Double empathy and autism

Jacqui Price writes.

I agree with Professor Rita Jordan (August 2019) that the double empathy problem leads to biases in interpreting behaviour. Carers may have feelings of inadequacy from difficulties understanding the autistic person’s point of view and vice versa.

Differences in cognitive bias aren’t the problem per se. Communication is two way, both perspectives are equally valid, but as Dr Damian Milton says, a problem arises when one group has power over another.

The autstic community is well versed in the double empathy problem. Until recently there’s been little acknowledgment in psychology about how consequential the concept is; how it can free practitioners to let go of damaging, normative persuasions, to work more empathically with autistic people face to face and not resort to the bullying shown by the Panorama programme. Having listened to stories of lived experience and noting mismatches with traditional theory, some researchers are working with the autistic community within participatory frameworks, paving the way for more respectful narratives, policy and practice. Momentum is rising with these laudable efforts to bridge the double empathy gap.

I’d like to add a further point to Jordan’s explanation. In addressing the readership she writes that ‘none of us have natural intuitive understanding of autism’ (emphasis added). However, numerous autistic scholars, professionals, and lay persons, myself included, read The Psychologist and are Society members. Some are formally diagnosed, some self-identify. A binary ‘them and us’ discourse is marginalising, and a factor in reinforcing the premise that the psychological study of autism takes place from the outside looking in, where the expert by professional experience maintains the narrative; or, in terms of double empathy, holds onto the power which causes problems in the first place.

The BPS has a committment to Equality, diversity and inclusion in its Declaration policy (March, 2017). I suggest that as a profession, we need to be more mindful of our own language biases and underlying assumptions which may influence communication and practice.

Jacqui Price
Educational Psychologist


Milton, D. (2012). On the ontological status of autism: The ‘double empathy problem’. Disability & Society, 27(6), 1-5.

Editor’s response: Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I have often felt uneasy about the way autistic people can be portrayed as ‘other’ in psychological research, a ‘puzzle’ to be solved. I’ve noted the rise in participatory frameworks and new perspectives on autism; we’ve featured some recently, in print and online. We’ll soon be putting together a web collection with new comment.

I must also apologise for an editorial oversight in the August interview with Simon Bignell, which had us saying ‘people suffering the conditions’, when alternative wording may have been preferable. Thanks to reader Anne-Marie Green for rightly flagging that up.

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