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15 The Theory of Double Empathy

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

Imagine being in a world where no one around you speaks your language. How would you feel?

I think most of us would feel isolated, struggle to communicate with others and subsequently find it more challenging to build relationships.

Well, what if the reason many autistic individuals have difficulties socialising is because they are speaking a different language to neurotypical individuals?

*insert* The Theory of Double Empathy…

What is the theory of double empathy?

The idea that there is a disconnect in communication between neurotypical (NT) and autistic individuals, has been circulating in the autistic community since the 1990s. However, in 2012, an autistic researcher, Damian Milton coined the term the theory of double empathy, formally proposing an alternative explanation behind the malfunction in communication between neurotypical and neurodivergent individuals. So let us break it down…

Firstly, what is empathy? Empathy is defined as ‘the action of understanding, being aware and sensitive to the thoughts, feelings and experiences of another’ [Merriam-Webster]. Thus, when we refer to double empathy, we understand empathy to be a two-way process that depends on our expectations and past experiences [Crompton, C. J., DeBrabander, K., et al., 2021].

When these differ greatly, there is a mismatch and difficulty in communication. This is the basis of the theory of double empathy. It hypothesises that autistic individuals are not inherently less empathetic than NT individuals but instead, there is a difficulty in understanding and empathising with each other, which is mutual. To expand, an autistic individual may find it challenging to understand or predict the thoughts, feelings and behaviours of an NT person and equally, an NT individual may feel similar in regard to an autistic individual. These communication barriers can make it more difficult for either individual to connect and can explain the most common characteristics surrounding autistic individuals and their struggles within social situations and when building relationships.

It is well known and widely accepted that neurodivergent (ND) and NT individuals have different ways of processing information, but they also have different ways of communicating to which unfortunately, less credence is given. Autistic individuals more commonly rely on visual and sensory information to understand their environment, whereas NT individuals rely more on verbal and social cues. Hence, the theory works on the principle of ‘different rather deficient’.

What evidence do we have?

Autistic individuals can find it hugely exhausting and perplexing to understand NT ways, and likewise, NT individuals may find it uncomfortable and difficult to relate to, hence socialising with autistic individuals. As humans, we tend to gravitate towards people we feel comfortable around, and often this stems from a feeling of relatability and shared interests.

Thus, research has been undertaken to explore whether autistic individuals connect more easily with other autistic people. In one particular study, two randomly paired adults, unfamiliar with each other, were asked to interact on the phone for 5 minutes. The outcome exhibited that the quality of interaction between two autistic individuals was just as strong as that between two NT individuals, unlike the interaction between an autistic and an NT individual [Morrison, K.E., DeBrabander, et al., 2020].

However, it should be recognised that studies undertaken to further understand the double empathy problem are still limited, focusing mainly on teenagers and adults without an intellectual disability [Crompton, C. J., DeBrabander, K., et al., 2021]. Thus, there remain many questions, including – is this theory due to inherent or learned behaviour shaped by past experiences, how might communication differ between individuals with an intellectual disability and is there a way to bridge the communication gap?

What are the implications?

The double empathy problem can have significant implications for autistic individuals. Their inability to form and sustain relationships in a way recognisable to the heavily NT-influenced world around them can lead to individuals feeling misunderstood and isolated, consequently causing loneliness and mental health issues. This lack of recognition of how autistics build relationships can result in a lack of opportunity in the working world. This is not only a concern for the individual left out in the cold but also for the workplace who will miss out on alternative thinking, ideas and visionaries if the communication gap is not recognised and bridged. As we make allowances for differing communication styles from various countries, ethnicities and cultures why should the differences between ND and NT individuals not be seen, recognised and appreciated too?

Thus, this research is key to creating awareness of the double empathy problem. By further understanding each other, we can learn how best to support one another and create a more inclusive society. It is important to understand that there are different types of communication and not assume that there is necessarily a lack of communication. Communication can be different, rather than deficient.

Thanks for reading,

Nidhi :)

 

References

Crompton, C. J., DeBrabander, K., Heasman, B., Milton, D., & Sasson, N. J. (2021). Double empathy: Why autistic people are often misunderstood. Frontiers for Young Minds. https://kids.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frym.2021.554875. Accessed 13 September 2023

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Empathy definition & meaning. Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empathy. Accessed 13 September 2023

Morrison, K. E., DeBrabander, K. M., Jones, D. R., Faso, D. J., Ackerman, R. A., & Sasson, N. J. (2020). Outcomes of real-world social interaction for autistic adults paired with autistic compared to typically developing partners. Autism, 24(5), 1067–1080. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361319892701

Reframing Autism (2023) Milton’s Double Empathy Problem: A summary for non-academics. https://reframingautism.org.au/miltons-double-empathy-problem-a-summary-for-non-academics/. Accessed 18 October 2023

Zamzow, R. (2021). Double empathy, explained. Spectrum. https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/double-empathy-explained/. Accessed 13 September 2023

Zauderer, S. (2023). The double empathy problem in autism, explained. Life-Changing ABA Therapy - Cross River Therapy. https://www.crossrivertherapy.com/autism/double-empathy-problem#:~:text=The%20theory%20of%20double%20empathy,empathizing%20with%20others%20is%20mutual. Accessed 13 September 2023


Cover image: Stimpunks Foundation (2023) Double empathy problem. Available at: https://stimpunks.org/glossary/double-empathy-problem/ Accessed: 18 October 2023



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