The Double Empathy Problem

Have you ever told a joke that just didn’t land? You know, the ones where you’re expecting your audience to belly laugh, and they meet you with an awkward silence…..? Imagine having that happen most days; so often that you stop telling jokes anymore because you can’t gauge which ones will land and which ones won’t.

Some people who are “neurodivergent” (this is the opposite of “neurotypical” and encompasses things like dyslexia, autism, ADHD, and so on) spend a great deal of their lives having this happen to them. But not just when they tell jokes. Sometimes when they are having a conversation, their intonation results in a similar response. Sometimes the words they choose to get their point across. Sometimes their volume.

The thing is, recent research has shown that this isn’t a one-way issue (though neurodivergent people could probably have told you that already!). There’s a concept in Autism Research called the “Double Empathy Problem” and this, simply put, is the idea that when two people with different experiences of the world interact, they will struggle to empathise with each other: You don’t understand why I’m blunt? I don’t understand why you beat around the bush.

What has this got to do with neurotypical people?

Well, this recent research has looked at the way neurodivergent (specifically autistic) and neurotypical people communicate with each other. What it has found, is that whether you are talking about information transfer, facial expressions or rapport, groups made up of solely autistic people score as highly in each of these areas as solely neurotypical groups. The scores only drop when you bring the two neurotypes together. This is important because it shows that autistic people are not “deficient” in these skills, they just do it in a way neurotypical people don’t understand.

This suggests we should be mindful that not all our brains work the same way, we don’t all communicate the same way, and we should all play our part in making communication clear and transparent.

And you never know, if you understand your friends a little better, and if they understand you a little better, they might just laugh a little louder at your jokes!

Where can I find more information?

Check out this YouTube video (the explanation of the study starts about 6 minutes in, but the intro is great too), or this tongue-in-cheek titled interview: The Problem with Autistic Communication is Non-Autistic People

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