The double empathy problem is commonly referenced in the neurodivergent community, especially where autistic people are involved. Read on to learn what it is, how it applies to autism and empathy, and how you might struggle with it.
- Understanding the double empathy problem
- 4 Steps to bridge the gap created by the double empathy problem
- Frequently asked questions about the double empathy problem
Understanding the double empathy problem
The double empathy problem (DEP) is a psychological and sociological theory by Damian Milton in 2012 who found:
- Non-autistic people struggle to empathize with autistic people due to different perceived life experiences. Thus, they tend to dismiss, minimize, and perceive autistic people as deceptive because they can’t fathom the autistic life.
- Autistic people struggle to empathize with non-autistic people due to different perceived life experiences. They know they’re different and that few people experience life the way they do.
Over ten years later, the double empathy problem still rings true today, and can even be applied to other situations, including race and sexuality, especially where people do not understand how their privilege helps them.
The DEP is more succinctly described as:
People with different perceived life experiences struggle to empathize with each other. They may thus assume everyone experiences life like them, perceive people with different perceived live experience as liars, and be surprised/uncomfortable upon learning about someone living life differently.
How do you respond when you feel uncomfortable? Aggression, anger, sadness, depression, etc. are all ways discomfort presents itself. By default, brains usually want to repel those uncomfortable feelings instead of accepting or facing them.
I theorize the double empathy problem is at the root of prejudice, especially since everyone has bias of some kind based on their perceived life experience.
For example, if we apply the DEP to the trans community and people who think trans people are “just confused”, the transphobia boils down to people:
- Not being exposed to trans people growing up
- Being raised to believe that trans people are not valid
- Not questioning own gender growing up
- Questioning own gender growing up and being dismissed or genuinely ultimately accepting own gender identity
The double empathy problem is why diversity training and exposure is so important to society.
Why the double empathy problem is important to know about
The DEP is a crucial concept to comprehend because it affects attachment, which affects relationships. The double empathy problem divides autistic and non-autistic people, preventing them from connecting with each other.
Despite non-autistic (allistic) people wanting desperately to view autistic people as either “severely disabled” (due to intellectual disabilities, rather than just autism) or as if “everyone is a little autistic”…autistic and allistic people are psychologically and sociologically different from each other.
Harms caused by the double empathy problem
Communication is the key to relationships. Where the double empathy problem exists, healthy communication cannot.
As I’m autistic, I heavily rely on analogies and real life examples. Thus, here are examples of how the DEP drove a wedge between my family and me:
- My maternal side of the family believed I only deserved their respect and had rights to have boundaries if I met their conditions. At one point, my aunt said, “If you just had a job, we never would have fought.” I said, “The job was never the issue. It was the lack of empathizing with me, understanding me,” and she interrupted to say, “It WAS the job! The problem is that you just never do as you’re told and have to be different because you think you’re better than us.”
- I used to have a really good job (asset protection), but was told it wasn’t the “right job”. I hated living in Greenville, but loved my job. They constantly assumed my job was the problem and decided the only solution was for me to move closer to them (where they could control me better). I only needed help turning my first apartment into a real home.
- I shared that I applied for a job that I was super excited about. My aunt told her mother, who called me to say that I couldn’t only apply for one job. I replied, “I don’t understand why you’re calling me about this, because I never told you. I’m not going to engage you.” A boundary I had was for them to stop gossiping about me. She called back to tell me not to hang up on her again, because she was my grandmother — “I have a right to know what you’re doing and when.”
- My maternal family isn’t autistic. Any behaviors related to autism, Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) and me choosing to end the cycle of abuse — including having boundaries — were likened to mental illness. “If you just had the right medication, you would stop this boundary nonsense and just do what you’re supposed to.”
These are the more red flag instances, but they’re still good to share because they illustrate events that actually happen in other autistic people’s lives:
- Autistic + non-autistic disagree over a relationship issue’s reason
- Autistic + non-autistic each hold their ground
Relationships destroyed as the result of double empathy problem
From everything I’ve seen and read about autistic people estranging their parents, the double empathy problem is at the heart.
Non-autistic people think autism means a lack of empathy, thereby saying autistic people lack theory of mind — but peer-to-peer information transfer among autistic people is most effective. Theory of mind relies on the ability to empathize with other people. Ergo, the non-autistic narrative is that autistic people lack empathy.
4 Steps to bridge the gap created by the double empathy problem
If you’re not autistic, your instinctual reaction to the DEP may be, “But I DO empathize with autistic people!” This might be because you don’t feel comfortable, rooted in your social intersections. Or because allistic people are often perceived by autistics as being easily offended, often “over the slightest thing”.
Discussing the double empathy problem often turns ironic. Remember what it is? Well, talking about the DEP isn’t comfortable because of the gap. Due to cognitive dissonance and non-autistic (especially neurotypical) behavior, each party tends to back out.
1. Understand your own neurotype and the differences
If you want to truly learn how to empathize with autistic people (and vice versa), or in any DEP situation, you need to understand your differences and how your perception of reality isn’t the entire reality.
Our personal truths are based entirely on our perception of reality and how we process the events. Dismissing this leads to gaslighting and dismissing other people’s perspectives.
Allistic people rely heavily on assuming context, instead of accepting context as-is or applying previous experiences to the situation (also known as deducing). They tend to apply meaning to words, phrases and events where there are no additional meanings.
2. Accept the differences as valid
What really fueled me to estrange from my family in regard to the DEP was them thinking that I thought autistic people superior to them when I was just trying to educate them on the differences.
Instead of accommodating this, my family would yell at me and treat conversations like games they won because I took longer to respond. I’m not a huge speaker unless I need to fill my social need; I’m mostly non-speaking, so to have my family keep score of the times they “won” what were really arguments, because of my disability, was something I couldn’t put up with for the rest of my life.
Neurotypical culture associates slower response times with lacking intelligence or not having a comeback. Neurodivergent people often associate conversing with neurotypicals (or those who subscribe to the culture) as trying to play a game they don’t have any rules to.
3. Learn to be OK with your feelings
The double empathy problem is uncomfortable. If an autistic person tells you, “Okay, the issue here is the double empathy problem,” they’re not blaming you specifically. Both people are generally at fault regarding this theory. It’s NOT about pointing fingers and blaming each other.
The DEP forces people to comprehend and accept their own feelings, and no one is responsible for your feelings except you.
4. Actively seek out other perspectives and experiences
Fill your social media feed with people whose lives are totally different from yours. Learn how to feel comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.
Pop your bubble or expand it. Either way, living life only in your comfort bubble means you will always run into the double empathy problem.
If your perspective of neurodivergent people still relies on defining neurodivergent behaviors and experiences through neurotypical cultural narratives, you haven’t done the work of bridging the DEP gap.
Frequently asked questions about the double empathy problem
How do you relate to the double empathy problem? Share in the comments below.