Addressing the double empathy problem 

Written in June 2023


For those who haven't heard of the double empathy problem here is a good primer:

My recent work designing and delivering neurodiversity training for employers and service providers has shown me something very interesting.


I can explain what neurodiversity is as a word with meaning, and as a concept in both society and employment contexts. I can provide insight into the history of treatment of neurodivergent people, and explain some ND conditions that people might be familiar with or not. This is all important stuff; this basic context and knowledge is vital for people's understanding.


It's when I explain some neurodivergent behaviour, when I explain what it's like having a brain that works differently and trying to make that work in a world and society that isn't always set up for us that people start taking notes, and listen more intently.


When I explain the fawn response, which builds on the general knowledge people have of fight/flight, I can see people linking that information with something real in their own experiences (of themselves or of others). When I do my bit, adapted from this blog, about ND behaviour and how our natural, honest behaviours are misinterpreted there are lightbulb moments everywhere. When I talk about the idea of social credit in hierarchical social structures* I feel like the kid in The Emperor's New Clothes who points out the thing that everyone's trying to ignore for fear of looking foolish.


It's these insights that are helping to break down some of the understanding barriers that become a barrier to miscommunication and misinterpretation. So yes, neurodiversity training can help address the double empathy problem but it's a very specific aspect of this training – the translation and explanation of neurodivergent behaviour, as well as the spotlight on neurotypical behaviour that creates its own issues – that actually makes the difference.

I think this helps address the double empathy problem by showing that neurodivergent behaviours are not enacted with the intention that seems to be appended to them by the recipient. When people can understand that their biases or lack of knowledge are contributing to the communication problem they can do something about it. Addressing the double empathy problem must involve neurotypical people taking on the same understanding, and giving the same accommodations to neurodivergent people as we are already doing for them.




*This is my working theory of social structures and how the rules change depending on one's place in the hierarchy. The people at the top (the ones with the most social credit either by virtue of holding the top position, or because they are genuinely nice people) can do things that the people at the bottom are not allowed to do without reproof. Things like eating tuna in the office, leaving work early, or always getting their own way in group decisions.


Social credit is obtained through status, and through exhibiting behaviours that are desirable to said group (but these behaviours aren't the same for every member – for example men can be directive and take charge and this is desirable and rewarded, but in a woman this is seen as negative behaviour and is punished). Being funny obtains social credit, doing things for others obtains social credit, and putting one's own needs last obtains social credit in many social hierarchies, especially so if you are at the bottom. Having certain physical characteristics, or wealth, also obtains social credit when these things are perceived as having value in that social group.


Neurodivergent people often end up putting their own needs last and doing things for others in a bid to obtain social credit that might weigh against the social debits that are part and parcel of being neurodivergent. Or we make people laugh if we can, but this also isn't always healthy behaviour if we are laughing at ourselves, or “playing the fool” and therefore not being taken seriously.



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