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Double empathy, explained

Difficulty navigating social interactions pervades even the earliest accounts of autism. This defining trait of the condition has informed prevailing theories of its roots as well as the design of many autism treatments.

Difficulty navigating social interactions pervades even the earliest accounts of autism. This defining trait of the condition has informed prevailing theories of its roots as well as the design of many autism treatments.

But an emerging line of work supports a more nuanced look at the social abilities of autistic people. Proponents of an idea called the ‘double empathy problem' believe that communication breakdowns between autistic and non-autistic people are a two-way issue, caused by both parties' difficulties in understanding. This ‘double problem' challenges long-held theories of autism that point to social shortcomings of people with autism as the reason interactions flop. It also echoes principles of neurodiversity in its assumption that autistic people simply have a different way of communicating rather than a deficient one. “As a theory, it matches autistic phenomenology coming from insider accounts,” says autistic researcher Damian Milton, lecturer in developmental and intellectual disabilities at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom.

Although scientific support for the theory is building, it is not yet rock solid. And not all researchers are tuned in to this new direction, says Matthew Lerner, associate professor of psychology, psychiatry and pediatrics at Stony Brook University in New York. “The double empathy problem is a younger theory empirically,” he says.  Read more here.

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