The double empathy problem
Written in January 2022
One of the most commonly held myths about autistic people is that we have no empathy. While some of us may not feel empathy in the way that allistics (non-autistic people) understand it, we do have and feel empathy. Some of us feel empathy in the same way that allistic people do, and we can even feel empathy more deeply than allistics.
Before we delve into the double empathy problem, we need to understand that there are two separate subtypes of empathy (there may be other ways of describing or experiencing empathy but these are considered to be the two main subtypes). There's affective empathy, which is the experience of feeling someone else's emotions based on what you read from them, whether that's body language, tone of voice or the actual words they're saying. It's similar to having and feeling a shared experience, and it's an intuitive understanding of the other person's emotions. This is the type of empathy that autistic people struggle with most when it comes to “reading” allistics.
The second subtype is cognitive empathy. This is the intellectual experience of understanding the emotions of another person based on the cues described above as well as the actual description of the experience that person is going through. For example, someone might say “I am feeling sad because my pet has died”, which is a clear statement. Autistic people are capable of understanding and experiencing this type of empathy more readily than affective empathy.
Some of us are able to build up an empathy library or database, where we categorise experiences and the associated emotions. We can learn that the death of a friend, family member or pet creates sadness, and we can learn that being laughed at causes shame or embarrassment. We can be really good at displaying both affective and cognitive empathy for people we know and understand well, based on our experience of that person and our internal emotional database. This means that some autistic people can seem to intuitively know how someone is feeling even when they haven't directly told us. This is one of the qualities that makes us great friends.
Sometimes, we experience so much empathy that it is overwhelming to us and becomes too much to process. We may seem cold and uncaring because we're still processing and trying to understand, and we're not giving you the non-verbal signals and shows of empathy that allistics expect. This misunderstanding makes people think we lack empathy altogether.
I believe that this misreading or misunderstanding feeds into the double empathy problem. The double empathy problem is the way allistic people lack empathy for autistic people. Allistic people are not able to feel affective or cognitive empathy towards us autistic people, because they cannot understand our experience of the world intuitively (affectively) nor are they able to experience cognitive empathy towards us for the same reason. Some allistic people can, with effort and a lot of education, understand our experience of the world and feel cognitive empathy for us, but it takes a lot of work and unfortunately, most allistics are not interested in learning or understanding the experiences of a minority group.
It's a recent realisation for me that the double empathy problem is the reason why talking to people tends to make things worse for me. I feel invalidated and shamed by people when I try to discuss my problems and negative emotions or experiences because these people, by and large, are unable to understand my experience of world. It is so far removed from their own experience that my problems seem to be stupid, or not real, or overstated. Instead of allowing me to have my experiences, I am told that my problems arise from facets of my autism. While this may be true in some cases, it is unhelpful to point out that my autistic thinking or feeling is the cause of all my problems and to withhold empathy on this basis.
Instead of receiving understanding, or even just acceptance of what I say and feel, the default position is that I have overlooked something, or done/not done something that is the reason why the problem or negative experience is happening. There are no supportive comments, no validation of my experience and feelings, and often support is given to the other side of the issue. I then feel ganged up on by the cause of the initial problem AND by the person I have decided to speak to about it. I have heard things like “well this is coming from nowhere”, “what have you done about it”, “your thinking is too black and white”, “that's just life” and “you're over-reacting”. As a non-autistic person, how do you feel when people say these statements to you when you just want someone to listen, accept you and validate your existence?
This denial of experience or denial of existence happens on a more superficial level too, but more frequently. When we communicate that something is too loud/bright/hard/loose and are told “no it's not”, or “well I can't hear it” or “you're being too sensitive” and our experience of the world is invalidated on a regular basis, we start to feel invalid as people. We feel “wrong” because we're almost constantly told we are wrong about our experience. The overall effect is significant.
Is there a solution to this problem? Yes and no. The solution that would best benefit everyone is if allistics were willing and able to understand and accept different viewpoints and to flex their supposedly excellent abilities in the area of theory of mind. In the meantime, the solution is to be prepared to be met with a lack of empathy or to avoid talking about problems I may face. This solution, in itself, is an invalidating one, and so the solution to the problem further compounds it.