The World Through a Magnifying Glass

Perceiving with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Luca Dellanna
Thought models


(This is an excerpt from my book on Autism Spectrum Disorder, which you can purchase on

Imagine reading a book having to use a magnifying glass. If the magnifying power of the lens is low one full sentence at a time can be read (image 1). You can easily focus to the meaning of the sentence as a whole, and you can easily predict what comes next. In the example of image 1, the sentence “You can go hunting with a knife and” can easily be completed with “catch a bear” [1]. This is how a person not on the autistic spectrum perceives the world.

Image 1: how a neurotypical perceives the world

Now imagine having to read using a stronger magnifying glass: this time you can only read a couple of words at once (image 2). You start reading from the beginning of the sentence, a few words at a time, until you reach “a knife and”. At this point, your mind, focused on the few words it is seeing, will be tempted to predict the next ones as “a fork”. The full sentence, “You can go hunting with a knife and a fork” doesn’t make much sense; however, if you take into account you could only see “a knife and”, the “a fork” completion looks more correct than “catch a bear”. This is how a high-functional autistic person (or an Asperger) perceives the world.

Image 2: how a high-functional autistic perceives the world

Lastly, please imagine having to read using a very strong magnifying glass, whose “zoom” effect is so strong it will only allow you to see a few letters at a time (image 3). You are not able anymore to make use of the meaning of the full sentence: you are now unable to predict which words follow the “and” without using the context provided by the previous ones (which you cannot see anymore). Instead, the letters are now much more detailed to you, and other thoughts start to occupy your mind (for example, the font used to print the letters). This is how a low-functional autistic person perceives the world.

Image 3: how a low-functional autistic perceives the world

The High-Pass Filter hypothesis for ASD

The Magnifying Glass [2] is a metaphor for the high-pass filter described in my High-Pass Filter hypothesis article. Please read the linked article for further details and for a more formal explanation of my conjecture for the ASD.

Finding the green X

The High-Pass Filter hypothesis also explains some experimental results which are contradictory with the previous theories for ASD. An example is reported below.

A 1998 experiment asked children at first to find an X in a set of Ts and then a green X in a set of green Ts and red Xs. Children with ASD performed worse than control children in the first task and better in the second. This apparently stands at odds with the Weak Central Coherence theory which predicts a slower performance for the children with autism due to an impairment in integrating sensorial channels (the shape and the color).

The Magnifying Glass Hypothesis provides an explanation. A representation of how a neurotypical child would perceive the letters during the experiment is shown below in image 4 [3]. There, the low power of the lens allows to see a lot of letters at once, but since they are quite small the details are hard to perceive (in this figured representation, the colors look alike and the shapes are not well defined). Finding the green X is a hard task.

Image 4: how a neurotypical perceives the “find the green X task”

A representation of how a child with ASD would perceive the letters is shown below in image 5. There, the high power of the lens only allows to see a few letters at once, but since each is bigger the details are easier to perceive. Finding the green X is an easier task than for the blurry grey-scaled case.

Image 5: how an Asperger (high-functional autistic) perceives the “find the green X task”

The fact that Autism is associated with a deficit in broadening the spatial spread of visual attention (“the lens shows less letters at a time”) is well documented in Mann, Walker (2003).

(This is an excerpt from my book on Autism Spectrum Disorder, which you can purchase on

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[1]: the sentence has been first proposed by Rhonda Booth and Francesca Happé in their 2010 paper on the Sentence Completion test.

[2]: the term lens as a figured explanation for ASD has been used since long (Burack, 1994, and others); however it has mostly been used for its attentional meaning (“difficulty to zoom out to see the big picture”) and referred to visual stimuli only. Here instead I use the term as a simpler proxy for a high-pass filter which also includes a scope reduction, thereby adding the detail-enhancing property and postulate that it applies to all perceptive channels (both intra- and inter-channel; that is, both in reducing scope and increasing detail inside a single channel, and during the integration between channels).

[3]: obviously this is not a literal description of what happens in the mind of the children; it is rather a figural and exaggerated depiction to help understand how a cognitive style can help or hinder them in the processing of features.



Luca Dellanna
Thought models

Author of some books on emergent human behavior. Read more at Twitter: @DellAnnaLuca