Saturday, September 17, 2011

Simon Baron-Cohen Responds to Criticism from an Autistic Blogger - Part II

Now, I'd like to focus on the first two points in Simon Baron-Cohen's response to Rachel Cohen-Rottenburg, where he addresses her argument that autistic people's generally heightened perceptual sensitivity, and our lack of any sort of filtering mechanism, tends to make us more empathic, not less.

She says:

Many of us experience such a high degree of empathy that we are constantly putting ourselves in other people's shoes and trying to see all sides in any controversy or conflict. Many of our problems with sensory and emotional overload derive from an excess of this ability, not a deficit.

He replies:

1. Rachel challenges whether people with autism have 'theory of mind' difficulties and instead argues that people with autism have high degrees of empathy.

This is however hard to reconcile with the scientific evidence. Literally dozens of studies from around the world have documented the theory of mind difficulties in autism. And the empathy difficulties are also well documented and widely replicated, both on performance tests (e.g., emotion-recognition tests from the face and voice) and on self-report measures (such as the Empathy Quotient or EQ).

Consider the latter, where 81% of people with autism score less than 30/80 on the EQ, by their own self-report, whilst only 12% of people without autism score at this low level. These results are mirrored when parents complete the EQ about their children, in many independent samples. So, whilst some people believe that theory of mind and empathy difficulties in autism are mythical, the results of many independent scientific studies suggest otherwise.
2. Rachel challenges whether people with autism have difficulty knowing when they have hurt others, and wishes I had not stated that children with Asperger syndrome (AS) are delayed in being able to figure out what might hurt another person. Indeed, she finds my statement hurtful.

As a working scientist, all I can do is summarize the empirical evidence. An example is the Faux Pas Test, where children are asked to identify if anyone said anything they shouldn't have said, whilst listening to short audio recorded stories. Children with AS as a group on average scored significantly lower than children without AS, despite being older than the comparison group. Indeed, the design of this experiment allowed us to estimate the size of the developmental delay in AS, since the 12 year old children with AS performed more like typical 9 year olds. So, although Rachel may not like hearing these results, this is what the science finds.

I am not Rachel, but it seems to me like she wasn't denying the existence of those results at all; just saying that those results don't tell us much of anything about what the autistic people in the various studies were actually thinking that led them to do the test "wrong." We know that autistic people don't interpret social situations the same way non-autistic people do; what we don't know is how autistic people do interpret them.

(I am basing the above paragraph on what Rachel has written in this post on the Sally-Anne test for Theory of Mind, as well as her three-part series critiquing the EQ. Her post on the Sally-Anne test, in particular, is interesting because it describes an alternate thought process for a hypothetical autistic child taking the test, and coming up with reasons why Sally might look in other places than where the researcher wants her to look. What's important is that it's not that the kid in this example can't imagine Sally's point of view, it's that ze is drawing on different thought processes and experiences to arrive at different predictions for what Sally will do. The problem with the test is that it treats all wrong answers as failures to imagine Sally's mental state.)

Because I understand Prof. Baron-Cohen's need for empirical validation of these possibilities, I've even come up with an experimental design he (or anyone) could use to evaluate the two-way-street hypothesis that I've been promulgating here.

You'd have a bunch of people, half of them autistic and half of them not, and you would group them into pairs, with each pair including one autistic and one non-autistic member, both the same sex, same age and roughly similar verbal abilities, and just have them interact together for a short while, like 5-10 minutes. You would record their interaction on video, and then you would ask each person, separately, some questions about what happened between them. What they thought felt at certain points (decided on by the researchers sometime between the actual exchange and the individual Q&A sessions), what they thought the other person was thinking or feeling at certain points. You would then compare the two participants' answers to see how well they overlapped. You would also do this with autistic/autistic and NT/NT pairings, and then compare the average degree of similarity of the paired accounts across all three permutations.

This would allow you to see whether autistic people seem to understand each other better than they do NTs, or whether NTs are equally baffled by autistics.

It would also end the stalemate between Baron-Cohen's "well, the evidence says autistic people just don't understand social situations" and autistic people's self-reported experiences of both understanding other autistic people, and of having non-autistic people spectacularly fail to understand, or empathize with, them.


Nitz the Bloody said...

I think this exchange proves that Baron-Cohen shouldn't be throwing around remarks about others' empathy (or lack thereof), unless he wants to buy a new glass house. They're getting more expensive, I hear.

The Untoward Lady said...

I'm not sure about your proposed experimental method. I know that I, and many other autistic people, use language to describe things differently than most neurotypicals and that this language difference does not necessarily reflect a lack of understanding on our, or their part. I would be concerned that such a language difference would color the results. Considering that one of the main weaknesses of the Sally-Anne experiment was the possible contamination of non-typical language use this is a significant limitation in your proposal.

Another problem with the study is that it does nothing to eliminate stereotype threat or other cultural contaminants that could color your participants' self report. (eg: autistic people who are aware that autistic people are not supposed to be able to feel empathy underreporting empathy)

Also, given the fact that autistic and neurotypical people do tend to interact differently I do not know how you would be able to successfully maintain a proper double-blind when the scientist sits down to code the data. Given confirmation bias and the high degree of interpretation possible on this kind of data, it is absolutely vital that a double-blind be maintained.

Finally, you require that the autistic and neurotypical participants be roughly matched in terms of linguistic ability. Given that neurotypical people tend to not have language processing impairments (and you may or may not have to exclude those who do) this would limit the autistic pool to those who do not have language impairment. Given this, any interpretation to the effect that autistic and neurotypical people have no significant difference in empathy would be interpreted as a sample that is not "autistic enough." The only positive conclusion that could be drawn, therefore, would be that there is, in fact, a difference.

Sarah said...

Good analysis. Yeah, when I saw that I knew he just did not get it and wasn't addressing the actual criticism. He can quote statistics about how autistic people fare on the EQ test from now until the cows come home, but that won't make EQ a valid measure of empathy! I know that other scientists have created other metrics to study empathy, so I find it a bit odd--and very telling--that he would keep clinging to the one he invented. The test was designed with the bias that autistic people lack empathy, so it's hardly a shock that we score poorly on it. But I know of one other study which broke up empathy into four components, using a metric which was not designed to be autism-specific. Autistic people did tend to score lower on one of the components--cognitive empathy, I believe--but scored equal or higher on the other three components. That seems a lot more valid to me than Baron-Cohen's self-reinforcing nonsense. I wish I could find a link to this study.

Sarah said...

Also, I urge you to post a link to this on the comments at Autism Blog Directory. SBC might read it, even.

Lindsay said...

@ The Untoward Lady - those are all really good criticisms. I admit I did not spend very much time on my study idea, and I don't know how, or even if, a study like the one I propose could have adequate blinding. And you're also totally right about stereotype threat in the self-reports; I did envision the "debriefing" sessions not to be very open-ended, more direct question and answer about what they thought the other person was feeling at a certain point (the video would be up, and running, and the researchers would pause it at the point of interest) than about the person evaluating how well they seemed to understand the other person overall. But I guess stereotype threat could creep in anyway, with autistic people aware of the stereotype being more likely to just say "I don't know" and not even try to guess at the other person's state of mind.

I didn't really intend this to be a totally ready-to-use template because I figured there probably were a lot of kinks to be worked out. I just liked the idea of having an experimental design that actually compared intra- and inter-group "empathizing" ability across autistics and non-autistics.

chamoisee said...

I think Simon Baron Cohen's Empathy Quotient test sucks. The questions are such that they have a higher selection rate for people on the autism spectrum- this is not and objective test. A true Empathy test would be able to select people with sociopathic tendencies who are not on the autism spectrum. Baron-Cohen's test is tailored for persons on the autism spectrum, therefore it is not, strictly speaking, an empathy test, it is another autism screening test. The test needs to be rewritten by someone without an agenda.

usethebrainsgodgiveyou said...

The Sally-Anne, theory of mind test.

My son,at age 17, IQ 120+ (I don't really know) at age 4 would NOT have understood the question. "Waa waa Sally waa waa marble waa? ("Where does Sally think the marble is?)

The only parts of speech he understood were nouns.

Sally + marble= basket, to a language impaired child. His glass house is built of cards, when the whole basis is a lie.

Sally's marble was in the basket.

usethebrainsgodgiveyou said...

What I meant to say was, SBC's whole "theory of mind" bullshit is no more than SBC's ability to predict autistic behavior, NOT understanding.

How I wish I were like David, to see this Goliath (SBC) fall.

Mrs. Ed said...

So "theory of mind" is supposed to be the end all be all and no other avenues are to be considered and every autistic is suppose to be pegged the same? Sounds like typical mainstream thinking to me. Why break a pattern, that requires thinking.

usethebrainsgodgiveyou said...

I was wrong...he used children of equivalent mental ages to typical controls of age 4, or something like that.

Still, it seems he demonizes autism, which doesnt seem be be a quintessentially human response to his fellow man. Something is wrong with that man, even his "it's all science, look at the numbers" can relieve him of his inhumanity towards those who he works with, and purports to be a world authority on.

With people like Doctor Cohen "helping" us, who needs bullies?

Anonymous said...

If it is a comfort I am a psychologist and I have just undertaken a study using S BC's Autism Quotient test. The results are very interesting with the internal validity ranging from .45 to .62 on the 'alpha cronbach'. If this data is backed up it would suggest his psychometric instrument is ... crap.

Sheogorath said...

@ The Untoward Lady: A couple of years ago, I trolled Ali G's cousin, and while it wasn't intended to be a test of any kind, it did demonstrate SB-C's own lack of Theory of Mind. I can post the email with the pertinent info if you want.