Autism and the double empathy problem: The barriers to effective support
Autism is spoken of in various ways by wider society, however there exists a pervasive theme to most discussion on this topic. Society treats autism as though it were a separate entity inhabiting the bodymind of an otherwise neurotypical person. It is approached as something that obscures the true Self rather than the defining factor in our human experience that it is. Autistic people are the only part of autism that actually exists, so why are they denied the opportunity to communicate their experiences and lead the way on knowledge creation about autism? How can we use the double empathy problem to understand our exclusion from knowledge creation?
What is the double empathy problem and what does it mean for Autistic people?
The double empathy problem was first spoken of by Damian Milton in 2012. It positions Autistic people as a minority cultural group. The essential basis of the double empathy problem can be understood as thus;
“Milton’s theory of ‘double empathy’ proposes that Autistic people do not lack empathy.
Milton argues that Autistic people experience the world and express emotions differently to non-autistic people. We communicate, experience and display emotions, interact with others, form relationships, and sense the world around us, differently to non-autistics. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have emotions or feel empathy.
But it makes it difficult for non-autistic people to understand and to empathise with us. And us with them.”Reframing Autism (2020)
This then allows us to consider the cultural differences between Autistic populations and non-Autistic populations. Much as a white person may fail to understand the lived experience of racism, non-Autistic people fail to understand Autistic experience and vice versa. This absence of context presents an issue for the Autistic person when trying to communicate within power structures that favour non-Autistic ways of embodiment and existence. We are labelled as being in deficit because of a pervasive neuronormativity within non-Autistic populations.
How does neuronormativity unbalance power dynamics for Autistic people?
Neuronormativity draws it’s position largely from western colonialism (although cultural standards of normativity do differ from group to group) and the belief that one must assimilate into the majority population, becoming a “productive citizen” within ones socioeconomic system. It creates a strangely reductive notion of one either being helpful or a burden. The existence of neuronormativity can be view as logically fallacious in it’s origins; specifically, it is situated within a fallacy known as “argumentum ad populum”. This means that the argument to support neuronormativity uses it’s acceptance by the majority as it’s evidence base.
This is of significant concern for minority groups. Normative values are often used to suggest that one’s humanity is based within a contained and isolated set of values and styles of embodiment. If one need only make an appeal to the masses for something to be true, then almost any dissent from minority groups becomes “inaccurate” or “without evidence”. Thus, the power structures of society favour a predominant neurocognitive style over anything that diverges from it.
How does the double empathy problem obstruct Autistic people from communicating their experiences?
The power imbalances that exist have created a world within which Autistic people can not be correct about their own experience. If one asserts that natural Autistic communication is valid, then the majority can simply view that knowledge as inaccurate by virtue of it coming from a minority group rather than the majority. The double empathy problem means that not only does neuronormativity exist, but the dominant group can’t ever fully empathise with how harmful it is.
Not only can dominant groups not understand our experience, neuronormativity tells them that neurocognitive styles outside of their understanding are something that need to be corrected. This allows for the mass administration of harmful interventions such as ABA, PBS, and quack cures like MMS. We are effectively dehumanised by the majorities refusal to step outside the comfort zone of their own worldview, leading to potentially life threatening consequences.
What does the double empathy problem mean for Autistic people in practice?
This gulf between cultural experiences couples with neuronormative attitudes allows professionals in various multi-disciplinary fields to ignore our voices when we advocate for ourselves. In practice, professionals will try to enforce their own opinion of what is needed by the Autistic person rather than allow the Autistic person to speak their own truth. It is the effective oppression of Autistic people contributing to the minority stress that we experience as a minority cultural group.
- Healthcare professionals don’t listen to us
- Social care professionals don’t listen to us
- Education professionals don’t listen to us
It is a list that I could add to in perpetuity. We are talking about weaponised testimonial injustice that keeps us in a disadvantaged position.
What can Autistic people do to combat the fallout of the double empathy problem and neuronormativity?
At this point I might direct your attention back towards the aforementioned minority stress that we experience. This can be understood as the cumulative effect of multiple sources of hostility and oppression with out society. The effects of the double empathy problem and neuronormativity have long allowed this minority stress to run wild. Interestingly, Botha (2020) found that community-connectedness acts as a buffer against this.
“The minority stress model is a social research and public health model designed to help us better understand the lived experiences of people of oppressed communities. The model posits that within the social structure of a particular culture or society, certain (oppressed) groups experience greater incidents of minority stress (based on race, sexuality, gender, disability, etc.) in the form of prejudice and discrimination. As a result of those experiences, members of oppressed communities experience greater negative health outcomes than majority group communities. This leads to large health disparities.”Caraballo (2019)
Botha (2020) found in their doctoral research that where Autistic people were connected with Autistic communities, there was an improvement in wellbeing in nearly every domain explored. It stands to reason then that perhaps the increased confidence in self-advocacy that comes from connection with other Autistic people allows us to mitigate the effects of minority stress. For this reason I strongly believe that one of the most effective things that can be done for newly discovered Autistic people is signposting to their community.
You can now purchase access to pre-recorded presentations on this website! Check it our here.