Saturday, December 5, 2020

Autism: Empathizing-Systemizing Cognitive Styles


The empathizing-systemizing (E-S) theory describes a distinct cognitive style or way of thinking. The E-S theory attempts to explain many of the social-communication problems experienced by autistic individuals by focusing on two factors or psychological dimensions, empathizing (E) and systemizing (S). Empathizing (E) is defined as the drive to identify emotions and thoughts in others and to respond to these appropriately. In contrast, Systemizing (S) is defined as the drive to analyze and construct systems, with the goal of identifying and understanding rules in order to predict systemic behavioral events. The Systemizing Mechanism theory seeks out If-and-then patterns.

Five Cognitive Styles

The E-S model assumes that we all have both systemizing and empathizing skills and that they are normally distributed across the population and independent of each other. According to Baron-Cohen, about one-third of all people (40 percent of women and 24 percent of men) are Type E — strong on empathy and somewhat weaker on systemizing, another third of all people (40 percent of men and 26 percent of women) are Type S — strong on systemizing and weaker on empathy, and a final third are Type B — with balanced abilities.  People who are Extreme Type E have very strong empathy (hyper-empathizers) but are below average on systemizing. In contrast, Extreme Type S individuals are very strong at systemizing (hyper-systemizers) but below average on empathy. These five brain types are defined by where individuals fall on the empathy and systemizing dimensions and is consistent with the viewpoint of “neurodiversity.” Autistic individuals and hyper-systemizers should be seen as just one of many types of brains and that add to human neurodiversity. 

Baron-Cohen posits that autistic people have a more "masculinized" profile. that is they show the Type S or Extreme Type S brain types that are more common in the male population and where their systemizing is higher than their empathy. An extension of the E-S theory, the Extreme Male Brain (EMB) theory suggests that autistic people, on average, will score lower than the typical population on tests of empathy (E) and will score the same as if not higher than the typical population on tests of systemizing (S).
The E-S theory seeks to explain the following strengths and weaknesses in autism by referring
to delays and deficits in empathy (E), and intact or even superior skill in systemizing (S).
  • talented in mathematics or music
  • superior attention to detail
      •  excellent understanding of a whole system

      •  preference for repetition 

      •  difficulty reading emotions

      •  difficulty coping in social groups

      •  difficulty seeing another person’s perspective

      •  a tendency for black and white thinking

      •  sensory hypersensitivity.

A final comment regarding the E-S theory of autism. Theories are used to provide a model for understanding human thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. By definition, a theory is an idea or set of ideas that is intended to explain facts or events, but is not known or proven to be true. It is important to remember that the E-S theory is among several that seek to explain the behavior and psychological profile of individuals with autism. Likewise, it may not explain all of the characteristics or features associated with being on the autism spectrum or account for the whole range of autistic traits.

Adapted from Wilkinson, L. A. (2015). Overcoming anxiety and depression on the autism spectrum: A self-help guide using CBT. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

                                                         References and Further Reading

Baron-Cohen, S. (2004) The Essential Difference: Male and Female Brains and the Truth about Autism. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Baron-Cohen, S. (2008) Autism and Asperger Syndrome: The Facts. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Baron-Cohen, S., Richler, J., Bisarya, D., Gurunathan, N., and Wheelwright, S. (2004) ‘The Systemizing Quotient: An Investigation of Adults with Asperger Syndrome or High-Functioning Autism, and Normal Sex Differences.’ In U. Frith and E. Hill (eds) Autism: Mind and Brain. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Baron-Cohen, S., and Wheelwright, S. (2004) ‘The Empathy Quotient (EQ ): An investigation of adults with Asperger Syndrome and high-functioning autism, and normal sex differences.’ Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34, 163–175.

Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Lawson, J., Griffin, R., Ashwin, C., Billington, J., and Chakrabarti, B. (2005) ‘Empathizing and Systemizing in Autism Spectrum Conditions.’ In F. R. Volkmar, R. Paul, A. Klin, and D. Cohen (eds.) Handbook of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders, Volume 1: Diagnosis, Development, Neurobiology, and Behavior (third edition). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Baron-Cohen S, Auyeung B, Nørgaard-Pedersen B, Hougaard DM, Abdallah MW, Melgaard L, Cohen AS, Chakrabarti B, Ruta L, Lombardo MV. Elevated fetal steroidogenic activity in autism. Mol Psychiatry. 2015 Mar;20(3):369-76. doi: 10.1038/mp.2014.48. Epub 2014 Jun 3. PMID: 24888361; PMCID: PMC4184868.

Baron-Cohen S (2020). The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Wilkinson, L. A. (2015). Overcoming anxiety and depression on the autism spectrum: A self-help guide using CBT. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, and certified cognitive-behavioral therapist. He is author of the award-winning books,  A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools and Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBTHe is also editor of a text in the APA School Psychology Book Series,  Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools. His latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).

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