Social Cognition: What Is It and What Does It Tell Us About How to Teach? (page 2)

By — Autism Society
Updated on Apr 3, 2009

Systemizing and Empathizing

Another exciting learning theory that directly relates to the question of how those on the spectrum learn is systemising (Baron-Cohen, 2006). This theory suggests that people with ASD tend to be “hypersystemizers” and “hypoempathizers.” That is, they learn most effectively through the use of rule-governed systems and seem to have the most difficulty when learning involves understanding emotional or social concepts.

Baron-Cohen suggested that the person with ASD is driven to create systems to make the information easier to understand and predict. Examples of systems include task lists, predictable routines, train schedules and sports statistics. These systems are rule based and easier for the student with ASD to understand. The hypersystemizer theory explains why a person with ASD might rely heavily on schedules and routines.

Hypersystemizing also involves focusing on the details of things to determine if they follow different rules. Focusing on differences rather than similarities can cause a person to resist any generalization. For example, transition to middle school can be difficult for all students, but for students with ASD, the differences in the environment and schedule may make it difficult for them to use information previously learned. A student may have learned to follow a visual schedule in elementary school, and through the use of the schedule, was able to accept periodic changes in her daily routine, accept teacher input and mak independent transitions.

However when this student goes to the new environment, she may focus on the differences in the “system” of school and expectations rather than the similarities. Consequently, she may not be able to function with the same level of independence or success because she is encountering an unfamiliar system.

How then does this relate to teaching social information? If a person’s strength is in systemizing and her challenge is in empathizing, then it makes sense to use a system to teach social and emotional information. For example, a person with ASD might stand too close to another person, causing that person to feel uncomfortable. People not on the spectrum intuit social distance. But how is it that we automatically know when we have encroached on someone’s personal space, and how do we communicate that to people on the spectrum? Using language embedded with social and emotional concepts relies on a strength in empathizing, which is likely to be the most difficult channel of learning for students with ASD. Thus, it makes sense to use the student’s strengths in systemizing to teach a social skill that involves the use of social-emotional concepts, such as “personal space” and another person’s “feelings.” One example of a rule-based system to teach personal distance involves the use of a scale, such as the Incredible 5-Point Scale (Buron & Curtis,2004). A personal space scale might look like Figure 1

Figure 1

5:  Too Close — you are hurting the other person!

4:  Too Close — other person is afraid of you or uncomfortable around you. This could include staring.

3:  Your touch or facial expression is confusing to the other person. Person might avoid you.

2:  This could include a casual touch like a “high-five” or a tap on the shoulder to get someone’s attention. Everyone is relaxed. This also could include close touch, if everyone agrees that it is comfortable.

1:  This is no touch at all. You are standing at a distance. This is fine, but sometimes it is too far away, if you want to talk to someone or get their attention.

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