back door instead of the front. His reaction was logical, but his choice of door was out of context.”
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When it matters
Learning as much as one can about how to pay attention to and gather contextual information and use it in social contexts will smooth out situations that generally cause anxiety. This will help, both in the moment and the future. The more pleasure and fulfillment interaction brings,the less someone will fear them later.
How can we help someone with context blindness to “see”?
Concepts that don’t naturally occur to someone can often be taught. There are ways to help autistic children with context blindness boost their social skills by improving their social understanding, helping them have a more accurate reading of facial expressions, and follow social rules.
Dr. Vermeulen also states: “Emotion recognition training is immensely popular in the field of autism. Typical materials used in this training are photographs or pictures of facial expressions of emotions. Although these materials can help children with autism learn about different emotions in a rote manner, they do not reflect emotion recognition as it happens in real life.”
I consider emotion recognition training as the “braille” when it comes to helping someone understand contextual sensitivity. It allows them to recognize and respond to others’ emotions, or their own, but doesn’t show them what is happening to cause those emotions.
In order for them to fully understand, they must learn to gather information around the real-life situation, and form a well rounded conclusion of what is going on and why. Like putting on glasses.
Social stories are helpful ways to put glasses on and build contextual sensitivity. This can show the nuance of a situation, without the pressure, and give the full and clear picture.
Someone who sees a child crying with no other context could just assume the child has a parent who will tend to them, resulting in them walking away from the child. They could also assume the child has no parent and needs to be taken to a police officer for help. This could result in a kidnapping charge.
This is an outlandish example of course, but the point is: context dictates behavior. In a social story you would be building scenarios together, changing out the variables, and adding detail that helps the person understand which social skills to use in which situation.
Dr. Vermeulen continues: “Social competence requires more than social skills; it demands contextual sensitivity—something difficult for people with ASD. Training programs designed to help people with ASD navigate the social world should therefore emphasize social contexts, not just focus on teaching social skills.”
Temporary solutions such as “braille” or “glasses” are good and help develop the ability to understand, process, and build in the moment problem solving skills. The “lasik surgery” would be to help build the complete picture for now and the future.
Speech and language pathologists work with individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) to help build their contextual sensitivity. Their treatment strategies encourage us as parents to use:
- concrete communication: avoid sarcasm, slang, and unnecessary wording
- practice skills as much as possible, in and out of context
- find out how our child with ASD is interpreting situations and help them understand different contexts
- providing different context suggestions when utilizing social stories
- help find a common pathway when communicating and connecting with others
- dealing with misunderstandings in a calm and comforting way
Skills that can be developed over time, and become second-nature, are invaluable. Developing social understanding, pairing it with the ability to decode facial expressions and the emotional responses required, being able to problem solve in the moment, to make good choices, and respond appropriately is a big ask for some. However, this compound ability is the ultimate solution, providing permanent solid results and future success.
We all want to help our children avoid the uncomfortableness of awkward social situations. We want them to view the world as a whole, and feel at home no matter where they go.
Their mental states are important to us, the friendships they form are like gold. Contextual sensitivity plays a huge part in all of it.
Seeing is believing, or so they say. “Seeing” is contextual processing, acting on the information appropriately, and having a positive outcome. This positive outcome leads to a belief that good can come from interacting with others, and a continued desire to connect.
We as parents know our children best. Our relationship with them should be built on love, trust, and a commitment to understanding. With the help of professionals, some techniques, and a little practice, our kids’ “blindness” can be turned to “sight”.
This is how we can help them as they move through life, connecting with others and using their past experiences to fuel the future, good and bad.
Vermeulen, P. (2015). Context Blindness in Autism Spectrum Disorder: Not Using the Forest to See the Trees as Trees. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 30(3), 182–192. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088357614528799
Spain, D., Zıvralı Yarar, E., & Happé, F. (2020). Social anxiety in adults with autism: a qualitative study. International journal of qualitative studies on health and well-being, 15(1), 1803669. https://doi.org/10.1080/17482631.2020.1803669 Peter Vermeulen, PhD. November-December 2011. Autism: From Mind Blindness to Context Blindness. Autism Asperger’s Digest. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Peter-Vermeulen-2/publication/249991279_Vermeulen_P_2011_Autism_from_mind_blindness_to_context_blindness_Autism_Asperger’s_Digest_Magazine_Nov-Dec_39-41/links/0c96051e7dc09a998a000000/Vermeulen-P-2011-Autism-from-mind-blindness-to-context-blindness-Autism-Aspergers-Digest-Magazine-Nov-Dec-39-41.pdf