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Helen's blog: The Double Empathy Problem…Or is it?

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

The double empathy problem is something that I’ve been reading about a lot recently. The National Autistic Society define it quite nicely. “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.”


I find that to be a really interesting concept because I think it has really wide implications and applications. It has huge importance for the autistic community where the common perception by non autistic people is that autistic people struggle with empathy. This is absolutely untrue, but what can occur is that neurotypical people may struggle to empathise with autistic people and vice versa, or that autistic people may be unable to express empathy in a way that neurotypical people can understand.


What really interests me is the other side of the coin because my experience among my friends is that I find it incredibly easy to bond with other neurodivergent people. And I know I’m not alone in this. I am not autistic but I do have ADHD and I don’t think this phenomenon is limited to people with the same neurodivergent condition. I have unknowingly sought out and formed easy friendships with a whole load of people who are now discovering their neurodivergence (and some that already knew) and, still being fairly recently diagnosed myself, I find that to be a really exciting and affirming thing. I have no doubt at all that this “double empathy problem” is the reason why, or the flip side of it anyway.


Surely, a lot of friendship is based on empathy and being able to empathise with the person you’re talking to. It’s of huge value to have a friend know how you feel, and show you that they know that when you’re explaining an issue to them. It absolutely soothes your soul to hear that they “get you”. That kind of connection is something we all need, to be heard and understood and not to be dismissed. We need to find our tribe and rejoice in it when we find them.


I don’t want to diminish the issues surrounding the double empathy problem. To feel empathy intensely and not have that recognised as such must be incredibly frustrating and damaging, and the fact that a lot of people think that autistic people don’t feel empathy is something that we need to correct as loudly and as often as we can.


But the relief that comes with an instant and deep connection that is formed between two neurodivergent people is also something to shout about in my opinion. The genuine, unmasked, unfiltered conversations, completely devoid of boring small talk that I have had with fellow NDs have been some of the best conversations I’ve ever had. Bonding over things that have previously brought you shame and realising that you are not alone can start to wipe away some of the pain of being different. Realising that your differences aren’t necessarily bad or wrong but, in fact, just differences is extremely powerful. And by organising your life a little differently you can manage better and not be so hard on yourself. Because it is hard being different, but what’s even harder is not realising you’re different and just thinking that you’re not enough.


So, I would like to celebrate the fact that the double empathy problem comes with a bonus flip side, and that is connection.


If you are neurodivergent, and feel alone in that, I would urge you to seek out other neurodivergent people. Social media is great for this. There are loads of ND people posting really relatable stuff on there which might just resonate. Visit our web page at www.thevetproject.co.uk and you’ll find loads of information and resources.


And, if you feel comfortable to, try talking about your neurodivergence to other people. Doing this has opened so many doors for me and I am learning so much from my neurodivergent friends. We are all learning together, about our similarities and our differences, our strengths and our challenges. It is fascinating and educational and life affirming, and just fun.


Do you want to find out more? Starting 18th January 2024 The Vet Project is running ND Thinkbox. These are FREE fortnightly group coaching and peer support sessions. Sign up on our website at www.thevetproject.co.uk or drop us an email info@thevetproject.co.uk


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