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  • Writer's picturePatty Laushman

The Double Empathy Problem

Updated: May 15

By Patty Laushman


What if I told you that the way we've understood communication and empathy between neurodivergent and neurotypical individuals has been one-sided for far too long? Welcome to the exploration of the "double empathy problem," a concept that could completely redefine our perception and interactions between autistic and non-autistic (or allistic) people.

a neurodivergent man holding his face as he struggles to connect with neurotypical people

For a long time, many theories and assumptions about autistic individuals have been based on the idea that they inherently lack empathy and struggle to connect with those not on the spectrum. However, the double empathy problem suggests that this perspective might be oversimplified, if not entirely misleading. This concept emphasizes a mutual misunderstanding between neurodivergent and neurotypical individuals, rather than putting the entire burden on those with autism.


In this blog post, we will explore the intricacies of the double empathy problem. We will examine its roots, discuss its implications, and explore how a better understanding of this concept can positively impact interactions between autistic and neurotypical people. Whether you're a neurodivergent individual, a friend, family member, therapist, teacher, employer, or simply someone interested in understanding more about empathy and autism, this blog post will likely both challenge and enlighten your perspective.


What is the Double Empathy Problem?

The "double empathy problem" is a concept that originated in autism studies, coined in a 2012 study by autistic sociologist Damien E. M. Milton in the UK. It suggests that the perceived lack of empathy is not a one-way street originating on the autistic side of the conversation, but rather a mutual issue.

a neurodivergent and neurotypical woman arguing

The theory posits that non-autistic people also struggle to empathize with autistic people, leading to a breakdown in communication and understanding from both sides. The basic idea of the double empathy problem is that when people with very different experiences of the world – like neurotypical and neurodivergent individuals – try to communicate and understand each other, they may both struggle.


In other words, just as a neurotypical person might find it hard to understand or predict the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of a person with autism, the reverse is also true. A person with autism might find it equally hard to understand or predict the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of a neurotypical person. This mutual misunderstanding is what's referred to as the "double empathy problem."


The concept of the double empathy problem is important because it reframes the discourse from a deficit-based model (where autism is seen as a set of impairments) to one that emphasizes mutual understanding and communication. By recognizing these challenges, it opens up new ways for us to understand and bridge the gap between neurodivergent and neurotypical individuals.


In a famous 2020 study by Catherine Crompton and peers, the researchers conducted an experiment that involved the game of "telephone," in which a message is relayed in whispers from one person to the next. The experiment was conducted with three groups: one group of eight autistic people, one group of eight non-autistic people, and mixed groups of autistic and non-autistic people.


a neurodivergent and neurotypical woman struggling to communicate

In the experiment, it was found that the groups of either all autistic or all non-autistic people were able to maintain the fidelity of the message very well. However, in the mixed groups of autistic and non-autistic people, the message quickly degraded.


This result supports the theory of the double empathy problem, suggesting that communication issues arise not from an inherent deficit in autistic individuals, but from a mutual misunderstanding when autistic and non-autistic people interact.


The experiment showed that when people of the same neurotype (either all autistic or all non-autistic) interact, they can communicate effectively. The communication breakdown occurs when the two neurotypes are mixed, supporting the idea of a two-way empathy problem.


Understanding how the double empathy problem works improves how we discuss autism by reframing the discourse from claiming autistic people can’t understand, empathize, and communicate, to one that emphasizes mutual understanding and effort. By recognizing these challenges, we are given new ways to further understand and bridge the gap between autistic and neurotypical people.


How Does a Lack of Understanding Impact Autistic People?

When there is a lack of understanding of the double empathy problem, society’s neuromajority (or non-autistic people) assume that the responsibility for understanding, empathy, and communication falls squarely on the shoulders of autistic people, and any miscommunication is solely their fault. This can have several seriously negative impacts on autistic individuals:


Misinterpretation and Miscommunication

a neurotypical man and neurodivergent woman having misunderstanding due to miscommunication

When non-autistic individuals fail to understand the unique communication styles and perspectives of autistic individuals, it can lead to misinterpretations and miscommunication. This can create barriers to effective interaction and understanding.


Social Isolation

Misunderstandings and miscommunication can lead to social isolation for autistic individuals. They may feel misunderstood or excluded, which can lead to feelings of loneliness and increased social anxiety.


Negative Stereotyping

The traditional view of autism often labels autistic individuals as lacking empathy or social understanding, which can lead to negative stereotyping. This can further marginalize autistic individuals and contribute to discrimination or exclusion.


Ineffective Interventions

neurodivergent woman holding her head while struggling in a therapy session

Many interventions and therapies for autism are based on the idea of “fixing” the perceived deficits in autistic individuals. If these interventions do not take into account the double empathy problem, they may not be effective or beneficial.


They may even cause harm by trying to force autistic individuals to conform to non-autistic norms, rather than helping them to develop their own ways of interacting and communicating that are functional within the broader world.


Mental Health Issues

The constant pressure to conform to social norms and the ongoing experience of being misunderstood can contribute to mental health issues in autistic individuals, including increased stress, anxiety, and depression.


Lack of Support

If educators, employers, healthcare providers, and others do not understand the double empathy problem, they may not provide the right kind of support and accommodations that autistic individuals need to thrive.


How the Double Empathy Problem Can Improve Quality of Life

Understanding the concept of the double empathy problem can significantly improve the quality of life for autistic individuals. Here are some ways people close to those with autism can use this new understanding to benefit everyone:


Empathetic Communication

a neurotypical woman tapping her neurodivergent woman friend

Recognize that communication difficulties are not one-sided. Strive to understand the unique communication style of the autistic individual and adapt your own communication to better match theirs. This might involve using more literal language, giving the person more time to process information, or using visual aids to support understanding.


Respect Differences

Understand that autistic individuals have their own unique ways of experiencing the world. Respect these differences and value them as part of the person's individuality. Avoid trying to force the person to conform to typical social norms and instead, appreciate their unique perspective.


Support Autistic-Led Interactions

Encourage interactions and friendships with other autistic individuals. As the "telephone" experiment showed, autistic individuals often communicate more effectively with each other. These interactions can provide valuable social experiences and reduce feelings of isolation.


Advocate for Inclusion

neurotypical woman educating people about double empathy problem for inclusivity

Use your understanding of the double empathy problem to advocate for greater inclusion and understanding of autistic individuals in various settings, such as schools, workplaces, and community groups. This can help to challenge stereotypes and promote a more inclusive society.



Promote Strengths-Based Approaches

Instead of focusing on perceived deficits, identify and promote the strengths and interests of the autistic individual. This can help to boost their self-esteem and confidence immeasurably and encourage them to pursue their passions.


Seek Appropriate Support

Seek out support services, therapies, and interventions that are neurodiversity-affirming and recognize and incorporate the concept of the double empathy problem. These services will be more likely to respect the individual's unique needs and promote their wellbeing.


Educate Others

neurotypical woman talking while educating her neurotypical friend about double empathy

Share your understanding of the double empathy problem with others, including family members, friends, teachers, and healthcare providers. This can help to spread awareness and understanding and promote more empathetic attitudes toward autistic individuals.


By adopting these strategies, people close to those with autism can help to create a more understanding and supportive environment that respects and values neurodiversity.


Conclusion

In conclusion, the double empathy problem offers a transformative perspective on the way we understand and approach communication and empathy between neurodivergent and neurotypical individuals. It challenges us to move beyond one-sided assumptions and recognize the mutual misunderstanding that can occur. This understanding is not just theoretical; it has profound implications for how we interact with, support, and advocate for autistic individuals in our daily lives.


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