Expert Opinion

Autism, Systemising and Empathy: Some Inside-out Comments

This week is World Autism Awareness Week (Saturday 2 April – Friday 8 April), an annual event which aims to raise awareness of autism and make a difference to the lives of autistic people across the UK and the world.

Throughout the week, we will be posting comments from members of staff across Leeds Beckett University who will share their experiences of helping autistic students in higher education, research which aims to improve the success of autistic students and being an academic with autism.

As someone diagnosed with Autism, I often encounter assumptions that this identity means I’ll be predisposed to ‘systemising’, rather than ‘empathising’. Systemising is associated with finite laws, and thus with numbers, physics and technology. Systemising is not, in the dominant discourse, associated with relating to fellow human beings.

The expectation of Autistic people to be good ‘systemisers’ has been popularised in both medical and cultural discourse around Autism, particularly through the work of the Cambridge Autism Research Centre, led by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen.1 But as an academic working in English Literature, I am uncomfortable with the generalisations it incurs.

At times, the widespread emphasis on ‘systemising’ seems to say more about medical science – and how scientists themselves construct definitions of Autism – than it does about the realities and diversities of what it can actually mean to be Autistic.

The division between ‘systemising’ and ‘empathising’ reaches into assumptions about the subjectivities and skills involved in different academic subjects. Systemising, the same researchers point out, is more of a prerequisite for STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics);2 empathising is more obviously relevant to Arts and Humanities areas.

There are perhaps significant truths at work in such distinctions, but I find the compartmentalising too narrow – and it creates a risk of streamlining forthcoming and future generations of Autistic people towards certain studies and careers.

I am not saying there are hidden masses of Literature Studies academics who, like me, have Autism (although I know of quite a few around the world). I am saying instead that the academically prevalent and culturally popular association of Autism with STEM subjects under-represents and underestimates the diversity of Autistic people.

Adult Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ)

A well-known text which has significantly reinforced fixed associations between systemising and Autistic thinking is the Cambridge Autism Research Centre’s Adult Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) questionnaire (2001).3 The questionnaire is designed only as a preliminary screening test for adult Autism – and its popularity on social media is disproportionate to its actual role in Autism diagnosis. Even so, the questionnaire remains an influential tool in shaping expectations of Autism in both popular culture and medical research.

The questionnaire includes this statement: ‘I don’t particularly enjoy reading fiction’.

Agreeing with that would add to the respondent’s Autism ‘quota’ or profile. Yet for me, a love of fiction is a vital gift of my own Autistic ‘condition’. Stories, then novels, have always been a haven for me. Fiction is a safe but still challenging space in which I can learn about people, and how they relate to each other.

I read more to follow characters than plots – so I tend not to bother with thriller or fantasy genres, since the ones I have read seem to mostly revolve around the endings. What I want to read is the journey.

Mostly, I prefer reading novels to watching films, because I can read, understand and enjoy books at something more like my own pace. Plus, facial recognition is sometimes a distracting obstacle for me. So when watching a screen, it seems to take me longer than most other people I know to actually tell the difference between the actors, and therefore the characters. Perhaps that is partly because glamour, the essence of Hollywood, tends to be so much less diverse (and to me, less intriguing) than reality.


The creation and study of literature still involves systemising. Take a sonnet, for example. There are many different kinds, but nearly all adhere to – or involve awareness of – different systems of interrelating rules and patterns, including how many syllables per line, the positioning of certain rhymes at particular line ends, the sequencing of stressed and unstressed syllables, and a good deal more besides.

STEM subjects, then, do not have a monopoly on systemising. Systemising is, at times, necessary for any formal academic study.

I don’t object to being expected to be a good ‘systemiser’ — so long as you don’t mind being disappointed when you see I am probably not. (And if you think that just because I have Autism, I will be able to advise on your computer problem, then it really is best to avoid me altogether).

But what I continue to be frustrated and worried by is the way in which certain terms and phrases are applied to the Autistic population – or any group of people – in inflexible, seemingly finite ways. ‘Systemising’ is, for me one such example — especially when it is discussed as though a binary opposite to empathy.

I study and teach English Literature because, fundamentally, I am interested in people. That my Autism sometimes renders it hard for me to understand people only makes them more fascinating to me.


  1. Simon Baron-Cohen: Autistic Spectrum Test
  2. See S. Baron-Cohen, S. Wheelwright, R. Skinner, J. Martin and E. Clubley, (2001)
    The Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) : Evidence from Asperger Syndrome/High Functioning Autism, Males and Females, Scientists and Mathematicians
    Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 31:5-17

Dr James McGrath

Senior Lecturer / School Of Humanities And Social Sciences

Dr James McGrath is Senior Lecturer in English and Creative Writing. His scholarly, creative, and community work revolves around the value of interdisciplinary perspectives towards greater understandings of autism, with which he was diagnosed in adulthood.

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