The theory of the double empathy problem was first put forward by Dr Damian Milton in 2012 – click here if you want to read more from him, including the original journal article. Essentially, Milton is offering a contrasting view to the prevailing theory of mind (ToM) and the connected extreme male brain theory.

This is a biggie, so buckle up if you want the ride…

When I studied for my Psychology degree, nearly a quarter of a century ago, theory of mind had already been the most popular theory to explain the supposed ‘mind-blindness’ of autistic people for twenty years. This view was put forward on the basis of the experiments on chimps by Premack & Woodruff in 1978, and expanded by the more well known Baron-Cohen from 1990 onwards. It states that autistic people can’t read the facial expressions, the intentions, the emotions, the next moves of other people, and this makes communication very difficult for us and with us. We also don’t understand that others’ opinions, choices and emotions may well differ from our own. Traditionally, autistic people are thought to lack this ability to empathise with others and that this is due to some developmental deficit in our brains that results in us failing to understand others’ social cues, moods, and intentions. Supposedly, this differs from the standard neurotypical person who apparently knows exactly how to empathise with others, to read their eyes and facial expressions, to put themselves in each other’s shoes emotionally and, consequently, they communicate effectively…apparently!

Milton disputes theory of mind and explains that he believes it is not specifically that autistic people are lacking in these skills, more that both neurotypical and neurodivergent people struggle to read each other, due to our differing neurology. It is not that one neurotype is more developed than the other. It is this lack of shared ‘language’ that results in the double empathy problem – neurotypical people lack the appropriate mental wiring to be able to read neurodivergent minds too. He compares this to two people trying to communicate who do not have a shared spoken language. Many of us can identify with the difficulties this entails, for even the simplest of tasks, like ordering food or asking for directions in a foreign country. Worse, is trying to thank someone and not understanding that your hand gestures, eye contact or huge grin is considered offensive in that culture!

Milton believes that the reason that this lack of being able to relate to each other has a greater negative impact on autistic people is because we are in the minority. Neurotypical people don’t actually need to be able to understand us in order for them to go about their lives unfettered; our culture is made-to-measure for them. It is us who are left to try and fit in as best we can, to deal with the noise, the lights, the pace, the expectations, whilst doing our best to act our little hearts out (see masking) and also being judged as at least a ‘little bit weird’ as we soldier on.

In his book, Unmasking Autism, Dr Devon Price, autistic psychologist, refers to an interesting study (on pages 136-7) by Kulesza et al in 2015. This was a study of neurotypical people’s inability to ‘read’ another neurotypical person’s emotions when they were asked to mirror that person’s behaviours at the same time. So much of their concentration and energy was being used on copying their body language and facial gestures, they were no longer processing what the emotions meant. Consequently, they were unable to feel empathy. Price suggests that, as autistic people have to spend so much of our energy mirroring and masking, if we are not able to also empathise, it’s hardly surprising. It makes us, based on this study, not very different to neurotypicals when they are expected to put the same additional work into social interactions.

Theoretical approaches such as these are problematic for the more traditional academics and medical professionals, as well as the State, as it puts the burden on all people in society to try to learn from and understand each other, to show compassion and mutual acceptance, rather than seeing autistic people as lacking empathy and social skills due to inherent faults, simply because we differ from the majority.