A Critique of the Empathizing-Systemizing (E-S) Theory of Autism

by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

In his 2009 paper Autism: The Empathizing–Systemizing (E-S) Theory, Professor Baron-Cohen expands upon his Extreme-Male-Brain theory of autism. Unfortunately, he does not come any closer to understanding autism than when he started.

A Series of Incorrect Assumptions

Baron-Cohen begins the paper by asserting that the mind-blindness theory of autism neatly explains all the social difficulties encountered by autistic people. From this assertion flows a litany of incorrect conclusions:

1. Baron-Cohen asserts that autistic people have an impaired Theory of Mind (ToM), which he defines as “the ability to put oneself into someone else’s shoes, to imagine their thoughts and feelings.” (Baron-Cohen 2009, 68-69)

All I can say is: Give me a slight break. The everyday experience of many autistic people, all across the spectrum, contradicts the professor’s theory. Many of us experience such a high degree of empathy that we are constantly putting ourselves in other people’s shoes and trying to see all sides in any controversy or conflict. Many of our problems with sensory and emotional overload derive from an excess of this ability, not a deficit.

2. Because we lack a proper ToM, we have trouble knowing when we are hurting someone’s feelings.

From my contact with autistic people, it’s clear to me that our empathy leads many of us to constantly question the impact of our words. While I am far from perfect, choosing my words carefully may very well rank as one of my Aspie obsessions. However, the professor believes that “the typical 9-year-old can figure out what might hurt another’s feelings and what might therefore be better left unspoken. Children with Asperger syndrome are delayed by around 3 years in this skill.” (Baron-Cohen 2009, 69)

Choosing my words carefully, so as not to give offense, I wish to say to the professor: “Simon, my friend. (May I call you Simon? I’m not sure, since I can’t read your mind.) You say that autistic people can’t properly put themselves into the shoes of another person. Let me respond as gently as I can: Those words were much, much better left unspoken. They hurt me. And when other people believe what you’re saying, your words cause autistic people no end of trouble. So, the next time you feel tempted to say such things, turn off your computer and have a good meal. You’ll feel better.”

3. Baron-Cohen dismisses studies that fail to find any ToM deficits in autistic people:

“[S]ome studies have failed to find any evidence of a ToM deficit in ASC [autism spectrum conditions], though this may be because among high-functioning, older individuals the tasks need to be sufficiently subtle and age-appropriate to avoid ‘floor effects.’” (Baron-Cohen 2009, 70)

The results “may” be thrown off because of the presence of “high-functioning,” older adults? Didn’t Baron-Cohen attempt to find out who actually participated in these studies? Isn’t that part of writing a research paper? In any case, we “high-functioning” types do not skew test results by excelling at easy tasks. We help the professionals arrive at the proper results by articulating what’s going on.

4. After spending a fair amount of time defending his mind-blindness theory, the professor adds a new and even more incorrect component to it. He “broadens” of the concept of ToM to include an empathetic response:

“Most people regard ToM as just the cognitive component of empathy in that it simply involves identifying someone else’s (or your own) mental states…However, missing from ToM is the second component of empathy, the response element: having an appropriate emotional reaction to another person’s thoughts and feelings. This is referred to affective empathy.” (Baron-Cohen 2009, 71)

Baron-Cohen goes on to say that, in addition to not empathizing well, we don’t know how to respond to someone even after the person tells us what‘s wrong.

News flash: Once someone tells me how he or she feels, I don’t usually have a problem with an empathetic response. Sometimes, I’ll make sure that my response is welcome, out of respect for the other person’s boundaries. For instance, if a person is crying, I might ask whether the person would like a hug, or whether the person would like to talk. Some people want hugs, and some people want to be left alone. I consider it courteous to ask. Once I know people fairly well, however, and I know what works for them, I simply respond. Just ask my husband, my daughter, my daughter’s friends, my friends, my former co-workers, my neighbors, and all the animals I’ve ever helped care for in various stages of illness.

Well, I guess you can’t ask the animals, but you get the idea.

Extending the Extreme-Male-Brain Theory

Despite our supposed deficits in the areas that make people truly human, there’s good news in store. Building on his Extreme-Male-Brain theory, Baron-Cohen posits that while we have difficulty Empathizing (E), we’re not too bad at Systemizing (S). If you remember, we have Extremely Male Brains, so the fact that we’re good at systemizing should not come as a surprise. I mean, I’m sure that those of you with systemizing brains already had that one all figured out, didn’t you?

Here’s the good news in the professor’s own words:

“According to the empathizing–systemizing (E-S) theory, autism and Asperger syndrome are best explained not just with reference to empathy (below average) but also with reference to a second psychological factor (systemizing), which is either average or even above average.” (Baron-Cohen 2009, 71)

Hurrah for us! We’re average. And sometimes, we’re above average. It’s a dream come true.

And in case there is any doubt as to those tasks that we’re so, um, average at doing, here is the professor’s definition of systemizing:

“Systemizing is the drive to analyze or construct systems. These might be any kind of system. What defines a system is that it follows rules, and when we systemize we are trying to identify the rules that govern the system, in order to predict how that system will behave (Baron-Cohen 2006). These are some of the major kinds of systems: collectible systems (e.g., distinguishing between types of stones), mechanical systems (e.g., a video-recorder), numerical systems (e.g., a train timetable), abstract systems (e.g., the syntax of a language), natural systems (e.g., tidal wave patterns), social systems (e.g., a management hierarchy), and motoric systems (e.g., bouncing on a trampoline). In all these cases, you systemize by noting regularities (or structure) and rules.” (Baron-Cohen 2009, 71)

I had no idea that jumping on a trampoline made me a systemizer or that it was evidence of autism. I am so excited! I used to jump on a trampoline ALL THE TIME when I was a kid.

But there’s a catch. In the next sentence, Baron-Cohen makes a statement that suggests that none of us are autistic to begin with: “So it is the discrepancy between E and S that determines if you are likely to develop an autism spectrum condition.” (Baron-Cohen 2009, 71)

Likely to develop an autism spectrum condition? WHAT? You mean, I wasn’t born with it? Wow. If only they’d given me empathy lessons in grammar school, rather than letting me bounce on that stupid trampoline, I’d be normal today.

I wonder whether it’s too late to sue the school district.

Misunderstanding the Purpose of Stimming

Not surprisingly, the train goes further and further off the track as the article continues. Here is Baron-Cohen’s list of systemizing behaviors in classic autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. The Asperger’s behaviors are in italics. (Baron-Cohen, 74)

Sensory systemizing Tapping surfaces, or letting sand run through one’s fingers Insisting on the same foods each day
Motoric systemizing Spinning round and round, or rocking back and forthLearning knitting patterns or a tennis technique
Collectible systemizing Collecting leaves or football stickersMaking lists and catalogues
Numerical systemizing Obsessions with calendars or train timetablesSolving math problems
Motion systemizing Watching washing machines spin round and roundAnalyzing exactly when a specific event occurs in a repeating cycle
Spatial systemizing Obsessions with routesDeveloping drawing techniques
Environmental systemizing Insisting on toy bricks being lined up in an invariant orderInsisting that nothing is moved from its usual position in the room
Social systemizing Saying the first half of a phrase or sentence and waiting for the other person to complete itInsisting on playing the same game whenever a child comes to play
Natural systemizing Asking over and over again what the weather will be todayLearning the Latin names of every plant and their optimal growing conditions
Mechanical systemizing Learning to operate the VCRFixing bicycles or taking apart gadgets and reassembling them
Vocal/auditory/verbal systemizing Echoing soundsCollecting words and word meanings
Systemizing action sequences Watching the same video over and over againAnalyzing dance techniques
Musical systemizing Playing a tune on an instrument over and over againAnalyzing the musical structure of a song             


Now, it seems to me that if a neuro-typical person were doing these kinds of activities, another neuro-typical person might (perhaps correctly) assume that the person was systemizing because his or her brain was structured that way.

However, it’s always ill advised to draw neuro-typical conclusions by watching the behavior of autistic people, because autistic people experience the world in a completely different way. Therefore, we might have reasons for our “systemizing” behavior that have nothing to do with having innately “systemizing” brains.

For example, most autistic people would recognize many of the activities in Baron-Cohen’s list as stims: tapping fingers, letting the sand slide through your fingers, rocking, watching something go round and round, putting things in a certain order, watching the same video over and over, playing a tune on an instrument over and over, and so forth. Baron-Cohen does mention the subject of stims, but he spectacularly misinterprets their purpose:

“[W]hen the low-functioning person with classic autism shakes a piece of string thousands of times close to his eyes…the E-S theory sees the..behavior as a sign that the individual ‘understands’ the physics of that string movement.” (Baron-Cohen 2009, 74)

The E-S theory may see the behavior in that way, but I’m not convinced that many autistic people do. The professor needs to watch Amanda Baggs’ In My Language video for a crash course on how many unusual reasons we can have for all the interesting things we do.

About that string, Baron-Cohen continues:

“He may for example make it move in exactly the same way every time. Or when he makes a long, rapid sequence of sounds, he may know exactly that acoustic pattern and get some pleasure from the confirmation that the sequence is the same every time. Much as a mathematician might feel an ultimate sense of pleasure that the “golden ratio” ((a + b)/a = a/b) always comes out as 1.61803399. . ., so the child…who produces the same outcome every time with his repetitive behavior, appears to derive some emotional pleasure at the predictability of the world. This may be what is clinically described as ‘stimming’ (Wing 1997).” (Baron-Cohen 2009, 74-75)

To Baron-Cohen, the child “appears” to derive some emotional pleasure at the predictability of the world. The only person who could draw this conclusion would be someone who experiences the world as a predictable place. I can’t vouch for any other autistic person, but I do not experience the world in that way. Far from it. The world feels chaotic to me.

When I stim, I’m not taking pleasure in the predictability of the world. I’m taking refuge from the chaos of the world. I’m soothing my very sensitive nervous system by a) moving my body in comforting ways, such as when I rock or toe-walk or b) creating some sort of tangible order, such as when I arrange books by subject or organize beads by color, shape, size, and texture. To soothe myself, I’m creating what I can’t ordinarily perceive.

But This Theory is So Good for Us

In singing the praises of his E-S theory, Baron-Cohen doesn’t hesitate to announce how much it will help autistic folk and our loved ones. For example, he speculates that the theory will lead to interventions that will help us cope in the world:

“[This] theory is giving rise to novel interventions, in particular using the strong systemizing to teach empathy, for example, presenting emotions in an autism-friendly format (Baron-Cohen 2007b; Golan et al. 2006).” (Baron-Cohen 2009, 70)

When I saw the phrase “presenting emotions in an autism-friendly format,” I was hoping that Baron-Cohen meant “quietly, slowly, and respectfully.” (Hey, a girl can dream, can’t she?) Unfortunately, that’s not what he meant:

The DVD Mind Reading…presents actors posing facial expressions such that people with autism can teach themselves emotion recognition via a computer. This involves taking the quite artificial approach of presenting mental states (such as emotional expressions) as if they are lawful and systemizable, even if they are not (Golan et al. 2006).” (Baron-Cohen 2009, 70)

I see. So we’re going to use computers to understand emotion in a systematic way, even though emotions do not follow any natural laws. Well, since our Extremely Male Brains make us pretty much like computers anyway, why not? And given that we don’t understand deception, we’ll believe anyone who tells us that we can learn about emotions using a computer program, won’t we? It’s perfect.

But it gets better, at least at first glance:

“E-S theory destigmatizes autism and AS, relating these to individual differences we see in the population (between and within the sexes), rather than as categorically distinct or mysterious. For many decades, the diagnosis of autism was one that many parents dreaded, as it suggested their child was biologically set apart from the rest of humanity in lacking the basic machinery for social engagement and in suggesting autism is a disease of the brain. The E-S theory focuses not just on the areas of difficulty (empathy) but also on the areas of strength (systemizing) in ASC, and views ASC as a difference in cognitive style that is part of a continuum of such differences found in everyone, rather than as a disease.” (Baron-Cohen 2009, 73)

Destigmatizing is good. But is that really what Baron-Cohen is doing here? I don’t think so.

1) He attempts to destigmatize autism by putting us into categories that the general population can understand. As opposed to being “categorically distinct,” we are now different in the same, familiar way that men and women are different. Men systemize, and women empathize. We’re just really manly men—and, er, women. Don’t you feel better now?

2) He completely misses the point that autism and AS are categorically distinct from other neurological kinds of wiring.

We are not just interesting variations from the norm, but people with a fundamentally different way of seeing and experiencing the world. We’re non-normative human beings. Being distinct is not the same as being dangerous or inhuman. To take away our distinctness in order to destigmatize autism only plays into the fears of the general population. It doesn’t allay those fears at all.

3) While at first glance, I was happy to see that he rejects the world “disease,” I find myself dismayed that Baron-Cohen does not replace it with anything that sounds any better.

After all, autism may not be “a disease of the brain,” but much of his work is an attempt to suggest that we are, in fact, “biologically set apart from the rest of humanity in lacking the basic machinery for social engagement.” Isn’t that the point of saying that we are innately poor at empathy and the social skills that depend upon it? Playing up our “systemizing” skills while telling people that we do not care about them is hardly a giant leap forward.

4) While Baron-Cohen appears to celebrate our “systemizing” strengths as a way to bring us into the light of human dignity, he forgets that some of us flunked calculus, can’t disassemble or reassemble gadgets, and don’t care in the least about the Latin names of anything. Autistic women, in particular, do not present with the same kinds of traits as the majority of autistic men.

What is to be done with autistic people who have “difficulties” with both the feminine ability to empathize and the masculine ability to systemize? Should we make them use computers or line things up in rows until they learn to systemize properly? After all, it’s pretty clear that the empathy thing is not even worth trying.

I have a better idea. Let’s tear up Baron-Cohen’s theory and start all over again. After all, as he says toward the end of his paper:

“One criticism of the E-S theory is that the evidence base for it is still quite limited.” (Baron-Cohen, 73)

Ya think?


Baggs, Amanda. “In My Language.” January 14, 2007. Accessed January 11, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnylM1hI2jc.

Baron-Cohen, Simon. “Autism: The Empathizing–Systemizing (E-S) Theory.” The Year in Cognitive Neuroscience (2009): 68-80. http://www.autismtruths.org/pdf/Autism-The%20emphathizing-systemizing%20es%20theory_SBC_ARC.pdf

© 2009 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


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