This month's blog article was featured in the April 2022 issue of our digital newsletter, Aspire Wire. To receive future Aspire Wire emails, subscribe here.

by Brett Mulder, PsyD
Director, Aspire Teen and Adult Services

I’m delighted when I find a research article that encourages a deeper understanding of how to effectively support autistic individuals. Recently, I found an article is titled “Autism and the double empathy problem: Implications for development and mental health”, published in 2021. 

The article is framed in response to the double empathy problem, which involves recognition that autistic people have difficulties adjusting to society not just because they misunderstand others, but also because they are misperceived by others. Immediately I was drawn in. 

The authors explore the impact of societies with a neurodiverse minority living alongside a neurotypical majority. They argue that experiences of being misunderstood or misperceived hinders the development of skills and abilities and create barriers to participation in social experiences for autistic individuals; and they describe how these experiences disadvantage both groups. The dominant neurodiverse majority does not benefit from the valuable contribution that autistic individuals make to relationships, families, schools, workplaces, and communities. And the neurodiverse minority does not benefit because they experience significant impact to their mental health; engaging in masking behaviors motivated by the fear of being “found out” and having increased rates of depression and risk of suicide. 

What underlies the pattern of misunderstanding and misperception between both groups is a phenomenon where people who are more difficult to interpret tend to be rated unfavorably. There is a growing body of research showing that autistic individuals are less readable by neurotypical people; not because the signals they give about their inner states are weaker, but rather because they are of a different quality. Autistic persons have a unique interactive style that can rapidly build rapport along shared interests and is more efficient with information transfer amongst other neurodiverse peers. When these patterns of misunderstanding and misperception recur throughout society, what can emerge over time are increasingly distinct groups who are ineffective at understanding and empathizing with one another. 

An exciting turn in the article occurs when the authors propose ways to address this problem and its underlying causes. They argue convincingly that society needs to change in ways so that both groups are no longer disadvantaged by these dynamics.  Society can change by being increasingly accepting and valuing of diversity to include neurodiversity. And we see exciting developments on this front. Employers are increasingly open to recruiting and hiring neurodiverse talent and willing to invest needed resources into enhancing the performance of neurodivergent colleagues. Popular shows like As We See It, on Amazon Prime, cast talented autistic actors that help the wider culture to understand neurodiversity in our relationships and lives. These developments create opportunities for neurotypical people to better understand and value the gifts and benefits autistic individuals bring to society. And it humbles all of us, to be increasingly open to the experiences of others and in being willing to learn new and different ways of communicating with each other.  

Mitchell, P., Sheppard, E., & Cassidy, S. (2021).  Autism and the double empathy problem: Implications for development and mental health.  British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 39, 1-18.