Understanding autism
Understanding autism

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Understanding autism

3.2 Empathising and systemising

Bringing earlier ToM work together with research on emotion recognition, Baron-Cohen proposed that autistic people may have difficulty with empathising – recognising or understanding other people’s emotions, and reacting appropriately, leading to their difficulties in interacting with other people, making friends, and so on. At the same time, they may be strongly drawn to subject matter governed by systems or rules, leading to an interest in fields like physics, mathematics and technology, and in fact any domain which can be approached in a systematic rule-like way, which Baron-Cohen termed systemising (Baron-Cohen, 2009).

This quote from Luke Jackson, who wrote his own guide to Asperger syndrome when a teenager, illustrates a systemising approach in his fascination with chain reactions and springs.

I like the idea of chain reactions – one thing happening which triggers off another, which triggers off another and so on and so on. I used to put string round a dozen objects and watch them all fall down at once. That’s why I love slinkies (coiled springs) so much. When you wind one round loads of things and then let go, it pulls itself through all of them.

Jackson 2002, p. 52

To provide evidence for the ‘low empathising/high systemising profile’, Baron-Cohen devised questionnaires – the empathy quotient (EQ) and the systemising quotient (SQ). People were asked to evaluate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements such as ‘I find it easy to put myself in someone else's shoes’.

Activity 4 Empathy Quotient and Systemising Quotient

Allow about 5 minutes

Here are some items from updated versions of the EQ and SQ. How do you think a person who was low on empathising and high on systemising might answer each of these questions? Choose ‘Strongly agree’ or ‘Strongly disagree’ for each.

Empathy quotient

1. I can't always see why someone should have felt offended by a remark

a. 

Strongly agree


b. 

Strongly disagree


The correct answer is a.

2. I can pick up quickly if someone says one thing but means another

a. 

Strongly agree


b. 

Strongly disagree


The correct answer is b.

Systemising quotient

3. I am fascinated by how machines work

a. 

Strongly agree


b. 

Strongly disagree


The correct answer is a.

4. I rarely read articles or web pages about new technology

a. 

Strongly agree


b. 

Strongly disagree


The correct answer is b.

These items are from the Empathy Quotient (EQ) and Systemising Quotient (SQ) for Adults (Autism Research Centre, 2018)

From people’s total questionnaire scores, Baron-Cohen reported that autistic respondents tended to score high on systemising and low on empathising, whereas few of the typically developed respondents tested showed the same pattern (Baron-Cohen et al., 2014). According to this profile, autistic people have particular interests and skills in ‘systematic’ subjects such as engineering, science and computing, and are less interested or skilled in dealing with people and social relationships. This profile does seem broadly consistent with the diagnostic criteria, and the theory has the merit of attempting to integrate social and non-social characteristics. However, the approach has been strongly questioned (Subbaraman, 2014). Firstly, since the questionnaires are ‘self-report’, participants may choose their answers to fit a certain self-image, rather than their true preferences. Secondly, the overall score differences between autistic and control groups of participants are small. Thirdly, the theory plays to a predominantly male stereotype of the autistic person as socially insensitive and obsessed with machines. But as you saw in Week 2, autistic people may have skills in many areas besides engineering, science and computing. They cannot be assumed to conform neatly to the empathising–systemising profile, and the way autism is expressed in women may be particularly far from this account.

AUT_1

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