The sun and moon as two halves of the same face

Stimpunks Guide to the NeurodiVerse Issue #5: Redefining Autism Science with Monotropism and the Double Empathy Problem

If we are right, then monotropism is one of the key ideas required for making sense of autism, along with the double empathy problem and neurodiversity. Monotropism makes sense of many autistic experiences at the individual level. The double empathy problem explains the misunderstandings that occur between people who process the world differently, often mistaken for a lack of empathy on the autistic side. Neurodiversity describes the place of autistic people and other ‘neurominorities’ in society.

Monotropism – Welcome

Monotropism and the Double Empathy Problem are two of the biggest and most important things to happen to autism research. In the previous two issues of the Guide to the NeurodiVerse, “From an Ivory Tower Built on Sand to Open, Participatory, Emancipatory, Activist Research” and “Mental Health and Epistemic Justice“, we tackled some bad trends in autism science. In this issue, we celebrate two trends that get it right.

Introducing Monotropism and the Double Empathy Problem

Monotropism is a theory of autism developed by autistic people, initially by Dinah Murray and Wenn Lawson.

Monotropic minds tend to have their attention pulled more strongly towards a smaller number of interests at any given time, leaving fewer resources for other processes. We argue that this can explain nearly all of the features commonly associated with autism, directly or indirectly. However, you do not need to accept it as a general theory of autism in order for it to be a useful description of common autistic experiences and how to work with them.

Welcome – Monotropism

In simple terms, the ‘double empathy problem’ refers to a breakdown in mutual understanding (that can happen between any two people) and hence a problem for both parties to contend with, yet more likely to occur when people of very differing dispositions attempt to interact. Within the context of exchanges between autistic and non-autistic people however, the locus of the problem has traditionally been seen to reside in the brain of the autistic person. This results in autism being primarily framed in terms of a social communication disorder, rather than interaction between autistic and non-autistic people as a primarily mutual and interpersonal issue.

The ‘double empathy problem’: Ten years on – Damian Milton, Emine Gurbuz, Betriz Lopez, 2022

These two videos, totaling less than 10 minutes, are wonderful ways to get in touch with modern autism science.

Understanding monotropism and the double empathy problem will help you get things right, instead of wrong, when interacting with autistic people.

If an autistic person is pulled out of monotropic flow too quickly, it causes our sensory systems to disregulate.

This in turn triggers us into emotional dysregulation, and we quickly find ourselves in a state ranging from uncomfortable, to grumpy, to angry, or even triggered into a meltdown or a shutdown.

This reaction is also often classed as challenging behavior when really it is an expression of distress caused by the behavior of those around us.

How you can get things wrong:

  • Not preparing for transition
  • Too many instructions
  • Speaking too quickly
  • Not allowing processing time
  • Using demanding language
  • Using rewards or punishments
  • Poor sensory environments
  • Poor communication environments
  • Making assumptions
  • A lack of insightful and informed staff reflection
An introduction to monotropism – YouTube

Let me put this in no uncertain terms: if you do not understand the Double Empathy problem you have no business writing anything at all about autism for general consumption. This is not because you are a bad person — it’s because you have missed the most important memo in Autism research in decades.

How To Talk About Autism Respectfully: A Field Guide for Journalists, Educators, Doctors and anyone else who wants to know how to better communicate about Autism

Below, we excerpt from studies, books, and community resources on these two very important topics.


Understanding how autistic pupils experience secondary school: autism criteria, theory and FAMe

In Monotropism theory it is proposed that there exists a limited amount of attention available to anyone at any given time that may either be broadly distributed over many interests or concentrated on a few interests, and that differences, in the spread of attention available to individuals, follow a normal distribution pattern across the entire human population (Murray et al., 2005). Seen in this way ‘Monotropism is not a model of autism as such…[but]…a theory about human beings, in which autism has a natural role’ (Lesser, cited in Burne, 2005). Thus, according to Monotropism theory, the difference, between autistic and non-autistic, is in the strategies employed in the distribution of scarce attention, i.e. ‘it is the difference between having few interests highly aroused, the monotropic tendency [autistic], and having many interests less highly aroused, the polytropic tendency [non-autistic]’ (Murray et al., 2005, p.140). Monotropism theory therefore meets the ‘unique’ to autism criteria for ‘good’ theory proposed by Rajendran and Mitchell (2007, p.224). 

Unlike many theories, which appear (to me) to offer no practical real-life benefit to the autistic community, Monotropism theory is used to propose a heuristic guide to facilitate positive engagement with autistic individuals (ibid, p.153). In addition, distinct from all other cognitive theories, Monotropism theory places value on the input of autistic voices (Milton, 2012). The original article, (Murray et al., 2005), is rich with descriptive accounts of autistic experiences, for which theoretical explanations, of the cognitive mechanisms at work, are proposed. 

The authors demonstrate how Monotropism theory provides potential explanation for all aspects of the diagnostic criteria (DSM-5, 2013), and offers an alternative, difference in autistic processing, account for the cognitive difficulties previously hypothesised to be affected by deficits in theory of mind (empathy), executive functioning and central coherence (Milton, 2011; 2012). These earlier theories made assumptions based upon interpretations of observed behavioural traits (ibid) with no reference to how it ‘is’ to be autistic ‘from the inside according to how it is experienced’ (Williams, 1996, p.14). 

Monotropism is the first theory of autism to attempt to draw on subjective autistic experience (Milton, 2012). Furthermore, whilst ‘[n]one of the three dominant cognitive theories of autism seek to explain the sensory aspects of autism’ (Chown, 2017, p. 235), also absent from E-S theory, Monotropism theory provides credible explanation for the sensory hyper- and hypo-sensitivities described by autistic authors (e.g. Blackburn, 2000; Grandin, 2006; Lawson, 2014), documented by Bogdashina (2016), and included in the revised diagnostic criteria (DSM-5, 2013). Thus Monotropism theory also potentially meets the ‘specificity’ and ‘universality’ criteria for ‘good’ autism theory (Rajendran and Mitchell, 2007, p.224), as well as that of ‘uniqueness’. 

In my opinion, including an explanation of the sensory differences experienced by autistic individuals is essential if the non-autistic population are going to be enabled to achieve a comprehensive understanding of autism and be better able to identify and offer appropriate forms of support. This view is supported by Chown and Beardon (2017) who suggest that ‘good’ autism theory must ‘be capable of explaining the cognitive and sensory differences’ (p.7). In Monotropism theory, it is suggested that, with monotropic hyper-focus comes a general lack of awareness of one’s environment and thus a hypo-sensitivity to sensory stimuli outside the attention tunnel, because large areas of potential information are not registered  (Murray et al., 2005). This, coupled with a lack of preparedness for interruption, results in hyper-sensitivity to unexpected sensory stimuli. As an autistic individual who experiences both hyper and hypo-sensitivity to noise, particularly when task- focused, this explanation seems highly plausible to me. 

Understanding how autistic pupils experience secondary school: autism criteria, theory and FAMe

Me and Monotropism: A unified theory of autism

Monotropism provides a far more comprehensive explanation for autistic cognition than any of its competitors, so it has been good to see it finally starting to get more recognition among psychologists (as in Sue Fletcher-Watson’s keynote talk at the 2018 Autistica conference). In a nutshell, monotropism is the tendency for our interests to pull us in more strongly than most people. It rests on a model of the mind as an ‘interest system’: we are all interested in many things, and our interests help direct our attention. Different interests are salient at different times. In a monotropic mind, fewer interests tend to be aroused at any time, and they attract more of our processing resources, making it harder to deal with things outside of our current attention tunnel.

Me and Monotropism: A unified theory of autism | The Psychologist

The biggest practical thing to take away from this is the importance of meeting the child, or adult, where they are. This is not an insight unique to the monotropism perspective, but nothing else I’ve seen demonstrates with such clarity why it’s so crucial. Treat interests as something to work with. Recognise what someone’s passionate about and learn how to become part of the attention tunnels which come with monotropic focus, rather than trying to just reach in and pull the person out of the flow states that are so important to us. Never pathologise ‘special interests’, and don’t assume that autistic interests are ‘restricted’  – there are plenty of ways to get us interested in new things, it’s just that they mostly involve taking existing interests and building on them.

Me and Monotropism: A unified theory of autism | The Psychologist

Monotropism: An Interest-Based Account of Autism

This interest model of mind is ecological, embodied, and exploratory. Instead of applying emotionally charged values to categorize humans, it offers a more objective way of thinking about autistic and other human variations: it does not pathologize them. This is not just semantics, current diagnostic practice stamps “Rejected!” on the core nature of a large part of the human race, with profound repercussions, as history relates if we attend to it.

Monotropism: An Interest-Based Account of Autism

Autistic children and intense interests: the key to their educational inclusion?

Autistic children and adults are often described as ‘obsessive’ or as having ‘narrow’, ‘restricted’ or ‘circumscribed’ interests. And when this trait is associated with being ‘fixated’ or very repetitive, it’s generally considered to be highly undesirable, and some behaviour interventions actively set out to diminish or even ‘extinguish’ these ‘fixations’. 

In fact, autistic academics such as Dr Wenn Lawson and Dr Dinah Murray have been writing and speaking about this for over two decades, with Dr Damian MiltonFergus Murray and others also making important contributions over recent years. Framed by these writers as ‘monotropism’ – a tendency to focus on certain issues or activities in depth to the exclusion of other inputs – this fundamental autistic trait is presented much more positively here, although, importantly, the drawbacks are not ignored.

Autistic children and intense interests: the key to their educational inclusion?

…the autistic children in my study were turning to their strong interests in times of stress or anxiety. And there has certainly been a lot of research which shows that autistic children and young people find school very stressful. So it might be the case that when this autistic trait is manifested negatively in school, it is a direct result of the stresses that school creates in the first instance.

Autistic children and intense interests: the key to their educational inclusion?

In my study, I found that when the autistic children were able to access their intense interests, this brought, on the whole, a range of inclusionary advantages. Research has also shown longer-term benefits too, such as developing expertise, positive career choices and opportunities for personal growth. This underscores how important it is that the education of autistic children is not driven by a sense of their deficits, but by an understanding of their interests and strengths. And that rather than dismissing their interests as ‘obsessive’, we ought to value their perseverance and concentration, qualities we usually admire.

Autistic children and intense interests: the key to their educational inclusion?

Inclusive Education for Autistic Children

There is, in fact, a growing body of research evidence to support the idea that, despite a few drawbacks, enabling autistic children to have access to and develop their areas of interest is highly beneficial for their education and broader inclusion in school (Gunn and Delafield-Butt 2016).

Inclusive Education for Autistic Children (p. 99)

So how do autistic children learn? Well, a key concept, promoted mainly by autistic scholars, is ‘monotropism’, which is described as a tendency to focus on a single issue or activity, in depth, to the exclusion of all others (Lawson 2011; Murray, Lesser and Lawson 2005). A person who is monotropic in their thinking style might have a relatively small number of areas of interest, but they are experienced in a very deep and compelling way (Milton 2012b). Indeed, although monotropism can result in a difficulty in shifting attention from the area to interest to another (Murray et al. 2005), it appears to be a more positive way of describing autistic cognition, setting aside pejorative terms such as ‘fixated’ or ‘obsessive’, for example (Wood 2019). This cognitive disposition can be compared with ‘polytropism’, which denotes a tendency to attend to a number of activities or issues (sometimes called ‘multi-tasking’), but these are inevitably explored in less depth and with little sense of urgent preoccupation (Murray 2014).

Many school staff, and some of the parents, felt that autistic people are inherently ‘obsessive’ or set in their ways, showing that when a monotropic thinking style collides with an inflexible education system (Glashan et al. 2004), difficulties arise. And so, if an autistic child has strong interests in certain areas, and these don’t fit in with the school curriculum, it will be very hard work for school staff to try to persuade them to focus on something else, as well as potentially distressing for the children if they are simply unable to shift their attention.

However, some have argued that a monotropic thinking style should not only be accommodated, but also embraced and even celebrated. Lawson (2011, p.41), for example, posited that autism should be thought of ‘as a cognitive difference or style’, and presented the theory of Single Attention and Associated Cognition in Autism (SAACA). Lawson (2011) argues that autistic cognition simply operates differently from non-autistic intelligence, and that current educational systems fail to accommodate this difference. In addition, this intense concentration has been associated with a deep sense of well-being, or ‘flow states’ (McDonnell and Milton 2014; Wood and Milton 2018). So, given that specialising is currently only considered desirable at the later stages of education, let us now consider how we can harness the monotropic thinking style of autistic children in our school system in order to facilitate their inclusion.

However, one of the most striking findings from my study was the extent to which enabling autistic children to incorporate their interests (sometimes called ‘special interests’ or ‘restricted interests’) into their learning not only addresses the core issue of concentration and motivation, but also means that school staff don’t need to keep prompting them to stay on task. Indeed, being able to focus deeply on their areas of interest appeared to provide a range of positive functions for the autistic children, including helping them to cope with the stress of school, improved communication, better access to the curriculum and tests, greater independence, more socialisation and overall enjoyment of school. Therefore, I found that actively embracing the monotropic thinking style of autistic children often helps, rather than hinders, school staff and the autistic pupils.

Inclusive Education for Autistic Children (pp. 96-99)

Autism, intense interests and support in school: from wasted efforts to shared understandings

Having intense or “special” interests and a tendency to focus in depth to the exclusion of other inputs, is associated with autistic cognition, sometimes framed as “monotropism”. Despite some drawbacks and negative associations with unwanted repetition, this disposition is linked to a range of educational and longer-term benefits for autistic children.

Autism, intense interests and support in school: from wasted efforts to shared understandings: Educational Review: Vol 73, No 1

[E]nabling autistic children to engage with their strong interests has been found to be predominantly advantageous, rather than deleterious, in school environments.

Autism, intense interests and support in school: from wasted efforts to shared understandings: Educational Review: Vol 73, No 1

Furthermore, longer-term benefits have been associated with the pursuit of intense interests, with relatively few negative effects overall, which in themselves might only occur if autistic people are pressured to reduce or adapt their interests.

Autism, intense interests and support in school: from wasted efforts to shared understandings: Educational Review: Vol 73, No 1

Having intense or “special” interests and a tendency to focus in depth to the exclusion of other inputs, is associated with autistic cognition, sometimes framed as “monotropism”. Despite some drawbacks and negative associations with unwanted repetition, this disposition is linked to a range of educational and longer-term benefits for autistic children.

Autism, intense interests and support in school: from wasted efforts to shared understandings: Educational Review: Vol 73, No 1

The Passionate Mind: How People with Autism Learn

In AS, monotropic attention is not seen as a choice but as integral to our learning style.

The Passionate Mind: How People with Autism Learn

I believe being polytropic gives people opportunities of many sorts which are not accessible to people who are monotropic. Developmentally typical children are flexibly able to recognise and exploit opportunities that may pass monotropic children by. Among those missed opportunities are chances to contribute to a common interest, which is at the heart of inclusion (Bailey 1998). While polytropic children will swiftly find out how comfortably to cohabit in shared opportunity space, it may take a monotropic child far longer even to identify distinct cohabitants – let alone figure out how to fit in with them (D.K.C. Murray, personal communication, 21 April 2006).

The Passionate Mind: How People with Autism Learn

The term monotropic describes single attention and single channels for accessing and processing information (mono: single; tropism: direction/channel). NT developing individuals, although able to be single-minded at times, can respond to another interest or situation and shift their attention whether interested or not. This means they can use polytropic attention, which necessitates dividing their attention between a number of differing concerns simultaneously (poly: many) and accommodating many channels of information at any one time. Polytropism in typical individuals is argued to be their default learning style. This concept will be explored in more detail in this chapter.

I know that for many of us, shifting attention from an aspect of interest to one that we are not interested or invested in is very difficult. However, in AS this is often the reason we prefer sameness and routine, and why we may even appear to have one sense that dominates another. I suggest we use single attention connecting with and processing information one step at a time, which is the monotropic disposition, as our default setting. Therefore, attention and the interest system will work hand in hand to create an attention, interest, sensory-motor loop leading to a cognitive style.

Monotropism, or having the ability to home in on one aspect of communication or on one interest at one time, can happen to NT and AS individuals. However, rigid monotropism often occurs in an AS individual’s world, and we are said to have ‘tunnel vision’ (Attwood 2007) or, as parents often say, ‘my child seems only to be interested in his or her interests’. Monotropism will mean, for most of us, difficulties coping with change because we are single-minded. For many, this is demonstrated in our difficulties with change in routine, expectation, instruction, daily schedule, movement of attention or incorporating another set of demands into the present scenario. For example, coping with change can involve listening and then being required to participate in decision making without due time to process information; thus, being forced to move from one channel to another (Kluth and Chandler-Olcott 2008).

For many of us the discomfort at encountering change is one consequence of being attention-tunnelled or monotropic (e.g. Bogdashina 2006; Greenaway and Plaisted 2005; Murray et al. 2005).

The Passionate Mind: How People with Autism Learn

In a monotropic interest system connectivity is more streamlined but less diffuse than that of the typical population. This might be due to an interest system that is more ‘pure’ in the sense that it hasn’t been modified or contaminated by other people’s expectations (D.K.C. Murray, personal communication, 10 March 2005).

The Passionate Mind: How People with Autism Learn

SAACA suggests that most AS individuals are monotropic and that the monotropic disposition informs AS cognition and subsequent learning styles. This implies only being able to focus on one thing at one time, as long as it’s within our interest system. The implication of having a monotropic disposition is that generalising one’s experience and understanding is difficult. This could also have an impact upon the understanding of time because time might not be noted as a concept but rather only as a hindrance to being able to stay focused upon the thing that is holding our attention.

The Passionate Mind: How People with Autism Learn

This is why the ideas associated with traditional theories of AS are being questioned in this book and the newly developed theory of AS concerning the concepts associated with the use of single attention and associated cognition in autism (SAACA) are suggested. SAACA is argued to be responsible for the pattern of characteristics seen in AS and experienced by us as the AS population. SAACA, which was developed from the idea of monotropism, explains the autistic learning style unlike any other. Current traditional theories of AS have too many gaps and fail to accommodate the clinical picture seen in AS. Within this new approach a particular learning style is said to be responsible for the current criteria for an AS assessment and the AS individual’s experience.

SAACA suggests the autism spectrum should be considered not as a terrible tragedy that needs to be cured or redeemed, but as an important learning style. As we will see in later chapters SAACA provides ways to accommodate, work with and develop an individual’s fullest potential.

The Passionate Mind: How People with Autism Learn

Whether we align our interests with others as in polytropism or follow the dictation of our dominant interest, as in monotropism, it’s all about ‘interest’.

The Passionate Mind: How People with Autism Learn

Without interest, Dewey stated, attention and connections to learning not only are less available, but individuals lack the needed perceptions to stay motivated, and their needs, as well as their relationships and values, cannot develop to their fullest potential.

The Passionate Mind: How People with Autism Learn

The most important discovery I have made is that attention and its partner, interest, operate differently according to the type of brain one has. By ‘type’ of brain I mean whether you are AS or NT. Murray’s work on monotropism (tightly focused interest) and polytropism (diffused interests) (Murray 1986, 1992, 1995, 1996) is foundational to this thinking.

The Passionate Mind: How People with Autism Learn

Whilst if you are monotropic and autistically developing, such as I am, you will be good at either thinking, or feeling, or noticing, but in serial fashion, one at a time. I can multi-task, but only if I have available attention, am interested and have energy resources within my interest tunnel. This suggests that attention and interest are partnered differently according to whether you are NT or not.

The Passionate Mind: How People with Autism Learn

I suggest that problems in AS, such as building connections to concepts, are founded in monotropism, which leads to fewer connections between attention, interest and sensory and motor dynamics.

The Passionate Mind: How People with Autism Learn

Learning From Autistic Teachers

We’re back to monotropism again, because attention is not only about being in cognitive love; attention can be focused on anything. It’s whatever you are doing in a particular moment that engages you. When you are monotropic you lock onto that thing. Your senses are engaged with that thing. You must build up energy to get into it and once you are there you enter what is called a ‘flow state’, where everything in your body is flowing towards the task in hand (McDonnell and Milton 2014). So, any deviation, any pull away from that flow, is difficult to deal with.

I needed forward-planning, clear and direct communication, consistency, more autonomy and trust that I knew what I was doing. But most importantly I needed to be validated and seen for who I was: to be seen through a lens of strengths.

Learning From Autistic Teachers (p. 65)

One almost universal trait of autism is what is known as the ‘special interest’ or ‘hyperfixation’, as I prefer to call it. When in the process of diagnosis, autistic people might be asked about topics, hobbies or interests that are particularly important to them, that are a refuge when feelings of stress are high, or all-consuming. As far as the autistic community is concerned, I believe that having hyperfixations is entirely normal and healthy, and many autistic people celebrate their interests and take pleasure in the fact they have these hobbies that mean so much to them, proud of the knowledge and understanding they have of these varied topics. These hyperfixations can be on any subject imaginable; the stereotype, of course, is trains and locomotives, with Pokémon and video games generally bringing up the rear. However, this is mostly a relic of the extremely male-centric world of autism research and discussion that dates back to the twentieth century, and is not very useful now, when we are increasingly aware of the huge diversity within the autistic community.

Learning From Autistic Teachers (pp. 30-31)

The reality is that if it exists, you can reasonably assume there will be an autistic person to whom that thing is the subject of intense obsession and time spent, from blankets to drain covers (both of these are special interests of people in my acquaintance) and pretty much anything in between. When engaging in a special interest, autistic people are typically calmer, more relaxed, happier and more focused than they would otherwise be – for many, it is a form of release or even self-medication: a well-timed foray into a special interest can stave off meltdown and be a generally extremely positive force in an autistic person’s life.

But one thing is particularly important to my purposes here: our hyperfixations adore company, and if an autistic person is given the opportunity to share their passion for the subject with friends, relatives or complete strangers, then you can expect high levels of enthusiasm, enormous amounts of data and information to be delivered, and impressive levels of knowledge. In short, if you want to be taught something, you can do a lot worse than be taught about it by an autistic person for whom it is one of their special interests. I have been taught about various subjects by openly autistic people and the experience has invariably been truly fantastic, and my understanding of the topic afterwards deep and thorough.

Learning From Autistic Teachers (pp. 30-31)

The Monotropism Questionnaire

Think you might be monotropic? Try this questionnaire.

After a period of instability, I need a quiet and predictable environment.
I need a quiet and predictable environment for me to switch from one task to another easily. 
I often struggle to concentrate in busy and/or unpredictable environments. 
I find sudden unexpected disruptions to my attention startling. 
It’s distressing to be unexpectedly pulled away from something I’m engaged in.
I rarely find simultaneously holding eye contact and making a verbal conversation with another person uncomfortable. *
I often notice details that others do not.
Involvement in an activity of interest often reduces my anxiety level.
I find social interactions more comfortable if communicating about a topic of interest to me.
I am often totally focused on activities I am passionate about, to the point I am unaware of other events. 
I can get quite good at something even if I’m not especially interested in it. *
I often lose sense of time when engaging in activities I am passionate about.
I sometimes avoid talking because I cannot reliably predict how others will react, especially strangers. 
I tend to do activities because I find them interesting, instead of due to societal expectations.
I rarely find social situations chaotic. *
I don’t mind if someone interrupts me when I’m in the middle of an activity. *
When I’m working on something, I’m open to helpful suggestions.*
I often find it difficult to switch topics after engaging in an activity for a long time.
I often engage in activities I am passionate about to escape from anxiety.
Routines provide an important source of stability and safety. 
I manage uncertainty by creating routines. 
I often experience anxiety over matters I have little certainty over. 
I find it difficult to engage in a task of no interest to me even if it is important. 
I often find engaging in stimming (e.g., fidgeting, rocking) to be relaxing. 
I am usually passionate about a few topics at any one time in my life. 
I have trouble filtering out sounds when I am not doing something I’m focused on. 
I usually mean what I say and no more than that.
I often engage in lengthy discussions on topics I find interesting even though my conversational partner(s) do not. 
I sometimes accidentally say something others find offensive/ rude when I am focused on a task. 
I can sometimes be very distressed by a topic that others think of as trivial. 
I find it easy to keep up with group discussions where everyone is speaking. *
Often when I am focused on activities, I do not notice I am thirsty or hungry. 
Often when I am focused on activities, I do not notice I need the bathroom. 
When there is a lot of information to consider, I often struggle to make a decision.  
Sometimes making a decision is so hard I get physically stuck.  
I sometimes focus on an incident for a substantial time (days) after the event.
I sometimes become highly anxious by focusing on the many possible situations that might occur at a future event.
Sometimes when I am focused on an activity, I do not recall all the information I might need to make good decisions. 
People tell me I get fixated on things. 
I find a problem I can’t solve distressing and/or hard to put down. 
I tend to feel quite self-conscious unless I’m deeply absorbed in a task.  
I often get stuck thinking about all the possibilities that might come out of a decision.
When I am interested in something, I tend to be passionate about it. 
When I am interested in a topic, I like to learn everything I can about that topic.  
I am still fascinated by many of the things I was interested in when I was much younger.
I rarely find myself getting stuck in loops of thought. * 
I often loop back to previous thoughts. 
Garau, V., Woods, R., Chown, N., Hallett, S., Murray, F., Wood, R., Murray, A. & Fletcher-Watson, S. (2023). The Monotropism Questionnaire, Open Science Framework.

Double Empathy Problem

I find great value and meaning in my life, and I have no wish to be cured of being myself. If you would help me, don’t try to change me to fit your world. Don’t try to confine me to some tiny part of the world that you can change to fit me. Grant me the dignity of meeting me on my own terms — recognize that we are equally alien to each other, that my ways of being are not merely damaged versions of yours. Question your assumptions. Define your terms. Work with me to build more bridges between us.

Sinclair 1992a, p.302

From finding a voice to being understood: exploring the double empathy problem

The ‘double empathy problem’ refers to the mutual incomprehension that occurs between people of different dispositional outlooks and personal conceptual understandings when attempts are made to communicate meaning.

From finding a voice to being understood: exploring the double empathy problem

Autism and the ‘double empathy problem’ | Conversations on Empathy

Autism and the ‘double empathy problem’ | Conversations on Empathy

The ‘double empathy problem’: Ten years on

In simple terms, the ‘double empathy problem’ refers to a breakdown in mutual understanding (that can happen between any two people) and hence a problem for both parties to contend with, yet more likely to occur when people of very differing dispositions attempt to interact. Within the context of exchanges between autistic and non-autistic people however, the locus of the problem has traditionally been seen to reside in the brain of the autistic person. This results in autism being primarily framed in terms of a social communication disorder, rather than interaction between autistic and non-autistic people as a primarily mutual and interpersonal issue.

It has been 10 years since the ‘double empathy problem’ as a term was first described within the pages of an academic journal (Milton, 2012). Although, importantly, the conceptualisation of the issue has since its inception been influenced by and framed within a broader history of academic theorising (particularly from the disciplines of Sociology and Philosophy). Yet, this coining of the term helped express an issue that had long been discussed within autistic community spaces. The initial conceptualising of the double empathy problem was critical of theory of mind accounts of autism and suggested that the success of an interaction partly depended on two people sharing similar experiences of ways of being in the world. This is not to say that autistic people will automatically be able to connect and feel empathy with other autistic people they meet any more than two random non-autistic people would; however, there is greater potential for such, at least in how being autistic (or not) shapes experiences of the social world. An obvious example would be how differing sensory perceptions would impact communicating with others and shared understanding.

While there is much work to be done to explore these issues across multiple disciplines, the concept of the double empathy problem has the potential to aid a reframing of autism itself from a social communication disorder to a description of a broad range of developmental differences and embodied experiences and how they play out in specific social and cultural contexts. If this were so, it would lead to a radical change to current diagnostic criteria. This is most important however when considering best practice models for supporting autistic people in a variety of settings. We already know that interpretations about autistic sociality from observations alone may not be accurate (Doherty et al., 2022Mitchell et al., 2021). Instead of focusing on perceived social deficits and normative remediation, the concept suggests a position of humility in the face of difference, the need to build rapport and understanding and not assume a lack of capacity for understanding. Ultimately, the concept reminds us of the social situatedness of the lives of autistic people and those who support them.

The ‘double empathy problem’: Ten years on – Damian Milton, Emine Gurbuz, Betriz Lopez, 2022

Autism and the ‘double empathy problem’

The original published definition of the double empathy problem is as follows: 

A disjuncture in reciprocity between two differently disposed social actors which becomes more marked the wider the disjuncture in dispo- sitional perceptions of the lifeworld – perceived as a breach in the ‘natu- ral attitude’ of what constitutes ‘social reality’ for ‘neuro-typical’ people and yet an everyday and often traumatic experience for ‘autistic people’. 

(Milton 2012a, p. 884) 

Due to differing qualia of experience, social lifeworlds, dispositional viewpoints and discursive repertoires, interactions between autistic and non-autistic people are vulnerable to breaches in mutual understanding, framed as a ‘double problem’ as both parties in the interaction will experience a sense of disjuncture, not simply a deficit in the autistic person’s mind. Whilst this experience may be novel for many non-autistic people, it is common- place for autistic people. Such a framing would also suggest a greater likelihood of feelings of empathy between autistic people with one another and with those they have close relationships with, yet perhaps over differing elements of their lives.

Autism and the ‘double empathy problem’

These studies suggest that stereotyped views of autistic people are likely to contribute to the double empathy problem, and that there may also be differences between people’s perceptions of being helpful and actu- ally being so to others. 

In recent research by Crompton et al. (2020), the transfer of information between people were studied across a diffusion chain of eight people in total, similar to a game of ‘telephone’. When there were only autistic par- ticipants or only non-autistic participants, there was equally good transfer of information. However, when there was a mixed diffusion chain of autistic and non-autistic people, there was a much greater reduction in information successfully passed on. 

Further research reflects the ‘double empathy problem’ resulting in social breakdowns within a given group. The dominant form of sociality could be suggested to be based on social group identification and dominated by non-autistic people. The basis of autistic socialisation is interest-based (Bertilsdotter-Rosqvist 2019). The mismatch of social form and enacting the necessary mode (interest-led versus social alignment) may hinder the flow of the group and ultimately result in social exclusion. The analysis of bloggers’ posts indicate a ‘double empathy problem’ through the dispar- ity of metaperception and the consequential impact (Welch et al. 2022). There are real-life applications of the double empathy problem across set- tings and dimensions, such as in the criminal justice system (Holloway et al. 2020), education (Hummerstone and Parsons 2021), employment and job interviews (Maras et al. 2021; Remington and Pellicano 2019), and even the daily dissonance of the autistic lived experience (e.g., impression man- agement: Cage and Troxell-Whitman 2019; Cook et al. 2021; Schneid and Raz 2020; understanding the use of gaming: Pavlopoulou et al. 2022) that may include ‘thwarted belonging’ and lead to suicidality (Cassidy et al. 2018; Pelton et al. 2020), and breakdowns in feelings of social inclusion and belonging between autistic and non-autistic individuals (Waldock et al. 2021). In a study by Chen et al. (2021), natural peer interactions among six autistic and six non-autistic young people were observed over a five-month period to examine peer preferences and real-world social interactions. The findings showed that the young people preferred within neurotype interactions and that such interactions were more reciprocal and relational (rather than instrumental), such as sharing thoughts and experiences. 

The evidence is thus building to suggest that the theory of mind deficit theory of autism is indeed ‘partial at best’ with growing support for the double empathy problem. 

Autism and the ‘double empathy problem’

Double Empathy: Why Autistic People Are Often Misunderstood

Being autistic affects how people make sense of the world around them, and some autistic people can find it hard to communicate. For a long time, research has shown that autistic people can have trouble figuring out what non-autistic people are thinking and feeling, and this can make it difficult for them to make friends or to fit in. But recently, studies have shown that the problem goes both ways: people who are not autistic also have trouble figuring out what autistic people are thinking and feeling! It is not just autistic people who struggle.

A theory that helps to describe what happens when autistic and non-autistic people struggle to understand each other is called the double empathy problem. Empathy is defined as the ability to understand or be aware of the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of others. According to the double empathy problem, empathy is a two-way process that depends a lot on our ways of doing things and our expectations from previous social experiences, which can be very different for autistic and non-autistic people. These differences can lead to a breakdown in communication that can be distressing for both autistic and non-autistic people. It might sometimes be difficult for non-autistic parents to understand what their autistic child is feeling, or autistic people might feel frustrated when they cannot effectively communicate their thoughts and feelings to others. In this way, communication barriers between autistic and non-autistic people can make it more difficult for them to connect, share experiences, and empathize with one another.

Double Empathy: Why Autistic People Are Often Misunderstood · Frontiers for Young Minds

Practitioner experience of the impact of humanistic methods on autism practice : a preliminary study

We found neurotypical– neurodivergent encounters manifest this double empathy problem, with practitioners displaying limited capacity for neurodivergent intersubjectivity leading to misempathy and lack of relational depth.

This study has demonstrated a need for less focus on remediation and greater focus on shifting practitioner capacity for humanistic relating.

Practitioner experience of the impact of humanistic methods on autism practice : a preliminary study

A Mismatch of Salience

To be defined as abnormal in society is often conflated with being perceived as ‘pathological’ in some way and to be socially stigmatised, shunned and sanctioned. Then, if there is a breakdown in interaction, or indeed a failed attempt to align toward expressions of meaning, a person who sees their interactions as ‘normal’ and ‘correct’ can denigrate those who act or are perceived as ‘different’ (Tajfeel & Turner, 1979). If one can apply a label on the ‘other’ locating the problem in them, it also resolves the applier of the label’s ‘natural attitude’ of responsibility in their own perceptions and the breach is healed perceptually, but not for the person who has been ‘othered’ (Said, 1978).

A Mismatch of Salience | Pavilion Publishing and Media

The Problem With Autistic Communication Is Non-Autistic People: A Conversation With Dr. Catherine Crompton

Firstly, we’ve had a huge amount of first-person accounts and anecdotal evidence that autistic people can find spending time with other autistic people more comfortable and easier and less stressful, and just easier than interacting with non-autistic people. We’ve heard a lot from people who have said, “once I found more autistic people I thought I had found my community” and this kind of stuff. And we didn’t have any empirical evidence to back that at all.

We’ve got a theoretical framework within the double empathy problem which kind of says a similar thing, in that the problems of interacting and interactions between autistic and neurotypical people isn’t necessarily all down to a deficit on the part of the autistic person. It’s more to do with a mismatch in communication style, and mismatch in background.

There is now a growing body of evidence that’s looking at double empathy problem matters, but when we started this project we were really keen to try to address these two areas in an empirical and data-driven way, to see whether this is something that we could explore scientifically in a controlled fashion. We were really interested to see if our theories would stand up to empirical tests.

The Problem With Autistic Communication Is Non-Autistic People: A Conversation With Dr. Catherine Crompton — THINKING PERSON’S GUIDE TO AUTISM

The Double Empathy Problem

Whilst it is true that autistic people can struggle to process and understand the intentions of others within social interactions, when one listens to the accounts of autistic people, one could say such problems are in both directions. Theory of autistic minds often seem to leave a lot to be desired, and we would not need organisations like the National Autistic Society trying to spread awareness and understanding of autism if it were so easy to empathise with autistic ways of perceiving and being in the world. From the earliest written accounts of autistic people one can see numerous mentions of this lack of understanding from others. It is this issue of empathy problems between autistic and non-autistic people being mutual in character that led to the development of the ‘double empathy problem’ as a theory.

Simply put, the theory of the double empathy problem suggests that when people with very different experiences of the world interact with one another, they will struggle to empathise with each other. This is likely to be exacerbated through differences in language use and comprehension. I first started to publish theoretical accounts of this issue in the early 2010s, yet similar ideas can be found in the work of Luke Beardon regarding ‘cross-neurological theory of mind’ and in that of the philosopher Ian Hacking.

More recently research by Elizabeth Sheppard and team at the University of Nottingham, Brett Heasman at the London School of Economics, and Noah Sasson at the University of Texas at Dallas, have shown that in experimental conditions, non-autistic people struggled to read the emotions of autistic participants, or form negative first impressions of autistic people. Such evidence would suggest that the dominant psychological theories of autism are partial explanations at best.

According to the theory of the ‘double empathy problem’, these issues are not due to autistic cognition alone, but a breakdown in reciprocity and mutual understanding that can happen between people with very differing ways of experiencing the world. If one has ever experienced a conversation with someone who one does not share a first language with, or even an interest in the topic of a conversation, one may experience something similar (albeit probably briefly).

This theory would also suggest that those with similar experiences are more likely to form connections and a level of understanding, which has ramifications in regard to autistic people being able to meet one another.

The double empathy problem

Diversity in Social Intelligence

Our interim findings can be summarised as follows

  1. Autistic people share information with other autistic people as effectively as non-autistic people do.
  2. information sharing can break down when pairs are from different neurotypes – when there is an autistic and a non- autistic person.
  3. Feelings of rapport between people of the same neurotype accompany these information-sharing benefits – autistic people have higher rapport with other autistic people, and non-autistic people have higher rapport with non-autistic people.
  4. External observers can detect the lack of rapport apparent in mixed autistic/non-autistic interactions.

In essence, what we are demonstrating for the first time is that autistic people’s social behaviour includes effective communication and effective social interaction, in direct contradiction of the diagnostic criteria for autism. We have, for the first time, uncovered empirical evidence that there is a form of social intelligence that is specific to autistic people.

Diversity in Social Intelligence

Neurotype-Matching, but Not Being Autistic, Influences Self and Observer Ratings of Interpersonal Rapport

The Double Empathy Problem suggests that communicative difficulties between autistic and non-autistic people are due to bi-directional differences in communicative style and a reciprocal lack of understanding. If true, there should be increased similarity in interaction style, resulting in higher rapport during interactions between pairs of the same neurotype. Here, we provide two empirical tests of rapport, with data revealing whether self- and observer- rated rapport varies depending on the match or mismatch in autism status within a pair.

In summary, autistic people experience high interactional rapport when interacting with other autistic people, and this is also detected by external observers. Rather than autistic people experiencing low rapport in all contexts, their rapport ratings are influenced by a mismatch of diagnosis. These findings suggest that autistic people possess a distinct mode of social interaction style, rather than demonstrating social skills deficits. These data are considered in terms of their implications for psychological theories of autism, as well as practical impact on educational and clinical practice.

The results indicate that participants, regardless of diagnostic status, give poorer ratings of rapport for mixed neurotype pairs than for matched neurotype pairs. This suggests a mismatch between neurotypes results in lower ratings of rapport, and that subtle verbal and non-verbal cues to rapport are similarly perceptible by autistic and non-autistic individuals. Interestingly, rapport scores were significantly higher for the autistic pairs than non-autistic pairs, indicating that the autistic dyads may display even greater social signals of shared enjoyment and ease when interacting with one another, as viewed by an external observer.

An exploratory comparison between participants’ own judgments of rapport and an observer’s ratings, suggests autistic participants’ self-rating of rapport are more in line with others’ ratings of rapport. There was a greater discrepancy between non-autistic participants’ estimates of their rapport with a partner compared with observers’ rating of the same social interaction.

Frontiers | Neurotype-Matching, but Not Being Autistic, Influences Self and Observer Ratings of Interpersonal Rapport | Psychology

The belief in a theory of mind is a disability

And this is where the neurotypical belief in theory of mind becomes a liability. Not just a liability – a disability.

Because not only are neurotypicals just as mind-blind to autistics as autistics are to neurotypicals, this self-centered belief in theory of mind makes it impossible to mutually negotiate an understanding of how perceptions might differ among individuals in order to arrive at a pragmatic representation that accounts for significant differences in the experiences of various individuals. It bars any discussion of opening up a space for autistics to participate in social communication by clarifying and mapping the ways in which their perceptions differ. Rather than recognize that the success rate of the neurotypical divining rod is based on mere statistical likelihood that the thoughts and feelings of neurotypicals will correlate, they declare it an ineffable gift, and use it to valorize their own abilities and pathologize those of autistics.

A belief in theory of mind makes it unnecessary for neurotypicals to engage in real perspective-taking, since they are able, instead, to fall back on projection. Differences that they discover in autistic thinking are dismissed as pathology, not as a failure in the neurotypical’s supposed skill in theory of mind or perspective-taking.

Ironically, constantly confronted with the differences in their own thinking and that of those around them, and needing to function in a world dominated by a different neurotype, autistics are engaged in learning genuine perspective-taking from the cradle on. The perceived failure in that perspective-taking is thus based on the fact that autistics do not rely on and cannot rely on neurological similarities to crib understanding by projecting their own thoughts and feelings onto others.

As such, autistics talk about themselves rather than others, a feature of autistic narrative that has been pathologized as “typically autistic” by researchers like Ute Frith. The fact that much of autistic writing is dedicated to deconstructing neurotypical fallacies about autistic thinking set in the world when they spoke about (or for) us, and to explaining differences in autistic thinking in order to broker mutual understanding remains unremarked upon, as it would have required adequate perspective-taking to have identified this.

Thus, if we were to summarize the effect of neurotypicals sitting in wells that are structured in much the same way, delimited in much the same way, oriented in the same general direction and located in the same geographic location, manifested as an unassailable belief in their natural gift of theory of mind, we would have to conclude that this belief in theory of mind severely impairs neurotypicals’ ability to perceive that there is sky or even the great sea outside the narrow limits of their purview. It also necessarily impacts their cognitive empathy vis-à-vis autistics and, sadly, their affective empathy as well.

This deficit in neurotypicals needs to be remediated if autistics are to have a chance to participate as equals, because the truth is, in this regard, autistics suffer and are excluded from social communication not because of our own disability, but because of neurotypical disability.

The belief in a theory of mind is a disability — Semiotic Spectrumite

Neurotypical Psychotherapists & Autistic Clients

The 20th Century political scientist Karl Deutsch said, “Power is the ability not to have to learn.”

I quote this statement often, because I think it’s one of the most important truths ever articulated about privilege, oppression, and social power relations.

When a social system is set up such that one particular group is almost always in a position of social power or privilege over another group, the members of the privileged group never truly need to learn or practice empathy or understanding for the members of the disempowered, oppressed group. Nor do the members of the privileged group need to learn to adapt to the communication style of the oppressed group.

Neurotypical privilege means that neurotypical people interacting with autistic people—particularly when the neurotypical people in question are in positions of professional authority—have the luxury of never having to address or even acknowledge their own empathy deficits or poor communication skills, because they can blame all failures of empathy, understanding, and communication on the alleged deficits of the autistic people.

Power—or privilege, as we now more commonly call the particular kind of power to which Deutsch was referring—is the ability not to have to learn. There’s a phrase, “check your privilege,” that’s often repeated but rarely understood or heeded by those privileged persons at whom it is directed. If we start from Deutsch’s definition of power or privilege as the ability not to have to learn, we can understand “check your privilege” to mean, at least in part, “Learn! Be quiet, pay attention, and learn. Learn, even though the learning process, and the level of profound humility it requires, is going to be uncomfortable. Learn even though, because of your privilege, this sort of learning and humility is a discomfort that you have the luxury of being able to avoid—a luxury that we didn’t have, when we had to learn your ways. Learn even though you don’t have to.”

Unfortunately, as members of all oppressed groups discover, most privileged people just won’t do that. The states of profound mindfulness, humility, openness to correction, and tolerance for uncertainty that such learning demands are too far outside of most people’s comfort zones. Most human beings simply won’t go that far outside of their comfort zones if they don’t have to. And privilege means they don’t have to.


(Did you know that? That the reputation of autistic people as lacking empathy literally comes from allistic people lacking empathy towards us? That is some institutionalized DARVO shit that still informs most policy around autism.)

The thing is, research like this — serious scientific research into Autism — has historically treated the subjective experiences of its subjects as noise to be filtered out. They all think they can accurately read our emotions if they need to and so don’t need to ask us.

But the double empathy problem shows conclusively that that assumption is false. Allistics are as bad at understanding us as we are at understanding them. It goes both ways. This needs to invalidate any research that presumed to determine our internal state from our behavior.

@mykola on Twitter

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