The double empathy problem

Good news autistic people, you are not socially deficient.

Dr Damian Milton, Lecturer in Intellectual and Developmental Disability at Tizard Centre, University of Kent put forward the new theory of the Double Empathy Problem in 2012. He said that alongside ‘restrictive interests and behaviours’, the diagnostic criteria state that autism can be defined by deficits in social interaction and communication.

silhoettes of two heads face each other. the brain of one is in rainbow colours to depict autism and the other brain is grey to depict non-autism, both have speech bubbles containing question marks.

Dr Milton says that autistic people do not have social deficits, we just get on better with other people who think like us, Autistic people socialise better with autistic people and non-autistic people socialise better with non-autistic people. It is not that autistic people cannot socialise but that autistic and non-autistic people are equally bad at socialising with each other.

A way of understanding this is when British people visit Arab countries and think a lot of the men are gay because they hold hands walking down the street. Why can’t friends hold each others hands with each other? I think it is nice. It is this culture shock, where people empathise differently from each other that we find between autistic and non-autistic people.

The idea of double empathy immediately made sense to the autistic community but autistic researchers who did not have autism themselves were not so keen as it meant that the history of autistic research was based on a flawed assumption.

The NAS (National Autistic Society) has a very good article on Double Empathy written by Dr Milton which was written in 2018. Things have moved on since then.[1]

Doctor Catherine Crompton of the University of Edinburgh has carried out a Diffusion Chain Experiment (You may know diffusion chain by its old, nonPC name Chinese Whispers). “Autistic peer-to-peer information transfer is highly effective.” It was published about a year ago, but only became available on the internet in March 2022, She experimented with three groups:

  1. All Autistic
  2. All Neurotypical
  3. A mixed group of autistic and neurotypical people

Groups 1 and 2 showed equally accurate results. Group 3’s results were significantly less accurate and unclear. This was preliminary research using a sample size of only 21 people in each group, but it suggests that autistic and neurotypical people communicate equally well within their own groups; it is the mismatch between autistic and neurotypical people that causes the problem. We could do with a larger experiment to confirm this result.

The results are below.[2]