I thought it would be interesting for me to fill out Simon Baron Cohen’s well known autism screening questionnaire on my blog. I have taken this questionnaire many times previously, and usually get a score at the lower end of the autistic range (80% of clinically diagnosed autistics, according to Cohen, score between 32 and the maximum of 50 points), despite experiencing my autism quite severely. I think that the questionnaire is biased towards the male phenotype, and I’m not sure to what extent the AQ is a valid or reliable indicator of whether or not someone is autistic. People without autism might get a high score for other reasons, such as introversion, and the AQ result might change over time ; my own score fluctuates from around 32-38 points.
1) I prefer to do things with others rather than on my own.
I prefer being on my own most of the time, but I do enjoy the company of trusted support workers when I go on some outings, and when I deliver talks I like having the input of others because this reduces stress levels. This question is tricky to answer because my response depends on the context. It is certainly easier to work with others in an organisation when delivering talks (such as Aspie Trainers) than it would be to try and do all the work on my own.
2) I prefer to do things the same way over and over again
This questions depends on what ”thing” I’m thinking about. Certainly I like to go to bed at the same time every night, I need to follow my reading routine most days, and I do certain activities, such as shopping , within the same time frame. My life is very predictable. I eat breakfast at more or less the same time each day, and the same usually applies to lunch and dinner. The only reason I did not put ”definitely agree’ is because I enjoy experimenting with my diet, and eating the same food all the time would not stimulate my culinary curiosity. But maybe I’m being overly pedantic in answering this question, as otherwise I would ”definitely agree”.
3) If I try to imagine something, I find it very easy to create a picture in my mind
What is this question asking me to imagine?. I’m guessing it refers to imagining possible scenarios involving future events or imagining how someone is feeling. I can imagine or conjure up in my mind concrete facts such as what someone looks like (as long as I know them well), but I struggle to picture future outcomes, particularly if they involve social scenarios. This question has me rather stumped as it’s not clearly formulated . It also makes me think of a meditation exercise, where you’re asked to imagine that you’re by a lake surrounded by trees. I can imagine this sort of scenario quite well, however I struggle to immerse myself in the picture because I’m so easily distracted.
4) I frequently get so strongly absorbed in one thing that I lose sight of other things
No doubt about this one!. My reading is extremely important to me, and when I’m deeply immersed in a book, it’s hard for me to summon the energy to do tasks such as cleaning the kitchen or bathroom, or taking the initiative in other areas. My life is on hold until I finish the book, and quite often when the book is finished I am not sure what to do next or how to plan my life. My life revolves around reading and cooking, the two intense areas of focus that guide my life. Also I sometimes get extremely obsessed with something, for example, if someone has said something that I disagree with. My life is literally put on hold until I have rectified what has gone ”wrong” in my mind.
5) I often notice small sounds when others do not
Slight noises that don’t affect others, such as a light being switched on or the soft sound of a creaking floorboard, disturb my sleep in a way that others often don’t understand.
6) I usually notice car number plates or similar strings of information
I am not remotely interested in cars!. This is one of Cohen’s highly gendered questions, revealing his male bias (although I am sure there are women out there who are interested in cars, and vice versa with regard to men). What does similar strings of information mean? If it’s referring to numerical patterns then my answer would be definitely disagree.
7) Other people frequently tell me that what I’ve said is impolite, even though I think it is polite
Really not sure about this one. My parents, particularly in the past, chastised me for my tone of voice or manner of requesting things. However, like many people with autism, particularly women, I have learned to mask my autism when out in public, and therefore the only person who might come out with such a statement these days is my dad.
8) When I’m reading a story, I can easily imagine what the characters might look like
Not sure how to answer this one. Does it mean being able to picture visual details, such as picturing the colour of a character’s hair if you have read that it is blond?. I can picture these details, although my representation is usually quite vague and ill defined with regard to fictional characters. I swing between slightly agree and slightly disagree on this question as I’m not too sure what a ”good” imagination would look like.
9) I am fascinated by dates
This is another stereotypical, male biased question. One of the autism stereotypes is of a Sheldon Cooper type male who is obsessed with nerdy type information such as dates and facts, often relating to maths, science, or TV trivia .
I am slightly interested in historical dates, such as the fact that the fire of London occurred in 1666 (remembered thanks to my synaesthesia – the 6’s are all green), but I’m not great these days at remembering people’s birthdays, and when reading I’m more interested in the meat of the narrative than the dry dates themselves. It was a different story when I was obsessed with Kate Winslet, though. Back then I knew every single film release date, and the date of birth of all her family members.
10) In a social group, I can easily keep track of several different people’s conversations
I try incredibly hard to focus on a conversation, but eventually I shut down and zone out because there is too much information.
11) I find social situations easy
Social situations are extremely hard work.
12) I tend to notice details that others do not
This one is quite hard to answer. I do get sucked into the details when I’m reading, and I can’t do things casually. My approach to life is all or nothing, particularly where my interests are concerned. That said, unlike some autistics, I’m not a grammar pedant, and it’s not the case that I will notice literally every single detail. Also, I’m not sure what others see (that problem understanding other’s minds) , so until I’ve asked another person or really grasped how they see the world, this question is open to interpretation.
13) I would rather to go to a Library than a party
Parties are loud, overwhelming, boring and pointless affairs. I’d much rather satiate my curiosity with a good book; this one is a no brainer, to pardon the pun!
14) I find making up stories easy
Another male biased question. Many people with autism, particularly those with the female phenotype, enjoy retreating into fantasy worlds and are very good at creating elaborate stories. This statement plays into the myth that autistics lack imagination.
I used to tell my mum stories when younger, the ones that began with the classic ”once upon a time”. I’m not sure how easy I find this as an adult, because I have no interest in writing stories these days. I wouldn’t say making up stories has ever come easily to me, though, hence the reason for slightly disagree.
15) I find myself drawn more strongly to people than to things
This question is hard to answer, and I suspect it’s another male biased statement. All my interests are people focused, yet I prefer reading about people than actually being with them, although I do enjoy spending short periods of time with people I like, when the interaction is brief and structured.
16) I tend to have very strong interests that I get upset about if I can’t pursue
This is one of the most obvious and pervasive traits of my autism, although my interests are not geeky and stereotypical.
17) I enjoy social chit-chat
I almost put definitely disagree, but I’m not entirely sure what social situation this is referring to. I hate unsolicited social contact, such as when a stranger tries to strike up conversation on the bus, but in short doses with people I like, I tolerate and can find some satisfaction in social interaction., even though it’s very hard work.
18) When I talk, it isn’t always easy for others to get a word in edgeways
With my dad I would put definitely agree, but I have learnt how to mask this trait when in public, hence why I answer with slightly disagree. But who knows, I would have to ask them, because people are often too polite to say what they really think.
19) I am fascinated by numbers
I have dyscalculia and numbers are just empty symbols that carry no information. This statement is also very male biased and stereotyped.
20) When I’m reading a story I find it difficult to work out the character’s intentions
I used to really struggle with this as a child, and this was partly why my comprehension lagged behind both my mechanical reading and my chronological age.
These days my comprehension for written text has improved, and it is much easier to work out a character’s intentions in a book than in real life, because the latter does not allow enough processing time. When reading fiction, though, I do rely heavily on book reviews and Spark Notes to help me work out the hidden nuances of the text.
21) I don’t particularly enjoy reading fiction
Generally I prefer non fiction books (these days philosophical and psychological works), but I do quite enjoy reading fiction if it is related to my interests.
This statement is very stereotypical, and there are many autistics (particularly women, but also many men) who enjoy fiction, sometimes to the point of a particular work (such as the Harry Potter series) being a special interest.
Briefly, as a child, I was very interested in the Malory Towers series of books by Enid Blyton.
22) I find it hard to make new friends
The whole concept of friendship has always been very difficult for me to understand.
23) I notice patterns in things all the time
I’m tempted to put definitely disagree on this one, but I’m not too sure precisely what patterns this question is alluding to.
24) I would rather go to a theatre than a museum
Yet some people with autism are obsessed with the theatre. Baron Cohen being stereotypical again.
25) It does not upset me if my daily routine is disturbed
Without routine my life feels like chaos.
26) I frequently find that I don’t know how to keep a conversation going
When younger this would have been definitely agree, but my conversation skills have significantly improved with age, although the art of keeping a conversation going is incredibly hard work beneath the surface mask.
27) I find it ”easy to read between the lines” when someone is talking to me
Subtext and hidden meaning in real world conversations completely eludes me.
28) I usually concentrate more on the whole picture, rather than the small details
I am better at whole picture thinking than I used to be, but it does not come naturally to me.
29) I am not very good at remembering phone numbers
If it’s a number that I use often, I can consign the number to memory.
30) I don ‘t usually notice small changes in a situation, or a person’s appearance
I can be visually ”blind” because my visual sense is quite weak. In the past, for example, my mum might have had her hair cut and I would not notice.
However, it does sometimes bother me if furniture has been moved around without my permission, and I will want to put things back to how they were previously.
31) I know how to tell if someone listening to me is getting bored
I sometimes get a hint that someone might be uncomfortable but I am not sure what to do with the information, and will likely carry on with my behaviour anyway unless they explicitly tell me I am boring them.
32) I find it easy to do more than one thing at once
For most activities this would be definitely disagree, but because cooking is my special interest, I am a lot better at multi tasking in the kitchen. I think this is because of constant practice and repetition. However, this does not translate to being able to multi-task in a work environment because I work slowly and to my own timetable, and cannot deal with social interaction demands when I need to focus on cooking.
33) When I talk on the phone I’m not sure when it’s my turn to speak
The pauses can be fairly obvious in a a phone call, but I find it very hard to keep on top of the conversation because working out the cues is not natural for me.
34) I enjoy doing things spontaneously
Everything in my life has to be planned. If my dad asks me to come out for a walk or to speak to someone on the phone, without prior warning, I will get very annoyed and frustrated.
35) I am often the last to understand the point of a joke
I then feel very stupid and it can make me feel excluded and like an outsider.
36) I find it easy to work out what someone might be thinking or feeling just by looking at their face
I can work out obvious facial expressions, and it is easier for me to work out what my dad’s face is conveying (his stressed face is very obvious!), but I can’t work out the faces of acquaintances or casual friends.
37) If there is an interruption, I can switch back to what I was doing very quickly.
I get very stressed if I am interrupted, but if the interruption is to my routine, the greater imperative would be for me to complete the routine so I would want to get back to what I was doing as quickly as possible.
38) I am good at social chit-chat
However, other people might think I am good at social chit chat because they only see the mask. I found this statement hard to answer, and sometimes I answer with slightly agree, as I’m not sure whether my socially competent mask enters the equation. This statement is problematic because of the masking and camouflaging phenomenon.
39) People often tell me that I keep on going on and on about the same thing
Or should that be slightly agree? At home, when I’m not masking, I do have a tendency not to stop talking about one of my passions. But in public, I’m careful not to keep talking. That mask I put on yet again!
40) When I was young, I used to enjoy playing games of pretending with other children
I have fond memories of playing dungeons with two older girls who were assigned by teachers to look after me and play with me at the beginning of primary school ( I had not made friends among my peer group).
When I did finally make a peer group friend at the end of my time at primary school, we played teachers and ”mum and dad”.
However, I struggled to relate to my peer group and often had no one to play with.
This statement is male biased and stereotyped, for it is now well known that autistic girls are more likely to enjoy games involving make belief.
41) I like to collect information about categories of things e.g. types of car, types of bird, types of train, types of plant, etc)
However, why does Cohen not include other categories, such as philosophers, shades of colour, different cuisines, or areas that are more female biased, or, better still, gender neutral?
42) I find it difficult to imagine what it would be like to be someone else
Other peoples’ thoughts and feeling are a mystery to me.
43) I like to plan any activities I participate in carefully
The planning and organising can be very stressful as every detail has to be accounted for, from train times to places to eat to what to wear.
44) I enjoy social occasions
But it depends on the occasion (is it structured or a party?), who is present, and whether or not it involves my interests.
45) I find it difficult to work out peoples’ intentions
46) New situations make me anxious
Although my level of anxiety will vary depending upon how many new variables are involved, as if there is a level of familiarity to the new situation (meeting a new person but in a familiar cafe), I will not be so anxious.
47) I enjoy meeting new people.
Although my curiosity can sometimes get the better of me and bring down my level of anxiety.
48) I am a good diplomat.
Slightly disagree, but not entirely sure.
49) I am not very good at remembering people’s dates of birth
What this has got to do with autism evades my understanding, and I think Cohen is playing at stereotypes again.
50) I find it very easy to play games with children that involve pretending
But not too sure as these days I am never around young children.
Grand total: 38.
Baron Cohen’s studies have shown that adults with a clinical diagnosis of autism tend to score above 32 out of 50, so my score fits into that range. However, as the statements are open to interpretation and subject to male bias, as well as not taking into account masking, the score should be treated carefully. This is particularly the case as Cohen’s team has already identified that males and scientists in the general population tend to score higher than females, so it stands to reason that autistic women and those not proficient in science might score lower on this test than autistic men with the ”male” presentation. The converse is also true: autistic men with the ”female” presentation will also get an artificially lower score. The test is not itself diagnostic, but it concerns me that as a screening instrument it may unfairly discriminate against the ”female” phenotype (that can also be expressed in some men).