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Why Some Experts Think Ideas about Autism and Empathy are Wrong

By Pam Dewey • autism, empathy, autism and empathy, autism acceptance, autism spectrum, neurodiversity, neurodivergent, ASD • June 03, 2021

Most definitions of autism include the idea that individuals with autism struggle with socializing and communication. It’s also believed that people with autism have difficulty understanding social interactions, and as a result, lack empathy. 

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), these ideas come from a theory of mind model developed in the 1980s that “attributed autism to ‘mindblindness’: an inability to understand that other people know, want, feel or believe things.” 

As more studies have been conducted and people with autism have shared their perspectives, we are beginning to understand that the idea of “mindblindness” is likely misguided. 

Ideas about autism come from observation rather than experience

Theories about autism have largely originated from observing individuals with autism, not from asking a person with autism about their viewpoint. Many writers and scholars with autism share a different perspective. The ASHA article quotes scholar Damian Milton, who has autism: “When I feel compassion, love, pain, and hurt for myself or others, either I am not feeling it very much or I am feeling it very intensely.” Milton feels pain and compassion for others, but sometimes, he is overwhelmed by these feelings. Other writers with autism have also described experiencing intense emotions that can be hard to manage when interacting with others. 

To protect themselves from large emotions, it’s possible that people with autism shut down or remove themselves from the situation. This has likely led to misunderstandings about how well people with autism interact with others and experience empathy. 

There is a double empathy problem

Another emerging idea is that there is a double empathy problem. According to the National Autistic Society, “Simply put, the theory of the double empathy problem suggests that when people with very different experiences of the world interact with one another, they will struggle to empathize with each other.” Because people with autism and neurotypical individuals interpret the world differently, they may struggle to understand each other when they communicate. So it may be less that people with autism lack empathy or can’t understand social cues, and more to do with them struggling to understand the way neurotypical people communicate. 

One example Frontiers for Young Minds gives is this: “Autistic people might struggle to read between the lines of what non-autistic people are saying, because this way of communicating does not come easily to autistic people. On the other hand, non-autistic people might make incorrect assumptions about autistic people because they are reading between the lines too much.” People with autism may have a harder time interpreting nonverbal cues, like body language, so they can miss some of these unspoken cues. Meanwhile, neurotypical individuals might interpret behaviors in people with autism as being relevant to autism, when those behaviors have no relationship to the diagnosis.  

People with similar communication styles communicate better

Other research also supports the double empathy problem. One study compared interactions between people with autism, between neurotypical people and between a person with autism and a neurotypical person. According to Frontiers for Young Minds, “You might expect, if autistic people are poor at social interaction, that the conversations between two autistic people would go especially badly. But that is not what the study found. The quality of interactions between two autistic people was just as strong as between two people who were not autistic.” So people with autism feel more comfortable talking to people who think like them and have a similar communication style. The same holds true for neurotypical individuals. It also supports the idea that we all need to work harder to understand each other, and we shouldn’t automatically assume people with autism lack social skills. 

How we can bridge the gap

While some individuals with autism may have a hard time socializing, this isn’t necessarily because they lack empathy. They may, in fact, become overwhelmed by feelings of empathy. People with autism may also have different ways of expressing empathy and love. A child with autism may show love by sharing favorite books or movies with their parents or expressing their emotions by drawing pictures. 

Neurotypical individuals must look for these cues and try to bridge the gap in understanding. It’s important to let go of preconceived notions about how people with autism will think or act. People who don’t have autism must be patient and not jump to conclusions. Experts also believe more research will help us further understand these interactions and improve communication on both sides. 

Another way to gain insight is to pursue first-hand perspectives of people with autism. One book is The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism written by Naoki Higashida and his follow-up, Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8: A Young Man’s Voice from the Silence of Autism. There is also the documentary “Life, Animated,” which is streaming on Hulu, and the PBS documentary “Neurotypical.” Or maybe you want to explore some blogs written by individuals with autism. 

To remove communication barriers, neurotypical people must seek opportunities to work, play and engage with people of all abilities. When we share experiences with people who are different from ourselves, we start to let go of preconceived notions and learn to see the world from another person’s perspective.