The Double Empathy Problem: Developing Empathy and Reciprocity in Neurotypical Adults

The title of this post flips the focus of the diagnostic lens from neurodivergent students to neurotypical adults. Let’s take a look at the neurotypical mind using the pathologizing language of disorder.

Neurotypical syndrome is a neurobiological disorder characterised by preoccupation with social concerns, delusions of superiority, and obsession with conformity. There is no known cure.

Source: NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman review – an enlightened take on autism and difference

Perhaps the most obvious giveaway is an NT’s tendency to make “small talk” or to want to “chat” with you. While small talk appears to be nonfunctional, for NTs it serves a very specific purpose. It’s a good idea to humor them and participate to whatever degree you can tolerate. If you’re patient with them, many NTs will soon feel comfortable enough to move from small talk to more interesting, in-depth conversations.

Source: What is neurotypical?

My oldest is autistic. He attended elementary school until a few years ago, when we started unschooling. He has an incredible memory that provides gritty texture to his stories of his time there. Stories about forced neurotypicalization, lack of empathy and understanding, and color-coded behaviorism. Stories about the pathologizing of his wonderful mind that killed confidence, making room for shame to unfurl. Such stories are common in deficit and medical model cultures, which is why we need a social model awakening.

A pernicious stereotype about autism is that autistic people lack empathy. To be openly autistic is to encounter and endure this supremely harmful trope. One of the cruel ironies of autistic life is that autistic folks are likely to be hyper-empathic. Another irony is that neurotypicals and NT society are really, really bad at empathy and reciprocity. When your neurotype is the default, you have little motivation to grow critical capacity. Marginalization develops critical distance and empathic imagination.

We have an empathy problem, and it’s not one confined to autistic people. It’s a double empathy problem.

The ‘double empathy problem’ refers to the mutual incomprehension that occurs between people of different dispositional outlooks and personal conceptual understandings when attempts are made to communicate meaning.

Source: From finding a voice to being understood: exploring the double empathy problem

Neurodivergent people are forced to attempt understanding of neurotypical people and society. We are constantly judged and assessed by neurotypical standards. We must analyze and interpret in order to conform and pass so that we can get the sticker, the “cool kid cash”, and the promotion. There is almost no reciprocity in return. Let’s change that. Turn the diagnostic lens upon yourself. Question assumptions, learn about other matrices of sociality, and reciprocate.

Empathy and communication go two ways, and neurotypical folks haven’t shown much interest in meeting neurodivergent folks halfway. Reciprocity is a basic tenet of social skills, and neurotypicals are often incapable of reciprocity outside of their usual scripts. We autistics are called mind-blind by folks who have made zero effort to understand and empathize with neurodivergent minds, who are utterly ignorant of alternative matrices of sociality.

Source: Autistic Empathy – Ryan Boren

In that post on autistic empathy are many resources to help neurotypical folks develop empathy for neurodivergent perspectives. My school district’s work on in-class inclusion of neurodivergent and disabled students is a great and wonderful relief. Segregation is always lesser and wrong. Let’s continue that progress toward social model understanding with attention to the mutual incomprehension of the double empathy problem. “When the adults change, everything changes.”

“Empathy is not an autistic problem, it’s a human problem, it’s a deficit in imagination.” We can’t truly step into another neurotype, but we can seek story and perspective. I’ll leave you with this video offering a taste what it is like to endure the daily gauntlet of neurotypical questioning. To not respond to questions is to be called rude. To not respond will get you publicly color-coded as an orange or red and denied perks that the compliant NT kids get. To not exchange this disposable social styrofoam is to be a problem. Make it stop. Empathize with what it is like to navigate these interactions while dealing with the sensory overwhelm of raucous environments not designed for you.

One thought on “The Double Empathy Problem: Developing Empathy and Reciprocity in Neurotypical Adults

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s