By Emma Hinze, Prof Tony Attwood and Dr Michelle Garnett
Understanding the dynamics of communication and empathy in the context of autism requires an exploration of two interconnected concepts: “Theory of Mind” and “Double Empathy.” These frameworks offer insights into the challenges faced by autistic individuals and shed light on building meaningful connections.
What is Theory of Mind?
Theory of Mind refers to the cognitive ability to attribute mental states, such as beliefs, intentions, and emotions, to oneself and others. It forms the basis for understanding that individuals have distinct thoughts, feelings, and perspectives that may differ from one’s own. This skill is essential for navigating social interactions, since it enables us to predict and interpret others’ behaviours based on their mental states.
Theory of Mind is also referred to as cognitive empathy, or the ability to know how other people think or feel by making inferences about their facial expressions, tone of voice, gesture, and body language. Cognitive empathy differs from affective empathy in that affective empathy is the ability to feel what other’s feel. The leading psychological theory since Prof Simon Baron-Cohen’s (1985) paper to explain the social communication difficulties inherent in autism has been that autistic individuals have “deficits” in their “theory of mind.” Unfortunately, due to mainstream use of the word ‘empathy’ without understanding of the various forms of empathy, this led to autism being erroneously conceptualised as being a condition characterised by empathy deficits, which has been detrimental to the autistic community.
Fortunately, there has been much research on the surplus of affective empathy in autism (for e.g. Simth et al 2009) which shows that an autistic person typically feels what others feels, cares about their feelings and wishes to help (compassionate empathy).
What is Double Empathy?
Coined by autistic researcher Damian Milton (2012), the “double empathy problem” is complementary to Baron-Cohen’s ‘theory of mind’ hypothesis, in that a failure of cognitive empathy is acknowledged, but Milton suggests that the failure goes both ways – nonautistic people fail to accurately read autistic people. Milton favours a relational view of autism instead of a deficit model, there are issues of reciprocity and mutuality, i.e. not a single person problem with the deficit lying with one person, but a two-person problem with a mutual misunderstanding at the heart of the problem.
Comparing Theory of Mind and Double Empathy
Traditional theories often assume that autistic individuals struggle with theory of mind, which leads to difficulties in understanding the perspectives and intentions of neurotypical individuals. While Theory of Mind is a well-established concept, some critics argue that it might oversimplify the intricate experiences of autistic individuals. However, double empathy challenges this unidirectional perspective by suggesting that the difficulty in understanding is not limited to the neurodivergent side alone. Double empathy acknowledges the complexity of understanding in social interactions and suggests that challenges in communication aren’t limited to one group. Both neurotypical and neurodivergent individuals might encounter difficulties due to the interplay of diverse cognitive frameworks.
Consider Samantha, an autistic LEGO enthusiast, sharing her initial progress on a LEGO castle build with her neurotypical friend Alex. Samantha’s deep connection to the project leads her to assume that Alex understands her excitement, despite his lack of familiarity with LEGO building.
Samantha takes a photo of the first few pieces she’s put together, capturing the foundation of the castle. She sends the photo to Alex with a message that says, “Look at what I’m building!”
Challenges from the Autistic Perspective:
From Samantha’s perspective, she is deeply immersed in her LEGO project. She can visualise the completed castle in her mind and is excited to share her progress with Alex. In Samantha’s experience, the connection between the initial few LEGO pieces and the grand vision of the castle is clear.
However, Samantha might struggle to understand that Alex, who doesn’t have the same level of familiarity with LEGO building or the specific set she’s using, might not immediately recognise the significance of the initial pieces. Samantha’s strong connection to the LEGO activity and her ability to visualise the end result might lead her to assume that others can also easily understand her progress.
Double Empathy Perspective:
From the perspective of double empathy, the challenge here is not solely about Samantha’s potential difficulty in perspective-taking or theory of mind. Rather, it’s about recognising that both Samantha’s unique way of experiencing and communicating her excitement and Alex’s different cognitive framework to Samantha contribute to potential miscommunication.
Alex, being neurotypical, might not have the same level of immersion in LEGO building and may not naturally infer the significance of the initial pieces in the same way Samantha does. This isn’t necessarily a lack of empathy or understanding on Alex’s part, but rather a difference in cognitive processing and experience.
In this scenario, both Samantha’s immersion and different cognitive framework contribute to potential miscommunication, and double empathy encourages us to consider both Samantha’s and Alex’s cognitive styles and communication preferences. It highlights the importance of open communication and mutual efforts to bridge the gap in understanding. Samantha might benefit from providing more context or explaining her excitement, while Alex might benefit from asking questions to better understand Samantha’s perspective.
Theory of Mind Perspective:
From a theory of mind perspective, the onus falls on Samantha to adjust her communication to accommodate Alex’s limited understanding of her LEGO project. However, this framework might not fully capture the nuanced dynamics of communication and understanding. It could overlook Alex’s effort to grasp Samantha’s excitement and the interplay of his cognitive style in comprehending her enthusiasm.
In essence, while theory of mind theory has its merits in understanding perspective-taking, the double empathy concept offers a broader and more inclusive perspective on the complexities of communication challenges in interactions involving neurodivergent and neurotypical individuals.
Embracing the double empathy problem as an issue shared by community members across all areas of neurodiversity shines as a beacon of inclusivity, challenging one-sided perceptions of ‘deficits in social communication.’ It teaches us that the bridge between neurodivergent and more neurotypical individuals is a collaborative effort where diverse cognitive landscapes converge. Just as Samantha’s LEGO project requires shared effort to build meaning, so does communication demand mutual understanding. By embracing this approach, we celebrate differences and create empathy that unites us all in shared growth and compassion.
Where to From Here?
Michelle and Tony have created an online course on Autistic Girls & Women. They explore the changing narrative of autism in our community, the impact of being female and autistic, and the best ways to understand, support and assist autistic girls and women in our community.
Baron-Cohen S, Leslie AM, Frith U. Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”? Cognition. 1985 Oct;21(1):37-46. doi: 10.1016/0010-0277(85)90022-8. PMID: 2934210.
Milton, Damian (2012) On the ontological status of autism: the ‘double empathy problem’. Disability & Society, 27 (6). pp. 883-887. ISSN 0968-7599.
Smith A, Ridding MC, Higgins RD, Wittert GA, Pitcher JB. The empathy imbalance hypothesis of autism: a theoretical approach to cognitive and emotional empathy in autistic development. Psychol Rec. 2009;198(4):489–500. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00221-009-1945-8