Is your child:
Children with these challenges are said to “miss the forest through the trees.” That is, they are so focused on a single tree that they miss the ‘big idea’ or the ‘central idea’ which is the forest. When looking at a picture or telling a story, does your child tell all the details but miss the main point? Does he tell stories with no main character and no plot?
This peculiar pattern may emerge as your child describes an event or something that he saw earlier that day. He or she may get stuck in telling you all kinds of information but never get to the point. Visually, they might approach solving a jigsaw puzzle by studying the patterns and individual shapes, without even noticing the picture they are attempting to construct.
Another related topic with which difficulties with central coherence may show up is with reading comprehension. They may be able to read beautifully, and then when asked about the story, they cannot tell you anything about it. When children with these issues are asked to re-tell a story, the stories tend to lack a logical sequence and are not structured around the main idea.
What may be happening is that your child is overly focused on details and is missing the big picture, in multiple facets of life.
In psychology, when a child focuses so exclusively on details as to miss the big picture, we call this, ‘challenges with central coherence.’
Central coherence is seeing how many component parts fit together to make a coherent whole.
Central coherence difficulties could be related to attention, visual processing, or rigidity.
Shifting attention: Regarding attention, your child may have difficulty shifting attention, that is, the ability to shift focus back and forth between stimuli.
Sustained attention: It could also be challenges with sustained attention, that is, the ability to maintain attention to a task in the absence of immediate reinforcement. Your child may not see the big picture because he is struggling to focus on it and to maintain his attention to it. Instead, the child may be easily distracted by irrelevant details.
Visual processing It could also be visual processing, that is, challenges seeing objects and pictures accurately. Within the area of visual processing is the skill of visual planning. This term means visually planning moves and visualizing what something will look like when a move has been made.
Rigidity: Finally, challenges with central coherence could be related to rigidity. Rigidity refers to considerable perfectionism, attention to detail and resistance to change. Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Anxiety Disorders, OCD and trauma history may have a significant need for control and rigidity.
If you are concerned that your child may have trouble with central coherence, consider any challenges with: answering questions, reading comprehension, or story-telling.
Answering questions. An easy ‘quick check’ for one form of central coherence is to have a child sit with his or her back to you and describe a picture that you cannot see.
Children with poor central coherence may not be able to answer questions about the picture they see.
Ask your child questions like:
In the picture at the beginning of this article, the child should be able to say, “there are two girls running on a path toward a forest.” Children without central coherence problems should be able to do this task fairly quickly and accurately.
If problems are noted, this concern probably requires further evaluation by a psychologist.
Reading comprehension. Another way to know if your child struggles with central coherence is through his or her reading comprehension. Children with poor central coherence tend to really struggle with getting the sequence of events and main idea in stories.
Story-telling. Finally, it may be that your child can read okay but cannot re-tell a story. If your child tells stories that are filled with details and do not make sense, central coherence could be an issue. In any of these three instances, challenges with central coherence are likely worthy of further assessment.
If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.
Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this information does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See the ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.
If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.
These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:
 Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
 Barton, Erin. Educating Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
 Fein, Deborah (2011). “The Neuropsychology of Autism”
 Koegel, Lynn Kern & LaZebnik, Claire (2010). Growing up on the spectrum: A guide to life, love and learning for teens and young adults with autism and Asperger’s.
 Giler, Janet Z. (2000). Socially ADDept: A manual for parents of children with ADHD and / or learning disabilities.
 Giler, Janet Z. (2011). Socially ADDept: Teaching social skills to children with ADHD, LD, and Asperger’s.
Description: Two sisters run through the forest holding hands. Summer sunny day…
Image ID: #384716971 (Shutterstock)
By: Tatyana Domnicheva
Previously Licensed on: May 13, 2017
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology