Dr Thomas Armstrong author, speaker and educational consultant, writes:
"I was happy to see recently a post on the Encyclopedia Brittanica blog that featured an interview with Cambridge University researcher Simon Baron-Cohen on the topic of neurodiversity. When asked about the movement, Baron-Cohen replied: “The neurodiversity movement has been a very positive influence in reminding us that there is no single pathway in neurological development, but there are many ways to reach similar end-points.”
Baron-Cohen is most well known for his research in the field of autism and gender differences. His book The Essential Difference: The Truth About the Male and Female Brain (Basic Books, 2003), presents a fascinating look at two dimensions of human behavior that exist along a broad continuum: empathizing and systematizing. Empathizing, of course, refers to the ability of an individual to get under the skin, so to speak, of another person and to know what they are thinking, feeling, or intending. Systematizing, on the other hand, involves relating more to systems than to people. Examples of systems include: a computer program, a football game, a mathematical system, an automobile’s hydraulic system, or a poker game. It may not surprise people to know that systematizers are more frequently male, and empathizers are more often female. Women get together to talk about feelings, relationships, gossip, and other interpersonal behaviors. Men typically talk about what’s under the hood of a car, last night’s basketball scores, the latest software program, or what’s on TV tonight (and, of course, they control the TV clicker with greater speed and aplomb than women).
Baron-Cohen emphasizes that these behaviors exist along a continuum, and that most people are in the middle of the spectrum, combining aspects of both empathy and systematizing. On the extreme end of the systematizing side, however, one is likely to find individuals with autistic spectrum disorders. A look, for example, at the savants of autism (estimated to account for about 10% of all autistic people), reveals their incredible abilities at manipulating various systems: rapid calculation of mathematical information, incredible fluency with musical structures, extraordinary attention to visual-spatial features of the external environment, and the like. Even those autistic individuals with low I.Q. scores are often found to be obsessed with systems such as the snow on a television screen or the workings of an electric fan. What is significant in Baron-Cohen’s “system” (remember, he is a male!), is that we are all on the spectrum, so to speak, between empathizing and systematizing. As he points out later in the Britannica interview, “The impact of dimensionalizing autism has been very positive, in terms of recognizing that we all have some autistic traits and that the difference between someone who needs a diagnosis and someone who does not is simply one of degree (they have more autistic traits) and their “fit” in society.” Read more