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?

Another odd behavior neurotypicals exhibit is their habit of “small talk.” From what we can tell, small talk appears to be talking just for the sake of talking. A “how are you doing” results in the same non-answer of “fine.” It seems unlikely everyone everywhere at all times is truly “fine,” so it seems that that is a non-answer to what is in fact a non-question. It has been observed that if you give an actual answer to the question, the questioner gets frustrated and impatient, as though they are annoyed that you would actually answer them. A whole conversation can actually go on like that, with general questions giving rise to pat answers so that you could actually change out any pair of people and you would end up with the same conversations each time. The vast majority of their conversations are not about anything of any substance, and, again, they seem positively annoyed if you try to engage them in such a conversation. As a group neurotypicals seem positively frivolous most of the time.

Source: A Pathological Look at Neurotypical Behavior — An Intense World

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, especially, 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.

How do you feel right now, as an employee? How do you feel about your boss, your colleagues, yourself? How do you feel about having to come back to the same place, the same people, the same chart, tomorrow? What are the chances you will turn things around tomorrow, or ever? What are the chances you will just figure out how to hang at “orange” and deal with the consequences and find ways to enjoy your 20 minute lunch with your orange friends? (I know you are smart enough to stay away from red, but orange is really not so bad, right…?)

If my boss were to hang a chart in the staff lounge, showing which teachers were doing an exceptional job each day, as well as those who were having exceptional-in-a-bad-way days, I would be furious. I would be raging about my privacy, my dignity, my right to be respected by my colleagues for the person I am, and to not be publicly labelled based on any given day. My personal growth is between me and my boss. It has no business being a public display. I don’t know any teacher who would disagree with this. My boss and I have private conversations, plans, and systems to foster my progress.

Source: Too high a price: why I don’t do behaviour charts — Miss Night’s Marbles

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.

Marginal people are those who are the dominant culture to some extent but are blocked from full participation because of their social status. One need not be a marginal person to be a sociologist, but marginality has often provided the critical distance necessary to inspire a thriving sociological imagination.

Source: Sociology: Understanding a Diverse Society, Updated (Available Titles CengageNOW) – Kindle edition by Margaret L. Andersen, Howard F. Taylor. Politics & Social Sciences Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

Being the majority and having the majority power, they can just be themselves without worry about how anybody is thinking about them.

Du Bois would probably not be surprised if he learned that other minorities were put in similar situations in the U.S., but it probably didn’t occur to him that there were people out there with different kinds of minds, and that they too would develop such a doubleness.

I know all about this double-mindedness, because I experience it constantly. I not only have to think about what I’m going to say or do, but I have to think about how others might take it. I can either just say or do whatever I want as I want and hope that I don’t do something that will set people off, or I can always consciously think about everything I say or do before I say or do it, testing against what I expect the expectations are (and hoping I’m getting those right). If it takes me a moment to respond to something, it’s because I’m going through all this nonsense to make sure I don’t say or do something wrong.

Source: On the Double-Mindedness Developed Among the Different – An Intense World

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

I’ve spent my whole life being told that non-autistic people are so brilliant and intuitive when it comes to social issues. Like many autistic people, though, I haven’t always felt like I’ve seen much empathy, compassion, or understanding. And the evidence is starting to suggest that we’re not wrong about the level of judgment and stereotyping we face.

Source: I’m autistic. I just turned 36 — the average age when people like me die. – Vox

And this is where the neurotypical belief in theory of mind becomes a liability. Not just a liability – a disability.

Because not only are neurotypicals just as mind-blind to autistics as autistics are to neurotypicals, this self-centered belief in theory of mind makes it impossible to mutually negotiate an understanding of how perceptions might differ among individuals in order to arrive at a pragmatic representation that accounts for significant differences in the experiences of various individuals. It bars any discussion of opening up a space for autistics to participate in social communication by clarifying and mapping the ways in which their perceptions differ. Rather than recognize that the success rate of the neurotypical divining rod is based on mere statistical likelihood that the thoughts and feelings of neurotypicals will correlate, they declare it an ineffable gift, and use it to valorize their own abilities and pathologize those of autistics.

A belief in theory of mind makes it unnecessary for neurotypicals to engage in real perspective-taking, since they are able, instead, to fall back on projection. Differences that they discover in autistic thinking are dismissed as pathology, not as a failure in the neurotypical’s supposed skill in theory of mind or perspective-taking.

Ironically, constantly confronted with the differences in their own thinking and that of those around them, and needing to function in a world dominated by a different neurotype, autistics are engaged in learning genuine perspective-taking from the cradle on. The perceived failure in that perspective-taking is thus based on the fact that autistics do not rely on and cannot rely on neurological similarities to crib understanding by projecting their own thoughts and feelings onto others.

As such, autistics talk about themselves rather than others, a feature of autistic narrative that has been pathologized as “typically autistic” by researchers like Ute Frith. The fact that much of autistic writing is dedicated to deconstructing neurotypical fallacies about autistic thinking set in the world when they spoke about (or for) us, and to explaining differences in autistic thinking in order to broker mutual understanding remains unremarked upon, as it would have required adequate perspective-taking to have identified this.

Thus, if we were to summarize the effect of neurotypicals sitting in wells that are structured in much the same way, delimited in much the same way, oriented in the same general direction and located in the same geographic location, manifested as an unassailable belief in their natural gift of theory of mind, we would have to conclude that this belief in theory of mind severely impairs neurotypicals’ ability to perceive that there is sky or even the great sea outside the narrow limits of their purview. It also necessarily impacts their cognitive empathy vis-à-vis autistics and, sadly, their affective empathy as well.

This deficit in neurotypicals needs to be remediated if autistics are to have a chance to participate as equals, because the truth is, in this regard, autistics suffer and are excluded from social communication not because of our own disability, but because of neurotypical disability.

Source: The belief in a theory of mind is a disability — Semiotic Spectrumite

In my post on autistic empathy are several 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.”

To be defined as abnormal in society is often conflated with being perceived as ‘pathological’ in some way and to be socially stigmatised, shunned and sanctioned. Then, if there is a breakdown in interaction, or indeed a failed attempt to align toward expressions of meaning, a person who sees their interactions as ‘normal’ and ‘correct’ can denigrate those who act or are perceived as ‘different’ (Tajfeel & Turner, 1979). If one can apply a label on the ‘other’ locating the problem in them, it also resolves the applier of the label’s ‘natural attitude’ of responsibility in their own perceptions and the breach is healed perceptually, but not for the person who has been ‘bothered’ (Said, 1978).

Source: A Mismatch of Salience | Pavilion Publishing and Media

“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.

20 thoughts on “The Double Empathy Problem: Developing Empathy and Reciprocity in Neurotypical Adults

  1. Perfect piece. I’ve been researching the subject of empathy in Autism and your article tells me I’m in the right direction by looking into the myth of lack of empathy in Autism and the dehumanizing effects of that misconception. Also into how it seems to provide an excuse for neurotypicals to not attempt to empathize with autistic people. I love how you flipped the perception at the beginning.

    Liked by 1 person

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  3. I have met a lot of kids and teens with ASD in the past 4 years. Many of them only talk about their own interests and do not get to know me. Not saying anything accusatory but instead I want to know from a different perspective, why is this, and what can I do to have a more reciprocal relationship with these kiddos if possible, or teach them how to do so with others? For example one of the teens stated he wanted more friends and stated he did not know how to make them, and I felt he could benefit from learning to ask questions of others and find activities that both parties liked instead of just talking about his one area of interest? Would like to hear advice from someone with ASD rather than another neurotypical person

    Like

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