Autistics and the neurotypical often have trouble understanding each other. This is a problem on both sides of the communication equation.
The double empathy problem is a theory first developed by Dr. Damian Milton at the University of Kent. The theory sees communication as relational. Autistic communication operates as a separate language. In the same way that someone will seem shy and withdrawn when surrounded by languages they don’t know, autistic people will seem socially inept in neurotypical (NT) culture. This also works the other way as well with NT’s not understanding autistic minds.
Examples of Miscommunication
Speaking a different social language leads to many misunderstandings. There are many examples of this in the real world. These encompass both autistic people more generally, and my personal experience.
A great example of this phenomenon is eye contact. While eye contact is generally instinctive to NT’s, autistic people generally avoid it. This often comes off as the autistic person not paying attention. However, it can often be downright painful and it is not a sign of a lack of awareness.
Like many other autistic people, I am not someone who holds eye contact. It is a very tiring behavior to perform and I have a feeling my attempts appear unnatural. When I was younger and I hadn’t figured out how to make it look like I was looking at the eyes, authority figures often thought I was distant.
Another example is what in autistic parlance, is known as “stimming.” These are the repetitive movements we often do with our hands and feet. These often are seen as us acting out or being disrespectful in some way. However, these are ways for us to deal with intense environments, manage sensory overload, or even just to show emotion.
I have had many instances of this type of miscommunication. When listening to music or having music in my head, I often tap my fingers. To people who aren’t familiar with it, this is often seen as a sign of boredom. As a result, sometimes disrespect is perceived where none exists.
The best example is probably the differing reactions to a person crying or being overwhelmed. On the autistic side, our meltdowns are not tantrums. In the same way as a volcano can only stop an eruption once all the material is out, we have no control once a meltdown starts. These are the cries of an exhausted and overwhelmed mind. The NT instinct is usually to comfort people in these positions or have them talk through it. However, with autistic people, we need time and space. This usually causes us to keep our distance from others in distress. This can often be perceived as being unsympathetic, but we’re simply following the Golden Rule.
Masking And Mental Health
Many consequences arise from the simple truth that autistic and NT brains work differently. The most obvious example is what scientists call camouflaging but autistics generally call masking. This is the idea that we hide our true selves to fit better into society. This will always be awkward and unnatural. This is much more common in autistic women but is also present in autistic men. They have speculated this to be due to higher social expectations for women than men.
This may seem harmless, but it has several consequences for mental health. Questionnaires and surveys have linked masking to increased rates of depression and anxiety among autistic women. They have also shown the stigma that festers off of societal misunderstandings increases the prevalence of these same issues with mental health. This is in contrast to the long-accepted belief that it is simply the autistic mind itself that is predisposed to mental health challenges.
I have never been great at masking. Despite spending energy to accomplish it, I can’t make it a seamless fit. This worked to create many problems. For one, I lost sight of my own identity and internalized a lot of unhealthy things. For instance, I ended up seeing my autism and by extension, my own brain as everything wrong with me. This led to many issues with self-esteem. It also led to an issue that I often still struggle with separating what’s truly me and what’s been forced on me by societal expectations.
On the other hand, the fact that I was never good enough at masking to pass as neurotypical created problems in society. I was very much an outcast in elementary and middle school. This added to the self-esteem problems. It also led to me being a very shy and quiet person around most people during those years. It took me until my sophomore year of high school to accept myself and come out of my shell.
For many psychological theories, the evidence is hard to come by. The evidence that does come is often anecdotal. The double empathy problem is similar due to its relative newness. However, there is still research that lends credence to its claims.
In May of 2020, Catherine Crompton at the University of Edinburgh and her team tested the theory through what she called diffusion chains. These operated similar to a game of Telephone. In this study, people relayed information between multiple people. What she found was that autistic and neurotypical lines had high scores on retaining the information. This is in contrast to the low scores when autistic and neurotypical people were in a chain together.
What this indicates is that communication issues are not solely the fact of the autistic person. Instead, both parties are responsible for the miscommunication. It shows that pushing the fault onto neuro-minorities is nonsensical. Instead, the fault is distributed between both groups.
The implications of the Double Empathy Problem are immense. It is a theory that turns the general perception of autism on its head. The biggest of these implications is that neurotypicals also have a role to play in limiting miscommunication. It is not a situation where autistic people are socially defective. This means that there needs to be a movement away from pinning everything on autistic people, simply because we are the minority.
One important solution to this problem is simple education. We have to spend most of our lives learning the social language of our NT peers. NT’s need to spend some time returning the favor. This would allow for NT’s to better understand their autistic friends and acquaintances. It also would allow autistic people the ability to take our masks off and allow us to be ourselves. Meeting us in the middle would improve autistic mental health substantially.
This mutual understanding can also be achieved through inclusion. Having multiple types of cognitive perspectives makes both autistics and NT’s have to understand each other. Just like being immersed in a culture helps you understand its language, neurodiversity, and inclusion encourage NTs to learn the autistic social language. We already learn NT just by existing in a neurotypical world but this would help NT’s understand us better. It also would have the bonus of helping autistics feel more like we belong in society.
This perspective is also important in questions of research since we communicate better with other autistic people than NT’s do. By listening, NT’s would find many things they claim are cause for concern are nothing of the sort. For instance, many people believe that stimming is bad behavior that needs to be eliminated. If they listened to autistic perspectives and knew our language, they’d realize that it helps us focus. As a result, they might realize the importance it plays and would be less willing to make us stop.
This would create a more accepting culture. It would cause fewer autistic kids to be outcasts. This would cause them to have more confidence in themselves. As a result, the anxiety and depression epidemics among autistic people could be diminished. This would benefit society as a whole, not just within the autistic community.
Neurotypicals and autistics often don’t understand each other. However, many NTs don’t understand their impact on this misunderstanding. This causes autistic people to have to go to great lengths to maintain social skills that NTs do without thinking. This has serious effects on the autistic psyche. The Double Empathy Problem can be overcome. However, it will require both sides to make the effort to do so.