What is the double empathy problem?
The double empathy problem is the idea that it’s difficult for people to communicate and understand each other when they have different experiences and backgrounds. The double empathy problem was initially identified by autistic social psychologist Damian Milton, PhD in communications between autistic and neurotypical people. Autistic people are often viewed as having a deficit because they do not always communicate in ways that neurotypical people find “normal.” This puts the burden of empathy and understanding primarily on the autistic person instead of both parties putting in equal effort to communicate and understand each other.
Why is the double empathy problem important?
Classrooms are usually designed based on what’s comfortable for neurotypical students. If an autistic student needs something different, it appears as though “everyone” has to change to accommodate the autistic student whereas the autistic student doesn’t have to accommodate anyone else. Our in-house autistic expert Dr. Lucas Harrington explains, “that’s just because you don’t understand their experience. You have no idea how much they’re already constantly accommodating everybody in the day-to-day, and they finally break down when you’re just asking them to go a little too far.”
Dr. Harrington shared another common example:
“People will say ‘We have a kid who has school avoidance. They need to learn to do things they don’t want to do.’ This child is already doing dozens of things they don’t want to do every day.”
When autistic students are constantly told that they have to accommodate others’ comfort at the expense of their own needs, it sends the message that the way they think and communicate is inherently wrong. This can damage their self-esteem and impact their mental health as well as academic performance.
The double empathy problem emphasizes that there are multiple valid perspectives and teaches autistic and neurotypical people to have empathy for each other. Not only does this approach foster inclusivity, but it also empowers autistic students to be themselves, reduces bullying, and creates a learning environment where all students can thrive.
3 strategies for fostering empathy between neurotypes in your district:
1. Educator Training and Workshops
Unfortunately, neurotypical educators are not immune from difficulty with perspective-taking (cognitive empathy), even when they deeply care about their students’ well-being (empathic concern). Difficulty understanding autistic perspectives can stem from a lack of adequate training. In some states, general education teachers are only required to take one course about special education. The course usually provides surface-level information about many different conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, traumatic brain injury, speech impairments, etc. The lack of understanding can result in educators making assumptions, maintaining biases, and even resenting the “extra” work required to meet autistic students’ IEPs.
Training can help educators reframe their perspectives and recognize the value in autistic students’ differences, so they can create a learning environment that is comfortable for all students. Training can also help educators understand the “why” behind their students’ modifications and accommodations. Without adequate educator training, educators will not be equipped to teach their students about empathy for those with different neurotypes.
2. Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)
Perspective-taking is a powerful SEL skill that can bridge gaps between neurodivergent and neurotypical students. As students learn about other perspectives and experiences, they develop greater empathy and understanding. Not only does this promote a culture of acceptance and inclusivity, but it also prepares students for life outside the classroom where they’ll interact with people with different backgrounds, cultures, beliefs, and experiences. Our online SEL game Ava encourages perspective-taking by including characters of all different neurotypes. Our newest update, Character Creator, allows students to create diverse characters and serves as a conversation starter about embracing differences.
3. Collaborative and Proactive Solutions
Some educators believe that students should do certain tasks simply because “this is what you’re supposed to do.” One problem with this belief is that it focuses on pushing autistic students to surrender rather than collaborate to find a solution that works for everyone. Ross Greene’s “Collaborative and Proactive Solutions” approach to conflict, described in books such as The Explosive Child and Lost at School, provides guidance in navigating these discussions.
For example, let’s say an autistic student struggles with verbal communication during discussion, but they thrive when it comes to written communication. However, the educator and other students prefer verbal communication. Instead of forcing the autistic student to participate in the verbal discussion, the educator and student can collaborate to create a solution, such as having the discussion via a discussion board on the LMS followed by verbal discussion from volunteers. Collaborative and Proactive Solutions are about working together to create a solution that both parties are comfortable with. Unfortunately, many educators are not given adequate time and support to problem solve in this way. District administrators can put policies in place to not only encourage and support educators as they seek Collaborative and Proactive Solutions.
It’s important to remember that solving the double empathy problem isn’t about taking on the perspective of autistic people in general. There is diversity within the autistic community as well, which means that’s impossible. Instead, people who truly want to practice empathy should focus on understanding people as individuals and learning how you can work together to achieve the desired outcome.
A special thanks to Dr. Lucas Harrington, our in-house SEL Consultant, for providing valuable information via an expert interview. Dr. Harrington is a clinical psychologist, author, and autistic self-advocate who also provides a variety of services at the University of Washington Autism Center.
Did you know Ava and its supplemental curriculum are based on CASEL competencies? Check out our blog post detailing exactly how we leverage CASEL to improve students’ SEL skills.