The Double Empathy Problem
The Double Empathy Problem is a (well-backed) hypothesis that the issues in communication between autistic and allistic (non-autistic) people are not actually a failure not he part of autistic people but rather a difference between autistic and allistic people. There have been several studies which found that allistic people are no better at understanding autistic people than autistic people are at understanding allistic people, and allistic people who know they're talking to an autistic person actually perform far worse. However, autistic people talking to other autistic people actually do about as well at understanding each other as allistic people do with other allistic people. Autistic people do not lack empathy or possess an inability to perform good social skills. Rather, autistic people have a natural inclination towards different social skills which, when around each other, work quite well and lead to plenty of empathy.
Allistic people find other allistic people to be clear, expressive, and clever; and find autistic people to be inexpressive confusing, overly literal, and strange. But autistic people find allistic people to be vague, inexpressive, and confusing; while finding other autistic people to be expressive, communicative, and clear.
What I want to celebrate is that autistic people even have our own unspoken social skills which we not only tend to intuitively understand but which get discouraged by allistic people despite being quite elegant. Specifically I want to celebrate the "you share, I share" storytelling method of providing emotional support.
"You Share, I Share" Storytelling as Emotional Support
It has been well-observed that when trying to comfort someone going through a hard time, autistic people tend to turn to sharing a personal story from their own life about a time they went through something similar. Allistic people tend to hate this, they say "why are you making this about yourself." But autistic people tend to be find it more comforting. What's more, autistic people do not preface what they're saying with an explanation of what they're about to do, it is just as intuitively understood among autistic people as any allistic social skill would be.
Here is an example, and then I'm going to break down how wonderful and elegant this is.
Cheri's mother has died. She feels awful but she isn't crying and she feels awful that she isn't crying. She turns to her friend Kelly for comfort. Kelly listens patiently to Cheri talk about her mother passing away and how she feels awful. Then, Kelly begins to speak. "I remember when my aunt passed away, I felt terrible. I felt numb, like everything was in a haze. I felt grief, and sadness, but it was muted. Even at the funeral I didn't cry, and I felt guilty. It was only a week after the funeral that finally it hit me all at once. I bawled and bawled. I decided to spend the day watching her favorite movie and eating popcorn, like we used to do together when I was a kid. It felt like a good way to honor her. I felt a lot of closure after that.
There is actually a lot going on in this story that Kelly is telling.
I remember when my aunt passed away, I felt terrible. I felt numb, like everything was in a haze. [...] Even at the funeral I didn't cry, and I felt guilty.
This is a way of expressing sympathy. I have been in your shoes, I've been there too. I understand how you feel. A lot of autistic people grow up being told by allistic people that our feelings are inappropriate, and feel guilty or insecure about them. Kelly is telling Cheri that the way she feels is OK and normal. Validation of emotions is important when anyone is comforting anybody, but it's especially meaningful among autistic people, especially when given a concrete way of saying "me too" rather than a flat short "you are valid." Kelly is entering he same emotional space as Cheri.
I felt grief, and sadness, but it was muted.
A lot of autistic people experience alexithymia, which is a difficulty with mapping emotions to words. Autistic people feel plenty of emotions, but while an allistic person might intuit "this is what sadness feels like" "this is what anger feels like" an autistic person might feel "I feel bad, my shoulders feel tight, my stomach hurts" but not know how to identify it as a specific emotion. Not all autistic people deal with this, but many do. It's a relatively easy thing to treat, though, you just have to spend time learning what different emotions feel like and put names to them. It's just another manual process.
In the story that Kelly is sharing, where Kelly was in a similar circumstance to Cheri and feeling bad, Kelly is now describing their own emotions and putting names to them. If Cheri deals with alexithymia, she would likely find this incredibly helpful, as she can use Kelly's story to help sort out her own emotions and find ways to put words to them. One of the diagnostic criteria for alexithymia actually is "I often ask other people what they would feel in my situation, to help me sort out my own feelings." In this way, Kelly is offering Cheri that assistance with her emotions. When Kelly was in a similar situation, this is how they felt.
A week after the funeral, I bawled and bawled.
Kelly is offering Cheri a glimpse of her possible future. Kelly is saying "this is what happened for me, maybe it will happen for you?" I want to emphasize that Kelly never says "this is what happened for me, maybe it will happen for you" it is implied. Something which autistic people supposedly don't do according to allistic people. Kelly is implying this possible future to help Cheri see through the fog of the present moment.
I decided to spend the day watching her favorite movie [...] It felt like a good way to honor her. I felt a lot better after that.
Kelly is giving Cheri advice on ways she might deal with her emotions. Kelly is, again, not explicitly telling Cheri to do this and that it will help, it is implied. Autistic people can imply things! But it's a very compassionate way of non-judgmentally saying "even though I didn't feel anything at the funeral, finding a way to honor my loved one in my own way is what made me feel better, maybe that will make you feel better too?" It's a very gentle way of offering advice. It's almost less advice and more like a testimonial of a coping skill. In this way, Cheri can easily reject it if she doesn't want it, but it's there if she does want it, and it doesn't put Cheri in a position of having to explicitly say "no thank you" to a piece of advice.
Isn't that incredibly elegant? Kelly managed to validate Cheri's feelings, show sympathy, help Cheri name and feel out her emotions, give her a glimpse out of the current fog of grief, and offer a piece of advice in a very gentle and non-forceful way, all in one short story! And at no point did Kelly actually say that they were doing it this way. Cheri intuitively understands that the purpose of the story is to do all of these things, without having to even name all of this with words.
I understand that maybe this is not something that allistic people would want, or would find helpful. I get why maybe it might annoy them. I also assume that since autism is a spectrum and also social skills are culturally and geographically contingent, that there's probably other autistic people who don't find this to be comforting or desired. But I just wanted to celebrate this as something that many autistic people have been observed to do which is just so incredibly elegant and specifically autistic and so uncharacteristic of the stereotypes of how autistic people are and our relationships with empathy and social skills.
We're not necessarily faulty, we're just different.