Academic journal article International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology

Empathizing and Systemizing Are Differentially Related to Dimensions of Autistic Traits in the General Population

Academic journal article International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology

Empathizing and Systemizing Are Differentially Related to Dimensions of Autistic Traits in the General Population

Article excerpt

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder, characterized by piecemeal processing of information, deficits in theory of mind, and impaired executive function (Hill, 2004; Romero et al., 2016). Baron-Cohen's empathizing-systemizing (E-S) theory suggests that two cognitive processes that develop universally in childhood help us to explain both the causes of autism spectrum disorders, and in general, autistic traits which are continuously distributed in the general population (Constantino & Todd, 2003). Empathizing is the ability and interest to identify other people's thoughts and emotions and to respond to them appropriately, whereas systemizing is the ability and interest in technical, motor, and abstract systems. While empathizing is a powerful way of understanding the social world, systemizing facilitates understanding inanimate phenomena. Normal variation exists, but according to the theory, if strong systemizing is combined with poor empathizing, it predicts healthy individuals' Asperger traits, and in extreme forms, autism spectrum disorders (BaronCohen, 2010).

The E-S theory has been influential and has received wide empirical support. Because the main focus of the theory is on ASD, the vast majority of the evidence rests on comparisons showing that individuals with ASD show higher systemizing and lower empathizing than people with neurotypical development (Baron-Cohen, Richler, Bisarya, Gurunathan, & Wheelwright, 2003; Grove, Baillie, Allison, Baron-Cohen, & Hoekstra, 2015; Wilson et al., 2014). However, differences within the general population have received less research attention. As Ruzich et al. (2015) note, few studies include any characterization of the general population control groups or report any psychometric properties, even the shape of the distribution, of the measures used to assess autistic traits. Yet the power of the theory to explain the cognitive mechanism behind ASD depends on the assumption of interacting continua - finding that high systemizing and low empathizing are not related to autistic traits in the general population would imply that the mechanisms giving rise to autistic traits are qualitatively different in the clinical population than in the general population.

Another aspect that needs attention when assessing the evidence for E-S theory is that most studies have examined empathizing, systemizing, and autistic traits as one-dimensional constructs, although recent studies have demonstrated their multidimensionality. The central and much-used Empathy Quotient (EQ; Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright, 2004), Systemizing Quotient (SQ; Baron-Cohen etal., 2003), and Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ; Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright, Skinner, Martin, & Clubley, 2001) all break into several dimensions (e.g., Hoekstra et al., 2011; Ling, Burton, Salt, & Muncer, 2009; Morales-Hidalgo, HernándezMartínez, Voltas, & Canals, 2017; Muncer & Ling, 2006); EQ into cognitive empathy, social skills, and emotional reactivity; SQ into technicity, topography, and structure; and AQ into social skills, routine, switching, imagination, and fascination for numbers and patterns. We will examine whether these dimensions play different roles in the links between empathizing, systemizing, and ASD traits.

For example, E-S theory suggests that impaired empathizing is only related to autism's social difficulties, and systemizing only to its non-social aspects (Baron-Cohen, 2010), but we know of only one study so far that has found evidence for these predictions within the general population (Grove, Baillie, Allison, Baron-Cohen, & Hoekstra, 2013). Further, the E-S-theory suggests that both cognitive and emotional empathy are impaired in autism disorders (Baron-Cohen, 2010) but research evidence is mixed, with some studies finding impairments only in cognitive empathy (Rueda, Fernández-Berrocal, & Baron-Cohen, 2015) and others finding impairments in both (Grove, Baillie, Allison, Baron-Cohen, & Hoekstra, 2014). …

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