Hands in a heart shape holding an infinity rainbox. Underneath the words Sandra Bell ND Coach
#3 Double Empathy Problem
    • Autistic people do not lack empathy.
    • Communication difficulties come from both parties lack of understanding of how each other prefer to communicate, not just from the autistic side.
    • How autistics prefer to communicate also deserves to be understood and respected.


In essence the Double Empathy Problem put forth by Dr Damian Milton is that the communication difficulties that autistic people experience is not due to a lack of empathy or theory of mind, it is that neurotypicals in these interactions are also lacking the knowledge to understand autistic communication.

So it isn't just a case of autistics not understanding how neurotypical's prefer to communicate it is also neurotypicals not understanding how autistic's prefer to communicate.

The flow on effect of using this double empathy lens instead of the usual NT centric lens is that both parties need to learn more about each others' communication preferences, and that neither way is thought to be superior or 'correct'. That means no more social skills classes just for autistic kids. It means if you want to explicitly teach social skills it needs to be in a way that everyone's preferred method of communicating is included and considered equally valid.

Because I didn't find out I was autistic until I was already in my 30s I wasn't put into social skill classes, but I sure was 'taught' by the NTs around me that how I thought and behaved was 'wrong', and I felt less than because of that. 

In social skills classes autistic children are often taught to behave and communicate in 'expected' ways so that those around them can feel 'comfortable'. On the surface that sounds quite reasonable, no one wants to make others feel uncomfortable, but what it really does is tell an autistic child that the way they naturally communicate is 'wrong'.

As an autistic individual I often find that neurotypical behaviours and communication styles make me feel 'uncomfortable'. Like if I am on my way to a particular task, heading off to an appointment, it makes me uncomfortable when people still want to make small talk even when (in my mind) they must know they are making me late. Being late makes me extremely anxious so I'm always early. That doesn't mean my way is correct, what it means it that I often still do the small talk, I just try to cut it off as soon as I think I can do so without appearing rude (although I suspect I often still come across as rude). BUT if that other person knew how autistic people like me prefer to communicate - direct, to the point, when it achieves a purpose they see value in - then maybe they would be the ones to cut it off because they would understand that just being on time feels like being late to me and they don't want to make me uncomfortable by not taking that into consideration.

So all we are asking for is that our communication preferences receive just as much consideration as the communication preferences of others. That way we can all understand each other better, without making anyone feel less than.

Thanks for reading.

I'm here; I get you; I got you!


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