No, it’s not a typo. I’m not referring to the better known CSF in vision – Contrast Sensitivity Function. I’m referring to Vermeulen’s notion of context sensitivity as being dysfunctional in autism. He writes (p. 37) that context is the set of elements within the perceiving person and of elements in the spatial and temporal environment of a stimulus that affect the perception of that stimulus and the meaning given to it. This influence can be direct, explicit, and conscious but is mainly indirect, implicit, and subconscious. Contextual sensitivity is the ability to discover contextually relevant information and ignore contextually unimportant information. Context sensitivity function can be considered as a relationship between the ability to select elements in context that are meaningful, and the appropriate or effective use of this information. Vermeulen asserts that in contrast to the autistic brain, the neurotypical human brain is inherently context sensitive.
There is an incredible amount of useful information that resonates in Vermeulen’s book, and most of what he writes is intriguing, powerful, and insightful. I want to highlight a particularly intriguing passage. Vermeulen writes (p. 369): “Tommy just got new glasses. His previous glasses were no longer adequate. But Tommy refuses to wear the new glasses. Resistance to change, we conclude – typical for autism. But why does Tommy resist his new glasses? Is it only because the glasses look different than the previous ones? Luckily, Tommy gives us some insight.
‘The new glasses are no good’, he says. ‘I see too much with them’. From experience, I know that you have to get used to stronger glasses. But contrary to Tommy, I place the sharpness of the new glasses in a context: The previous glasses were not good enough any more, so what I see now is, in fact, what I should be seeing. Tommy does not see that context. For him, seeing more than what he saw with his old glasses is seeing too much. We clarify this for Tommy with a drawing.”
This is fascinating on so many levels. The point that Vermeulen makes about children with ASD being resistant to change is well taken. So often a new Rx change whether in lens power, lens form, or yoked prism may be a difficult transition to make. Even the feel of the frame may be a huge adjustment for a child with sensory sensitivities. Where we might part company with Vermeulen however is agreeing who has the reduced context sensitivity function here, Tommy or the author. After all, seeing more sharply isn’t necessarily the idealized outcome or end result of a change in lenses. Seeing more needn’t be equated with higher lens power. Ironically it appears that it’s Tommy who might be able to teach the adults a lesson here. There’s no need to condition him to wearing a stronger Rx by using communicative pictures that more or stronger is better. When Tommy says “I see too much”, he’s pointing out that his habitual Rx was comfortable. Was that merely because it was something he was used to, or because he functioned better in being more peripherally aware than in having his central or detailed vision primed. Paradoxically Tommy was trying to tell the author that he was better able to put together the whole with his old glasses, and the new ones were shining too strong of a spotlight on the parts. To this point, Vermeulen may be contextually blind or at least contextually insensitive. But there is so much else to love about his theories that we can forgive him for overlooking the impact of lenses on visual function. To decide if I’m taking what he wrote out of context, you’ll just have to read the book and decide for yourself.