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What is The Double Empathy Problem?

From the viewpoint of a neurotypical person, an autistic person may seem to lack typical communication/social styles or adhere to the expected social norms. This has led to the diagnostic criteria for autism including deficits in social interaction and communication. It also has influenced autism being seen as a pathology associated with developmental deviance. However, accounts from autistic people explaining their viewpoints, suggest that the concerns may be coming in both directions.

The Double Empathy Problem is a theory which suggests that it is a mismatch between individuals with different world viewpoints and interpretations which leads to difficulties with communications and building social connections. This can impact all levels of communication, from body language to speech to world outlook. The theory is mostly focused on the interactions between autistic and non-autistic people, suggesting that it is both the autistic and non-autistic individuals who are having difficulty interpreting and understanding each other.

Our social story and activities explains 'The Double Empathy Problem' to children and teenagers in an accessible way and using visuals which make it easy for them to understand. It also encourages them to apply what they have learned to their own lives.

The theory began developing in the 1990's when Jim Sinclair argued that neurotypical autistic of communication and socializing conflict autistic ones. The term 'Double Empathy Problem' was later coined in a 2012 paper by Milton. Recent research by Brett Heasman, Elizabeth Sheppard and Noah Sasson, has suggested that non-autistic people may form negative first impressions of autistic people or struggle to understand their emotions under experimental conditions. (See references below.)

Another study suggested that when two autistic people met the quality of the interaction was as strong as between two neurotypical people. Autistic people were also suggested to share more personal information with other autistic people than with neurotypical people, implying that they felt more at ease in these interactions. (See references below.)


Dr Damian Milton (2017), A mismatch of salience. Pavilion

Milton, D. (2012) On the Ontological Status of Autism: the ‘Double Empathy Problem’. Disability and Society. Vol. 27(6): 883-887.

Sheppard, E., Pillai, D., Wong, G.TL. et al. How Easy is it to Read the Minds of People with Autism Spectrum Disorder?. J Autism Dev Disord 46, 1247–1254 (2016).

Heasman, B., & Gillespie, A. (2018). Perspective-taking is two-sided: Misunderstandings between people with Asperger’s syndrome and their family members. Autism, 22(6), 740–750.


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