When we use the phrase ‘they have a one-track mind’ we mean that someone thinks entirely about one particular subject. This idiom is often used to emphasise somebody’s obsession with something be it sport, their work or even the opposite sex. However, it appears that some autistic individuals may, to a certain extent, have a one-track mind.
Autism was defined by Lorna Wing as a triad of impairments. This triad consists of social abnormalities, communicative abnormalities, and repetitive behaviour and narrow interests. This last characteristic can lead to distress at a change in routine and an unusual focus on one particular area of knowledge or a skill. Uta Frith proposed a theory of autism called the weak central coherence (WCC) theory which proposed that autistic people lack the ability to perceive the whole but instead focus on the parts (central coherence being the ability to draw together diverse information before processing it to provide higher level meaning in context).
There is a lot of evidence to support this theory which can be applied to the characteristic of narrow interests often seen in autistic people. The Embedded Figure Test is an example of such evidence with autistic individuals performing significantly better than matched controls. You are given a shape to find within a figure and your time taken to do so is measured. Autistic people are significantly faster at this suggesting that they perceive the parts of a picture more easily than the whole.
The Navon Test (1977) is another example of autistic people’s increased attention to local as opposed to global perception. Frith and Snowling (1983) also showed that autistic individuals have worse performance on correctly pronouncing an ambiguous word at the end of a contextually illuminating sentence. For example;
– she had a tear in her eye
– she had a tear in her dress
The scores that most autistic people got reflected the more common pronunciation rather than the use of contextual meaning. This failure to integrate the meaning of the whole sentence with the perception of individual words could explain the communicative abnormalities seen in some autistic individuals.
This WCC theory goes some way to demonstrate the presence of a one-track mind in autistic individuals with very narrow interests perhaps due to their inability to detach from the details. However, this isn’t exactly a one-track mind as even autistic individuals who do have a particularly focussed interest on something are able to pay attention to other things too. In my opinion, no one has a one-track mind; even those people who tend to have narrow interests and focus on a particular part of something still have “other tracks” in their mind. So next time you hear someone say that so and so has a one-track mind, remember, they almost certainly don’t, but maybe just give them a bit of artistic license.