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Autism and Systemizing: Why Structure Rocks (And It’s Not What You Think)
October 29th, 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Most readers are probably familiar with the stereotype of the highly rational autistic geek with a mind designed for science and numbers — an idea made popular by Simon Baron-Cohen, who considers us “systemizers” with a particular talent for technology, science, mathematics, and related fields (Baron-Cohen 2011, 96, 106-107, 122). The stereotype appears in all manner of media — mainstream news stories, popular books, online articles, and Facebook threads. Based on this stereotype, you get the fascinating phenomenon of retroactive diagnosis, in which everyone from Isaac Newton to Albert Einstein was autistic. I understand the need to develop cultural role models as a source of pride, but there are lots of living, breathing autistic people excelling at the business of being human. Surely, we could concentrate on what they bring?

I tend to chafe against the stereotype of the autistic science geek, for a number of reasons. For one, I have absolutely no interest in science and mathematics. None. I respect science. I respect people who engage in scientific research with conscientiousness and rigor. But the closest I come to having anything to do with math and science these days is to balance my check register every week — longhand, using a calculator to check my math. I can’t say it’s something I love. I like knowing that the books balance and that our money is accounted for, and I’ll admit to a moment of satisfaction when everything comes out just right, but I can’t say that I look forward to the process with great eagerness. It’s just a necessity, like washing my clothes or mopping my floor. It’s something that must be done, and I try to get as much enjoyment out of the doing as I can, but that’s quite different from being naturally wired for it.

I will acknowledge, however, that I do a lot of systemizing. I make lists of tasks. I create rules to keep my blog a safe space. I’m a very organized writer; if I don’t outline my writing beforehand in Word, I write out ideas in my head and switch them around in my mind’s eye, as though they’re part of a visual composition that I have to get just right. I organize my email in folders. I organize my family genealogy in a database. I organize my graduate school research into a dialectic journal. I organize my weekly cleaning tasks into daily reminders on my Blackberry. I organize files and memorabilia into boxes in the attic. (And yes, they’re all labeled.) I made a living for 15 years as a technical writer organizing technical information, and I won an award for a 200-page manual that was basically an annotated list of industry acronyms. So yeah, you look at my life from the outside, and it just looks like my brain is wired to systemize the hell out of everything.

But here’s the thing: The problem is that people spend an awful lot of time talking about the fact that autistic people systemize, but they don’t ask much about why we systemize. Personally, I don’t make lists and rules and keep things in order because I have a natural love of lists and rules and order, or because my mind naturally gravitates to them, or because I’m wired to be a systemizer. I’d really rather not have to be making lists and organizing the hell out of things; I’d rather sail through life as messily and as clumsily as most other people. But I systemize because my experience of the world is intense almost beyond description, because I have to work very hard on things like hearing and speaking that most people don’t, and because most of the information that comes through my senses is not filtered in the way that most people take for granted. So yes, I do a lot of things to organize my life and my thoughts, but it’s an adaptation and a way to gain control over a very intensely felt experience.

It was a huge relief when I got diagnosed and realized I wasn’t a just a control freak. It was a wonderful day when I realized that I’m a person with a disability who has adapted to it by using my mind to structure my experience. And yes, I do have a very analytical mind. I can analyze the hell out of almost anything. But my analytical skills are in direct proportion to how painfully sensitive I am about a great many things that aren’t even a blip on the radar of most people.

Of course, the other problem with the whole idea of autistic people being systemizers is that systemizing is placed in opposition to empathizing (Baron-Cohen 2011, 117) — as though one can have a high level of one or the other, but not both. That’s absolute nonsense. My systemizing is directly proportional to my empathizing, which is directly proportional to my intensely sensitive experience of life. They’re all of a piece. They’re not in opposition. Not in any way, shape, or form. If I didn’t feel the experiences and the suffering and the joy of other people so intensely, I wouldn’t concern myself so passionately with creating structure.

Structure is good. Structure rocks. Structure is one of my favorite words. But it’s not because I have a mind that naturally gravitates to structure. It’s because I have a mind that needs structure to contain and make sense of the intensity of experience that is part of autism.

References

Baron-Cohen, Simon. The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011.

© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


9 Responses  
  • Kim Wombles writes:
    July 17th, 202411:06 amat

    I think there are natural systemizers. I’m one. I thrive on order, love structure, and go into sensory overload when my home or office is out of order.

    The question should be whether systemizing is a bad thing, or a deficit. Overall, no. If the systemizing is so severe as to rise to a compulsion that gets in the way of living one’s life the way one wants, then yes.

    At least Baron-Cohen’s early theorizing on systemizing/empathizing is an attempt to explain differences in a non-stigmatizing but overly simplistic way-it’s obvious, though, that this is where he started down the zero-empathising route that led him down a horribly flawed and dangerous path.

    Autism is a spectrum–vast and wide and deep–it’s time to recognize that and appreciate the inherent diversity within the spectrum–that not all DSM criteria will apply, that everyone’s neurology is different and that one’s personal experiences may not extrapolate out to all autistics experiences.

    • Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg writes:
      July 17th, 202411:06 amat

      Absolutely, Kim. I think there are plenty of autistic people who are simply great systemizers. My argument is against the stereotype that we all are and that it is the defining characteristic of autism. It can’t be a defining characteristic if some of us simply aren’t wired that way. There are some autistic minds that are wired for systemizing, just as there are some non-autistic minds that are wired for systemizing. The danger is in the overgeneralization.

      Whether Baron-Cohen set out to describe autism in a non-stigmatizing way, it would be impossible to set up systemizing as the polar opposite of empathizing and not have it be anything other than a stigmatizing identifier.

  • Ben S writes:
    July 17th, 202411:06 amat

    “systemizing is placed in opposition to empathizing”

    and this is not the only example i can think of where things are considered diametrically opposite, which often has me asking, ‘okay WHY are you assuming you can only have one without the other?’ is it an example of black/white thinking in a human being, or something else? i’ve had innumerable experiences though my life where i was feeling supposedly opposite things at the same time, etc. but then, i’m autistic, so not naturally a complex kind of person……(insert sarcasm here)

  • AnnaBWell writes:
    July 17th, 202411:07 amat

    Rachel, I am so much like you (in the necessity to use systems of organizing just to get through the day.) And, it seems to me, that I am beyond empathic when I compare and observe how other people seem to express their relationships in/to/with the world.

    Just a thought: I wonder if there is a different “expectation of the expression” of empathy that researchers have and that they are not aware of in themselves. Of course, this is also called bias. No researcher wants to be accused of bias. But there it is. And further, that in females there is more bias toward females in their “expectation of the expression” of empathy.

    I love reading your blog again, Rachel!

  • Faithful NeuroDiversity writes:
    July 17th, 202411:07 amat

    Thank you for writing about ‘why’! I love reading your work and have gotten half-way through your anthology 🙂 This explanation describing ‘WHY’ is unique and much more helpful…

  • Belfast writes:
    July 17th, 202411:07 amat

    I have to use external structures in order to be systematic-these things don’t organize themselves.

    I’ve been told that I’m “so organized”-and I think “Ha! As if.” It requires constant effort & attention for me (for instance) to make it to my appts. each week on time.

    I suppose outsiders don’t see all the behind-the-scenes work, they just perceive the results. My life is “all over the place”, there’s all sorts of stuff beyond my ability to keep track of-but the people praising my apparent organizational prowess aren’t privy to that data, I guess.

    Also, I’ve been called “so logical” and I laugh at that one, too-because I will remind the person of numerous occasions when I’ve been quite the opposite, where I’ve been told that I’m “so emotional” (unable to access intellectual mode).

    Well, I’m both: “rational” and “feeling” (and with great intensity in both domains).

    Perhaps each tendency/priority is elicited by different stimuli-yet that doesn’t consign me as an individual (one w/ASD, at that) to being absolutely/exclusively one extreme or the other.

  • Slaine O'Halloran writes:
    July 17th, 202411:07 amat

    Hi Rachel,

    I was wondering if you would mind if I linked to this post on the Blackwood Foundation’s social network, bespoken? I think some of our members would find it very interesting.

    • Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg writes:
      July 17th, 202411:07 amat

      Slaine, that would be fine. Just provide attribution with the link. Thanks!

  • Elizabeth McClung writes:
    July 17th, 202411:07 amat

    You can choose Simon Baron-Cohen and his ilk, and accept that you have a ‘hyper masculinized mind’ or the ‘extreme male brain’. And you can accept that thus you have no ‘empathy’ because he states it so. And accepting it and reading Zero Degrees of Empathy you can understand that those who have no empathy, are ‘evildoers’ because they have had ‘empathy erosion’.

    Or you can just accept that this is all an intellectual exercise for him and he really doesn’t care who gets hurt. And then turn to german studies or Markham who have found that females with autism spectrum disorder tend to have ‘too much’ empathy. Someone once told me that often what is percieved as madness (or disfunction) was the inability to have the filter that others do regarding the intense mass of data, feelings and sensations flooding in.

    Modeling, systematic trial and error, re-adjustment. I knew what I knew, and still know, since I remember it all but it took 30 years to be able to explain it to someone else. When I tried to communicate with my now spouse, I would ask her to read a book, one a week for 12 weeks: Because I had understood and felt something reading ‘The Little Prince’, I assumed she would. Then I turned on a film which gave me the largest feeling of an emotion and left the room. I believed she would understand the emotions of the films, and thus, over the weeks, understand what I was saying to her and ABOUT her. Yet I never actually spoke.

    Turns out that system sucks. But I was HIGHly empathetic, and assumed everyone had that. In the same way at a store I held my hand out with the change, based on my calculating the price of the books, the tax and the likely bill they would pull out. This, however disturbed both co-workers and people buying books, because I didn’t know how to say anything when they demanded, “How did you KNOW the change?” All I could say was, “You were likely to pull out…a twenty; a ten and singles; exact change.”

    Later, with the help of a ‘norm’ translator, I was able to make regular contact.

    Also, empathy is a term for a type of German painting movement, where the painter ‘empathizes’ with the character – The world itself isn’t used until the 40′s, and now we are determined in gender and ‘evil’ by it?


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