Why do people with Autism Spectrum Disorder have such difficulty socializing and communicating? According one prominent theory, it is the combination of delays and deficits in empathy together with superior skills in what is termed, systemizing, that create the behaviors we associate with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Referred to as the Empathizing-Systemizing (E-S) theory, this view suggests that difficulty reading what someone is thinking and feeling makes it hard to engage interpersonally in an appropriate, effective manner. At the same time, a drive to analyze or construct systems causes the narrow interests, repetitive behavior, resistance to change, and need for sameness that is true of most adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
There are two types of empathy, according to this theory. Cognitive empathy is the ability to read what someone is feeling from what they say and/or do. It is not an emotional connection but a logical, rational assessment of that person’s feelings, based on the listener’s prior knowledge, past experiences, and learned account of why people do what they do.
Affective empathy, on the other hand, refers to the ability of a person to have an appropriate emotional reaction to someone else. It is an emotional process, a recognition of the other person’s feelings based on the listener’s own emotional history and experiences.
The absence of, or even deficiencies in, either type of empathy makes it hard to respond appropriately in social settings, for the simple reason that the person either can’t read what someone is thinking or feeling or doesn’t understand what kind of emotional reaction would be optimal in a particular situation.
A system is a set of things that work together as part of an interconnecting network. A collection of coins, for example, while it may not seem intuitively obvious, is a system insofar as it’s a set of objects that fit together in a particular grouping (let’s say, American pennies) according to particular rules that create the system (all those minted between 1847 and 1857). When we systemize we are trying to identify the rules that govern the system (dates the coins were minted) in order to predict how the system behaves (the network, or collection, of American pennies minted between 1847 and 1957).
Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder are drawn to understanding the rules underlying a particular system, whether it be collecting things, solving math problems, mastering a musical instrument, fixing bicycles, learning the Latin names of plants in the fern phyla, or any other kind of rule-based organization of things and/or ideas. They focus on systemizable information because of their strong need to understand how things, i.e. systems, work.
Advantages of the E-S Theory
Empathizing-systemizing theory reconceptualizes the social difficulties of adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder and the narrow behavior and repetitive interests they have. They may understand what someone might be feeling and/or thinking, but they are less likely to know how to respond. Their narrow, repetitive interests and behavior are the direct result of a planned, intentional need to understand how things work.
The theory describes a different style of thinking and learning, one that depends upon attention to detail, a need for thorough understanding, and a focus on repetition in order to achieve a complete understanding of a system.
It also explains why adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder have trouble generalizing, that is, forming general concepts from specific instances. You would expect this from a person who is trying to understand each system as unique. For a strong systemizer, the differences between systems is more important that the similarities. Lumping things together, i.e. seeing similarities, can lead to missing differences, whereas noticing how things are different highlights what is unique about those things. If you see all motorcycles as the same, you’re likely to miss important differences among them.
E-S theory is a well-established explanation of the two prominent features of Autism Spectrum Disorder in adults. Few other theories capture better what drives those with Autism Spectrum Disorder to miss what people think and feel and to be so absorbed in their own interests.
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