Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. I’ve been thinking a lot about the double empathy problem, and coming to the conclusion that it is among the most important issues affecting autistic people. If you’re unfamiliar with the double empathy problem, there’s a decent introduction to it on Wikipedia, with plenty of springboard links. If you’re going to read that now, please remember to come back!
When I first came across the double empathy problem, it resonated with me powerfully, and explained a lot of the difficulties I’d had in communicating with people. I remember when I first spoke with my GP about the possibility I might be autistic, after an occupational health GP had suggested it. I had a very long talk with my GP, and I explained that I’d often felt that I was operating on a different wavelength than the people around me. But there was one exception. There was one person who always seemed to understand me, who could see things my way. He was always on the same wavelength. This was my son, David. And guess what? Not long after I was identified as autistic, so was he.
David and I have always been very close. We’ve always felt we had a special bond, and our excellent relationship has been commented on many times, by his friends, my friends and colleagues, and family members and so on. This father and son bond is so powerful because we are both autistic, of course. Our relationship has helped me to spot the differences in how autistic people and neurotypical people communicate with each other. Considering I’ve had so many difficulties in life making myself understood by neurotypical people on the occasions I’ve let my mask slip, it has been easy and tempting for me to think in terms of neurotypical people bad, autistic people good. But of course, that’s both silly and unfair. However, as the double empathy hypothesis indicates, there are serious differences in the way the two groups communicate, and this difference does lead to many problems. I’m going to illustrate a couple of aspects of these problems with personal anecdotes, but before I do so, I want to make something very clear. I know plenty of neurotypical people who are absolutely lovely, and whom I get on with very well. There are many neurotypical people whom I admire deeply, or feel love for, or loyalty towards. These people tend to have qualities such as great empathy, kindness, good humour, or sharp critical faculties. The points I raise here about some of the ways I see neurotypical people behave are generalisations, and do not apply to everyone. The reason I want to drill home this disclaimer is that I know in advance there are certain NTs who will read this blog, and deliberately take the most negative interpretation possible.
Generalisations about the differences between the neurotypes are just that – generalisations. There is a grey area where neurotypical and autistic social interactions meet, with lots of overlaps. But on either side of the grey area, there’s a place which is totally neurotypical, and a place which is totally autistic. I’ve internalised enough masking over my life that I can get on okay with almost all neurotypical people I meet, and the only time this seems to break down is when disagreements or differing opinions trigger a debate. It is in the realm of debate in which the differences between the neurotypes are at their most stark. But even here there are grey areas; neurotypical people who have experience with critical thinking or the use of logic are often indistinguishable from autistic people in a serious debate. Autistic people have a natural tendency toward logical balanced thought (again a generalisation that might not always be applicable, but the tendency is real). Neurotypical people have a general tendency towards emotional reasoning, unless educated in critical thinking. So, let me share with you a couple of examples of the differences in approach to interaction between autistic me and neurotypical others…
Recently, I had a very strange conversation with a neurotypical person (one of my neighbours, actually). It was odd on many levels, and kind of encapsulated a problem I regularly come up against when debating an issue with neurotypical people. Anyone who has seen me in such a debate on Twitter will be familiar with my common complaint: A given neurotypical individual will disagree with me on some point, and a debate will begin. And very quickly, the person claiming to disagree with me will begin to argue against a point I haven’t actually made. This is simultaneously annoying and hilarious, especially when the person I’m debating with furiously insists they are in the right.
So, the conversation I’m referring to centred around management of absence in workplaces (a subject close to my heart). I spent nearly thirty years in a junior/middle management role for a huge British retailer, and although I was on the lower rungs of management, the role still came with a considerable amount of responsibility and accountability. I don’t claim, by any stretch, to know it all, but I know quite a bit and I’ve seen even more when it comes to managing people. Managing absence in a workplace is tricky, and in my role I often felt trapped between a rock and a hard place because I had to manage processes I felt were intrinsically unfair to employees. The absence management policy in this company stated that if one of my members of staff had an absence due to illness, I had to complete a return to work meeting on their return. This meeting had to be completed regardless of the duration of the absence – the same kind of meeting occurred if the person had been absent for a week, or six months, or even just one day.
Now, when I happened to be discussing this policy with my neighbour, she insisted I must be wrong because, she said, “No one needs a return to work meeting after just one day off”. I assured her that this was the policy, and it was standard across many different employers. Her answer to this was, “If you don’t think a member of staff can take some responsibility for their own wellbeing after a single day off, you must be daft.” I was gobsmacked by this peculiarly neurotypical argument; after all, it wasn’t a matter of what I thought, but what the policy firmly stated I must do and was contractually bound to do. My neighbour had started by telling me I was wrong about the detail of the policy, but when I assured her of my credentials and experience, and that this was indeed the policy, she switched to a moral opinion on whether a return to work meeting was necessary for a single-day absence, regardless of policy. But then she concluded from this moral opinion that I was wrong about the policy. She had argued against a point I had not made (the moral correctness of a return to work meeting after a single day absence), and had substituted her moral opinion for fact.
The chasm in what passes for her logic here is astounding. Yet, she left the conversation laughing at me and shaking her head. I can’t begin to guess how these thoughts stitched themselves together in her head, but it was clear that she felt she was right and I was wrong. However, the facts are that I was right; the absence policy at my old employer was that if one of my staff had a single day absence, they still had to have a return to work meeting afterward. I could perhaps have put the oddness of this debate down to my neighbour being one particularly obtuse person, except that I come across this non-logic when debating with neurotypical people time and time again. Some of it is pure adversarialism, with people who see a debate as a contest to win rather than a search for a correct understanding. Personally, the way I see a debate depends on context: If I am 100% sure I have my facts straight, then I will pursue my point to the bitter end. But if I’m arguing just from a position of opinion, where facts might be in dispute or unclear, I’m happy to be educated by my interlocutor. I think this approach; this willingness to be corrected when there is a clear opportunity to be wrong, tends to be more of an autistic trait than a neurotypical trait. I use the word tends deliberately, because, I must reiterate, generalisations are just that, and exceptions are common.
It is often noted that autistic people have a powerful sense of right and wrong, of justice and injustice, and I think this underpins much of how we approach disagreement and debate. It explains why we are so tenacious when we know we are right, and why we tend to be less forthcoming if we are unsure. We don’t like being wrong for the sake of an unfounded opinion. This moral sense of right and wrong raises differences between the neurotypes in areas other than debate, too. I’m regularly flummoxed by how often neurotypical people will say unkind things about people they are apparently friendly with. And it seems as though they all know each other do this, but as long as Tom doesn’t actually find out exactly what insult about him was said by Dick to Harry, then everything is fine. I’ve gotten myself into relationship trouble many times in the past by speaking up about this behaviour… which brings me to my second anecdote…
This example from many years ago left me feeling really disappointed and upset. I had been taking a college course in the evenings, and I’d become friendly with three other students on the course. We often met for a coffee before the class started, and we also met up once or twice socially away from college. One evening, at our pre-class coffee, one of our group of four didn’t turn up. I was concerned and hoped she was okay. But the other two started to really bitch about her, saying some very unkind things, and laughing about it. I called them out on this unkindness, but they looked at me like I’d got two heads. Things were never the same after that. To be honest, I could quote many similar scenarios, all equally disappointing. Clearly, I just didn’t fit with this very neurotypical way of gossiping.
Time for another reiteration of an important disclaimer: I’m not saying all neurotypical people are two-faced, horrible backstabbers. And as much as I’d love to be able to say autistic people never behave like that, it’s probably not true. But there does seem to be a tendency that, in broad strokes, separates the neurotypes in terms of what they accept as being okay in social behaviour. I suspect that NT people often don’t mind knowing they might be the butt of unkind comments from people they consider friends, because they do exactly the same in return. It’s one of those odd unspoken rules of NT behaviour; it’s okay the act like that… unless you get found out by the victim of the gossip, when all hell breaks loose. But autistic me thinks it’s unfair to talk about a friend in such an unkind way, regardless of whether they find out or not.
I have a hypothesis about all this. I think that generally speaking, autistic people tend toward a kind of absolute morality, whereas neurotypical people tend toward a kind of relative morality. I have inserted kind of here deliberately, as this is not quite as straightforward as the statement suggests. When I say neurotypicals tend toward relative morality, I mean a very specific kind of relativity. I suspect many NTs with deficiencies in critical thinking or logic judge the severity of a moral right or wrong based on how much it affects them personally. In other words, their morality is relative to self and adjacency to self. Again, I must remind you this is just a general tendency, and plenty of exceptions will abound. But I regularly come across NT behaviours and opinions that lead me to believe it’s very common for them to be more offended by a wrong that affects them personally than a wrong that affects, for example, a cousin. And they will be even less upset by the same wrong wrong inflicted on, for example, someone they don’t know living in a nearby town. And even less so if the wrong is inflicted on a stranger in a faraway country. I think the tendency is for NT people to act as if they are at the epicentre of morality, with the severity of wrongdoings decreasing the further away they occur.
By contrast, I think there is a tendency for autistic people to feel a mental or emotional outrage from a wrongdoing based on the nature of the wrongdoing, rather than its proximity. This is, I suspect, a function of autistic empathy. It’s not at all uncommon for autistic people to direct empathy toward inanimate objects. I do this. I have favourite mugs, but I’ll always make sure non-favourite mugs get a regular coffee outing, so they don’t feel left out. Yes, it’s funny and silly, but it’s an example of how autistic people attribute right and wrong regardless of impact on the self. I feel the same sense of outrage about an injustice inflicted on a stranger reported on the TV news as I would if that injustice had happened to me.
This steadfastness in the sense of right and wrong, of justice and injustice, that autistic people tend to possess is often misinterpreted by neurotypical people as being inflexible, and indicative of black and white thinking. This is, however, utter nonsense, and leads me to conclude that neurotypical people can feel threatened by our plain speaking and willingness to call out wrongdoing when we see it. (You can read my thoughts on the myth of autistic black and white thinking by clicking here.) Sadly, no matter how objectively correct we might be when we call out wrongdoing, all too often we will be treated as wrongdoers ourselves by neurotypical people who are prepared to put up with all manner of behaviours if it means an easy life. Easy life is, of course, something many autistic people never experience. Despite all this, I’m content to be on the right side of a moral point even when abused for my position, and I have no wish to not be autistic.
Is there a conclusion I can draw from all this? The double empathy problem has been discussed at length by greater minds than mine, and I can’t necessarily add anything new to Damian Milton’s observation that communication problems between autistic people and neurotypical people flow in both directions, and do not represent a deficiency in autistic people. But I can add something of a personal conclusion. The slow-burning autistic burnout I endured from 2015 to 2018 that led to me being identified as autistic included an ongoing decline in my mental health, particularly depression. As this decline and burnout accelerated, I found it increasingly difficult to maintain masking. This meant I found it increasingly difficult to get on with neurotypical people, with communication faltering badly. I internalised these problems as meaning there was something drastically wrong with me. I began to believe I was a bad person, that I was worthless, and that I didn’t deserve to live. Learning about autism and understanding the double empathy problem gave me a lifeline. Suddenly, I was able to see myself as a valid human being, and different from, not less than, non-autistic people. So my personal conclusion is this: The double empathy problem is not just some dry academic hypothesis to be debated by psychologists and psychiatrists; it is a tool to help autistic people drag ourselves out of the neurotypically constructed pigeon-hole labelled deficient.
I will never put this blog behind a paywall. I want anyone, anywhere, to be able to access this content at any time. There are costs incurred running this website, however. So if you like what I’m trying to do here, please feel free to show your support with a small contribution via buymeacoffee.com.
That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care.
You can find The Autistic Writer on all your favourite social media channels
Why Do I Write This Blog?
When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism. I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation. With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery. Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers. I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.
You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.