What Is The Double Empathy Problem?

In recent years, the concept of the "double empathy problem" has gained attention in the field of autism research.

Ruben Kesherim
June 22, 2023

What Is The Double Empathy Problem?

What Is The Double Empathy Problem?

The concept of empathy is widely recognized as a crucial component of human interaction. It is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person.

However, not everyone experiences empathy in the same way. For some people, empathy can be a difficult skill to master, and this can lead to misunderstandings and miscommunications.

a woman rests her head on another person's shoulder

In recent years, the concept of the "double empathy problem" has gained attention in the field of autism research.

This term was coined by Damian Milton, a researcher and lecturer in the field of autism studies. The double empathy problem refers to the idea that difficulties in communication and understanding can arise when neurotypical individuals attempt to interact with autistic individuals, and vice versa.

To understand the double empathy problem, it's important to first understand some of the key differences between the communication styles of neurotypical individuals and autistic individuals.

Neurotypical individuals tend to rely heavily on nonverbal communication cues, such as facial expressions and tone of voice, to convey meaning.

They also tend to make assumptions about what the other person is thinking or feeling based on their own experiences and perspectives.

People with autism, on the other hand, often have difficulty with these nonverbal cues and may rely more heavily on verbal communication, such as the precise meaning of words or the tone of voice.

They may also have difficulty understanding the perspective of others, as their own experiences and perspectives can differ significantly from those of neurotypical individuals.

These differences in communication styles can lead to a situation where both parties are struggling to understand each other. The neurotypical person may assume that the autistic person is being unresponsive or uncooperative, while the autistic person may feel overwhelmed or misunderstood.

The Double Empathy Problem, Explained

When it comes to understanding the double empathy problem, it's important to recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Every individual, whether autistic or neurotypical, has their own unique communication style and way of processing information.

One potential strategy for addressing the double empathy problem is through increased education and awareness.

By educating both neurotypical individuals and those with autism about the differences in communication styles, we can begin to build a greater understanding and appreciation for each other's perspectives.

Another approach is through the use of technology. For example, many people with autism find it easier to communicate through written text rather than face-to-face interactions. By utilizing tools such as instant messaging or email, individuals can communicate in a way that feels more comfortable for them.

It's also important to recognize that empathy goes beyond just communication styles. People with autism may experience sensory overload or have difficulty with social situations that are not directly related to communication. By creating more inclusive environments that take into account these additional factors, we can help reduce barriers to understanding and increase empathy between all individuals.

Ultimately, the key to addressing the double empathy problem is through open-mindedness and a willingness to learn from one another. By recognizing our differences and working together towards greater understanding, we can build a more empathetic and inclusive society for everyone.

How To Address The Double Empathy Problem

One approach is to focus on building empathy skills for both neurotypical and autistic individuals.

This can involve training in specific communication strategies, such as using clear and direct language, and focusing on concrete examples rather than abstract concepts. It can also involve increasing awareness and understanding of the perspectives of others.

Another approach is to promote more inclusive environments where individuals with different communication styles can interact comfortably.

This can involve adapting physical spaces to accommodate different sensory needs, such as providing quiet spaces or reducing bright lights and loud noises. It can also involve changing social norms to be more accepting of different communication styles.

The Impact of the Double Empathy Problem on Personal Relationships

The double empathy problem can have a significant impact on personal relationships between autistic and neurotypical individuals. Communication difficulties can lead to misunderstandings, frustration, and even conflict.

For example, a neurotypical individual may interpret an autistic person's lack of eye contact as a sign of disinterest or dishonesty, while the autistic person may feel uncomfortable with prolonged eye contact or may not understand its social significance.

Similarly, an autistic person's direct and literal communication style may be perceived as rude or confrontational by a neurotypical person who is used to more indirect communication.

These misunderstandings can quickly erode trust and intimacy in personal relationships. In some cases, they may even lead to the breakdown of the relationship altogether.

It's important for both parties to recognize that these differences in communication styles are not a reflection of personal character or intention. Instead, they are simply different ways of processing information and expressing oneself.

By working together to build empathy skills and understanding each other's perspectives, it is possible for people with different communication styles to form deep and meaningful relationships based on mutual respect and understanding.


Is the double empathy problem unique to autism?

While the concept of the double empathy problem was initially developed in the context of autism research, it can apply to any situation where individuals with different communication styles are attempting to interact. For example, it may arise in cross-cultural communication or when communicating with individuals who have a different first language.

How can I tell if someone has difficulty with nonverbal cues?

It's important to remember that everyone is different, and not all autistic individuals will have difficulty with nonverbal cues. However, some signs that someone may be struggling with nonverbal communication include avoiding eye contact, not responding appropriately to facial expressions or tone of voice, and difficulty interpreting body language.

What are some common misunderstandings that can arise due to differences in communication styles?

Some common misunderstandings include assuming that someone is being unresponsive or uncooperative when they are actually struggling to understand what is being communicated. Similarly, someone may interpret direct and literal communication as rude or confrontational when it is simply a difference in communication style.

Can the double empathy problem be overcome?

Yes! While it can take time and effort, building empathy skills and increasing awareness of different communication styles can help individuals better understand and accommodate each other's needs. It's also important to remember that effective communication involves both parties making an effort to understand each other.


In conclusion, the double empathy problem highlights the challenges that can arise when individuals with different communication styles attempt to interact with each other. By increasing our understanding of these differences and promoting more inclusive environments, we can work towards building more empathetic and understanding communities.

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