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The Double Empathy Problem


One of the most common misconceptions about autism is that autistic people are incapable of empathy, a notion that is sometimes extended to autistic people not even having feelings like neurotypicals do. While both of these notions are wholly false, their sheer popularity serves to highlight a disheartening aspect of humanity that few care to acknowledge. The fact that the majority of people, even if they believe themselves to be compassionate and empathetic, are largely incapable of empathising with anyone who isn't similiar to themselves.

This is a phenomenon with many disheartening consequences (such as doctors, especially male ones, chronically assuming that women are exaggerating their pain) and has special significance in understanding the pitfalls in autistic and neurotypical interactions. An autistic researcher by the name of Dr. Damian Milton even came up with a special term for the phenomenon: the double empathy problem.

Double Empathy Problem in a Nutshell

The crux of the double empathy problem is essentially that there is no objective reason to believe that autistic communication methods and mannerisms are deficient, as opposed to simply different. As such, the difficulties in communication and understanding between autistics and neurotypicals stem not from deficiencies in autistic people, but from the inherent difficulty in empathising with people with sufficiently different minds and communication methods.

Consider a scenario where a vacationer who can only speak Chinese needs to communicate with another vacationer who can only speak Portuguese. The issue isn't that either of the people have an inferior or deficient method of communication - both languages are perfectly valid tongues. As such, it would make no sense to blame one person for the communication barrier, nor would it make any sense to put the onus on them to adapt to their conversational partner's language.

It would certainly be wholly absurd to declare that one of the people is not a truly thinking, feeling, and empathising human being because they are unable to reciprocate the other person's attempts at communication in ways that they can understand. Yet those are the sort of assumption that are commonly made about autistic people due to our natural differences.

As I've previously pointed out, scientific evidence points toward the fact that autistic people on average are no less capable of feeling emotional/affective empathy than neurotypicals are. Emotional empathy is defined as being able to feel another person's feelings and react emotionally to them (i.e., feeling compassion and sorrow in response to their grief). This is in contrast to cognitive empathy, which involves being able to understand a person's emotions via observation and take their perspective.

While it's a common notion that one of the hallmarks of autism is deficits in cognitive empathy, along with deficits in social interaction, the double empathy problem makes a compelling case for abandoning this idea entirely. Much like in the scenario of two individuals with no common tongue struggling to communicate, the difficulties in mutual understanding between autistics and neurotypicals stem equally from both groups not being able to empathise with each other.

A Two Way Street

There has been countless literature penned about the so-called social and empathetic deficiencies that autistic people allegedly have, yet it invariably comes from the perspective of neurotypicals who are used to communicating with people similiar to them. The notion of these being deficiencies becomes questionable when one considers that autistic people generally have no issues communicating with and understanding each other. Moreover, multiple scientific studies have shown that neurotypicals are terrible at understanding and empathising with autistic people.

One study also showed that neurotypicals are highly prone to making harsh snap judgments about autistic people based on first impressions in an in-person and/or audio context, and ostracising them afterwards based on said judgments. This phenomenon occurs regardless of whether the autistic person in general has a high or a low IQ.

It is natural human instinct for a person to assume that they and those like them are normal and that anyone who diverges significantly from said norms is deficient and/or disordered. As I've humourously explored in the past, it's quite likely that neurotypicalism would be considered a disorder or disability if autistics instead made up over 98% of the world population.

The idea that autistic people are somehow inherently flawed brings with it the notion that there is no good reason to understand their perspective and differences to better empathise with them. Inscrutable behaviours from autistic people are assumed to be symptoms of a disorder in the autistic person, instead of a gap in the neurotypical's cognitive empathy abilities.

The social model of disability proclaims that a so-called disabled person is disabled by the society that they are living in, and not by their own so-called impairment. Much like a short person who is unable to reach an object on a supermarket shelf is disabled by the construction of the shelf being intended for taller people, an autistic person is disabled by living in a society of people with radically different minds, who are prone towards brow-beating and ostracising anyone who cannot or does not want to conform to their strict rules for acceptable ways of communicating and expressing oneself.

If an autistic person offends a neurotypical as a result of not noticing social cues from them, they are said to be lacking empathy for neurotypicals. Yet, autistic people are routinely hurt by behaviour from neurotypicals (such as violating our spaces, items, and routines) who refuse to understand their perspectives and ignore blatant cues from autistics that they are being hurt. Autistic people are expected to undergo (often harmful) training and therapies to learn to understand neurotypical perspectives and communications, while many neurotypicals refuse to understand autistic people at all. Who then, is actually lacking in empathy?

Troubles With the Golden Rule

Learning about the double empathy rule can force one to reconsider many big ideas, one of the most chief ones being the validity of the golden rule, commonly stated as "treat others how you would like to be treated". The pervasiveness of this principle, which is systematically drilled into most children during their formative years, arguably has much to do with the unintentional mistreatment that autistics and other neurodivergent people have to endure.

Consider a scenario where an extrovert learns that their introverted friend is depressed and decides to cheer them up by showing up announced at their house to party, knowing that they themselves would be cheered up by a friend doing this for them. Alternately, if you're an extrovert, imagine a scenario where the extrovert is depressed and their introvert friend completely ignores them, figuring that since they prefer to be left alone to work out their grief, their extrovert friend wants the same.

In both scenarios, the person's heart is in the right place, yet their actions are only causing their friend more distress with them. In both cases, the fundamental flaw in their plans is assuming that the other person's mind works the same as theirs, and basing their actions on that idea.

Taking this into consideration, I daresay that the golden rule can be vastly improved by changing only a single word and adding a small disclaimer: "treat others how they would like to be treated (within reason!)" The disclaimer obviously is very important - there's a world of difference between accepting other people's differences and treating them respectfully, and allowing oneself to be manipulated, exploited, and abused.

As I've gone over on the Autism-Tinted Glasses page, there are numerous events and experiences that cause no distress to the vast majority of neurotypicals, that can be quite unpleasant or even torturous to many autistic people. The National Autistic Society in the United Kingdom has some excellent videos depicting how some everyday experiences can feel to an autistic person. While the content of these videos can seem exaggerated to some, and indeed is far beyond what I personally experience, this is the reality for many autistic people that are deemed "low-functioning."

Everyone has at one time or another had to deal with a well-meaning yet obnoxious and overbearing person who genuinely wants to be helpful to other people, yet cannot see anything from their perspective. The sort of person who is convinced that they know everybody's needs and desires better than they themselves do, and insists on enforcing their will on them. For many autistic people, the majority of people that they have to interact with, are that person.

All of this is not to say that autistic people are all perfect little angels. I can confess that I can often be callous with people, and was much worse in this regard as a child. Having done a lot of introspection ever since I discovered my autism, I suspect that some autistic people are prone to eventually becoming bitter from having their autistic needs (undisturbed routine, safety from offensive noises and smells, etc) ignored or mocked, and become aggressively uncaring towards neurotypical's needs.

As autism acceptance continues to grow, more and more people are becoming informed in regard to autistic people and our differences. I am hopeful that we can create a world where both autistics and neurotypicals can understand and respect each other's differences, needs, and emotions. Although I can sometimes be crass towards neurotypicals as a group, I have met many very wonderful and empathetic neurotypicals both online and IRL who have been nothing but understanding towards my own autistic weirdness.

Building that world is, after all, my main reason for working on this section, and is the reason it's at the very top of the sidebar (excluding the front page.)