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Empathizing and Systemizing (E-S) in Autism

Empathizing (E) and Systemizing (S) in Autism
Empathizing (E) and Systemizing (S) in Autism
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The Empathizing-Systemizing (E-S) theory attempts to explain the social-communication problems in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by focusing on two factors or psychological dimensions. Empathizing (E) is defined as the drive to identify emotions and thoughts in others and to respond to these appropriately (Baron-Cohen, 2008). This dimension provides us with a way of making sense of other peoples’ behavior and a natural way of responding to others. 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 (Baron-Cohen, 2008). Systems can be technical, abstract, motoric, taxonomic, or social. We don’t analyze these systems in terms of emotions and mental states. Rather, we examine relationships between components and correlations between events which then allow us to understand any relevant underlying rules.

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. However, it is the asymmetry of ability (E-S) present in ASD that provides the basis for the E-S theory of autism. For example, Baron-Cohen describes five different brain “types.”

  • Type E – Empathy is stronger than Systemizing (E>S)
  • Type S – Systemizing is stronger than Empathy (S>E)
  • Type B (balanced) – Empathy is the same as Systemizing (E=S)
  • Extreme Type E – Empathy is above average but challenged with Systemizing (E>>S)
  • Extreme Type S – Systemizing is above average but challenged with Empathy (S>>E)

General population measures of empathy and systemizing suggest the presence of gender differences in that most males have a Type S brain and most females have a Type E brain. The majority of individuals with ASD have an Extreme Type S. Of course, this theory has yet to be fully tested, but it does appear to explain many of the core features of ASD.

Baron-Cohen, S. (2008). Autism and Asperger syndrome: The facts. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, CCBT is author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. He is also editor of a new volume in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools.

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