What do the words “systemising” and “empathising” mean?
Systemising, also referred to as Logical Intent, is about making sense of the world in terms of logic, rules and systems. A system is anything that follows rules. It is about the drive to analyse and construct systems to explain and understand other’s behaviour or to understand how things work. Systemising people see the logic of the world, they focus on facts, patterns and rules. Those who have high systemising qualities may be more interested in their own feelings than of other peoples.
Empathising, also referred to as Social Intent, is about making sense of the world in terms of emotions and feelings. It is the ability to understand and share someone else’s feelings. It is about being able to put yourself in other people’s shoes and feel what they might feel in a situation.
So, what do these words mean in terms of your child?
Neither of these is better or worse than the other – they are simply terms used to describe different ways of making sense of the world. Some people may do a mixture of both. Systemising is not purely a neurodivergent trait – many neurodivergent people favour a systemising approach, and many neurodiverse people favour an empathising approach. Even if someone favours a systemising approach, this does not mean that they don’t experience empathy – this is a common misconception.
You may have heard of the ‘double empathy problem’ or ‘double empathy theory’ presented by a researcher called Dr Damian Milton. This theory is based on the idea that autistic and non-autistic people experience life very differently and that this can make it harder for them to understand and empathise with each other. Dr Milton’s research has found that groups of autistic people are just as good at communicating with each other as groups of non-autistic people – but communication breaks down when autistic and non-autistic people communicate with each other. Importantly, this research shows that it is not a case of autistic people being wrong or at fault – both autistic and non-autistic people need to make an effort to understand and empathise with each other, despite their different ways of experiencing the world.
Here are some ideas to support with exploring things from different perspectives:
Use social stories/comic strip stories to explain about what is expected in a situation, especially something new or something the person may be worried about.
Be aware that your child (and other people in general) may see the world in a different way to you – and that this is ok. It makes the world a more interesting place, even though it may be frustrating at times – for both neurotypical and neurodivergent people.
Label your own emotions and speak about how you manage difficult decisions and situations. For your child to understand the emotions in others they will need to learn about their own. Emotion Coaching is a really helpful technique.
Remember that children develop empathy by experiencing empathy.
If your child doesn’t seem to be responding to your emotions, this can feel really difficult and even hurtful. Try shifting your perspective and engaging with them in a different way – e.g. showing care and attention through spending time playing alongside them at their interests. Video Interaction Guidance can be really helpful for this.
Try to help your child reflect on the positive things in their life. Encourage methods for reflection, e.g. developing scrap books of their achievements. Help them to find activities and experiences that bring them joy.
When a busy day ends for neurodivergent children, this can be a challenge. A sudden drop in adrenaline may make them irritable and you may feel they didn’t appreciate your efforts. Try to remedy this by having a slower come down, such as going home to watch a film together or grabbing a favourite takeaway. -If your child has had developmental trauma remember that they will have a smaller window of tolerance around changes, demands and also to manage their composure.