ADAM FEINSTEIN, Editor of LOOKING UP, spoke to Professor SIMON BARON-COHEN (extract)

From Volume 4 Number 3

ADAM FEINSTEIN:  You have become very well-known recently for your theory that, on average, males have a stronger drive to systemise - to analyse or construct a system - and females a stronger drive to empathise, and that people on the autistic spectrum show an exaggeration of the male profile. What do you say to those critics of your empathising-systemising theory - and indeed your Autism Quotient - who claim that they do not allow for change in a person's condition over time?

Professor SIMON BARON-COHEN: What they are really asking is: are these stable traits or are there fluctuations? No one has really done developmental studies to see whether, with development in a typical case, your empathising or systemising improves, for example with more education or age. So we need longitudinal studies. It may be that, with the right intervention, your empathy can improve. I don't know that the measures themselves discount the possibility of change. In fact, it would be quite interesting to use the same measures before and after a particular intervention to see whether you do get improvements.

ADAM FEINSTEIN:  Someone came up to me today and said: "Simon Baron-Cohen is making a moral judgement with his empathising-systemising theory. He is suggesting some people are too systemising." How do you respond to that?

SIMON BARON-COHEN:   I don't think there is a value judgment or moral aspect to it. I think what the tests are revealing is that people differ in their profiles and that one profile is not better or worse than another. Some people spend a lot of time focused on systems like their computer and very little time chatting about emotions. Other people show the opposite.

ADAM FEINSTEIN:  Some people have interpreted your theory as suggesting that people with autism do not have empathy. I have spoken to a number of parents who say: "My autistic child has too much empathy."

SIMON BARON-COHEN:   People with autism I have met are not unkind or uncaring. But it looks as though, on some of these tests, they have difficulty picking up on other people's cues. If someone is upset or bored, they may not notice it. Or they may say something that upsets someone, when they did not intend it to happen.  If they have difficulties with empathy, this does
not mean that they do not care about other people. They may just have difficulty in recognising the emotions in other people. But people I've met with autism, when they discover they have upset someone, feel very bad about it. They often have a very strong moral conscience. They care about the environment, they care about people not breaking rules. It is quite easy to take the research and to conclude that, if they have empathy problems, they are somehow like psychopaths. That is not the case. Psychopaths have a different type of empathy problem. Even if they knew they were hurting another person, they would not care. In autism, it is very different. If they knew they were hurting someone, they would want to change that course of action ...

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