We often hear from families that our participants lack a sense of belonging within their peer circles at school and other environments. They feel fortunate for their young people to have a community like ours, where they are accepted for who they are as neurodivergent people and can connect with other neurodivergent young people in ways they have not previously experienced.
The sense of our participants ‘speaking the same language’ is not a coincidence - it is rather a genuine shared perspective of their world around them that allows them to connect with one another in ways they cannot with neurotypical peers.
The Double Empathy Problem
The Double Empathy Problem, as coined by Damian Milton, is a concept that challenges traditional assumptions about empathy and communication between autistic and neurotypical individuals. It suggests that the challenges in social interaction experienced by autistic people do not stem from a ‘social-communication deficit’ but rather a lack of reciprocal understanding and empathy that exists between different neurotypes.
I find the easiest way to understand this breakdown (sometimes referred to as ‘the empathy gap’) is to imagine you are an English speaking person from Australia visiting a country like Japan. In Japan people speak a different language, and cultural norms are also significantly different to what is considered typical in Australian life.
If you were to find yourself in Japan, not only would you struggle to communicate with others, but you would likely find yourself making mistakes that do not adhere to Japanese social norms - this could have a variety of negative consequences, the least of which is feeling quite out of place and confused.
Effective Communication is Everyone’s Responsibility
According to Milton's theory, empathy is a two-way street, and both parties involved in a social interaction should make efforts to understand and relate to each other. The Double Empathy Problem argues that neurotypical individuals often fail to empathize with the unique perspectives and communication styles of autistic people.
Consequently, the burden of adapting and conforming to neurotypical social norms falls disproportionately on autistic people, leading to miscommunication, frustration, and social isolation.
Bridging the Double Empathy Gap
To address the Double Empathy Problem, Milton suggests a shift in perspective and a more balanced approach to communication and empathy. This involves neurotypical individuals making an effort to understand and accommodate the unique communication styles, sensory sensitivities, and social perspectives of autistic people. By doing so, it becomes possible to establish meaningful connections and foster genuine empathy between individuals of differing neurotypes.
Limitations of Double Empathy
While Double Empathy provides helpful insights into the difficulties Autistic people face when communicating in neurotypical circles, it is important to note that it is not a blanket concept that means all autistic people will easily connect with one another, and vice versa for neurotypical people - at the end of the day we are all unique individuals with different life experiences, interests and needs.
This theory is very much in its early stages of research and development, and much more work is needed to fully understand it - as well as what can be practically done about it.
Enablers of Shared Empathy
In my personal experience, I've come to realize that relying solely on the concept of double empathy is not enough to navigate the intricacies of human connection and empathy. Being autistic grants me a unique perspective when it comes to relating to other autistic individuals, but it does not automatically guarantee deep, lasting relationships with every autistic person I encounter.
Similarly, I've been fortunate to build meaningful relationships with neurotypical individuals, and communication breakdowns can occur with both autistic and neurotypical people in my life. However, I have identified several enablers of shared empathy that prove to be beneficial and necessary within and across neurotypes.
One powerful enabler is shared interests. I really enjoyed the Netflix documentary, Speedcubers, which beautifully demonstrates the potential of shared interests in bridging the double empathy gap between different neurotypes. The documentary follows the journey of Max Park, an autistic man, and Feliks Zemdegs, a non-autistic man, as they strive to become the world's fastest speedcubers. Despite their differences and competitive spirits, they formed an unexpected and profound friendship through their shared passion for speedcubing.
Compassionate communication is another vital enabler of shared empathy. It involves recognizing that people communicate in diverse ways and creating space for all forms of connection. It requires us to avoid assuming intent and to be cautious about making assumptions regarding what others are trying to convey. By asking clarifying questions and refraining from taking offense, we can navigate miscommunications and foster deeper understanding. We are all imperfectly navigating this world, trying our best to communicate effectively.
Experiencing diversity can be particularly helpful in cultivating shared empathy. The more diverse our experiences are—the people we meet, the places we visit, and the cultures we immerse ourselves in—the more adaptable we become. Diversity challenges our preconceived notions, prompting us to question our own behaviors, assumptions, and approaches to connection. At the very least, embracing diversity helps us build tolerance for difference.
Creating Welcoming and Inclusive Environments
Lastly, creating and contributing to environments that are environmentally and socially welcoming of difference is crucial. Connection becomes difficult when individuals are denied access to spaces that foster inclusivity and appreciation for diversity. By actively working to create inclusive environments and supporting initiatives that promote diversity, we can shrink the gap and enhance our ability to connect with one another.
In conclusion, while double empathy highlights the reciprocal nature of understanding and empathy, we must consider these enablers to foster shared empathy effectively. Shared interests, compassionate communication, diverse experiences, and inclusive environments all play vital roles in bridging the gaps between neurotypes and facilitating meaningful connections. By embracing these enablers, we all can strive for a more empathetic and inclusive society.