Speech bubble formed by a network of communication

Illustration by Laurène Boglio
Illustration by Laurène Boglio

Community newsletter: A double dose of ‘double empathy’ studies

In this week’s Community newsletter, we’re doubling up on articles that look into the double empathy problem.

By Chelsey B. Coombs
21 March 2021 | 6 min read

Hello, and welcome to the Community newsletter! I’m your host, Chelsey B. Coombs, Spectrum’s engagement editor.

This week, we’ve got two papers that discuss the ‘double empathy problem,’ a term coined by Damian Milton, lecturer in developmental and intellectual disabilities at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. It describes the difficulty two people with different life experiences have empathizing with each other. Many non-autistic people blame the problems they have communicating with an autistic person on the autistic person, but in fact the difficulties can come from both parties.

The first paper in this week’s double-hitter, called “Autistic adults may be erroneously perceived as deceptive and lacking credibility,” prompted a lot of discussion on Twitter.

The researchers recorded interviews with both autistic and non-autistic people and then measured qualities such as gaze aversion, repetitive body movements, literal interpretation of figurative language, poor reciprocity and flat affect. They showed the video interviews to 1,410 participants, recruited using an online crowdsourcing platform, who then rated each person’s truthfulness or credibility.

“The hypothesis was partially supported, with autistic individuals perceived as more deceptive and less credible than neurotypical individuals when telling the truth. However, this relationship was not influenced by the presence of any of the target behaviors, but instead, by the individual’s overall presentation,” the researchers wrote.

Noah Sasson, associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Dallas, tweeted that the paper is “relevant to double empathy.”

Milton replied to Sasson’s tweet, saying, “No reference [to the double empathy problem in the paper], sigh – but another to add to growing list for a possible symposium.”

In a critique of the study, AutisticSciencePerson, a pseudonym for a neuroscience graduate student, wrote, “Seems like they could’ve looked at a lot more in those videos.”

Kieran Rose, founder of The Autistic Cooperative, also suggested the study should be “replicated with Autistic children and non-Autistic adults.”

Fiona Kumari Campbell, professor of disability and ableism studies at the University of Dundee in Scotland, said she believes the findings could be more broadly applied to how disabled people in general are perceived.

The next thread comes from Nathan Caruana, a postdoctoral researcher in cognitive science at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He discusses his new paper, “Autistic traits and loneliness in autism are associated with increased tendencies to anthropomorphise.”

The researchers found that the more autism traits people report having, the more likely they are to anthropomorphize non-human entities, and the more people anthropomorphize, the more likely they are to say they are lonely. Caruana then connects these findings to the double empathy problem.

“Our findings are consistent with the idea that the increased tendency to anthropomorphise amongst many autistic individuals – and those with autistic traits – unlikely reflects a reduced motivation or drive to connect with others, but perhaps reduced opportunities to do so.”

Anna Ciaunica, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Porto in Portugal and a research associate at the Institute of Cognitive Neurosciences at University College London in the U.K., replied, “So this means that the need to relate/bond with an ‘other’ is present, but under a different form.”

Caruana responded, “It suggests the need to form social connection with another is there. Perhaps it takes a different form due to less opportunities for meaningful interactions with other humans.”

Maki Rooksby, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, connected the paper to her own research on hikikomori, which is characterized by a person’s prolonged social withdrawal. “Important implications for #hikikomori– links to the population group’s autistic tendencies and amenability/proneness to online activities/addiction.”

Our final tweet this week comes from our own account. If you’re an autism researcher and Spectrum doesn’t follow you yet, like this tweet and we will make sure to do so. We want to see what you and your labs are up to. You may even end up in our next Community newsletter.

That’s it for this week’s edition of Spectrum’s Community newsletter. If you have any suggestions for interesting social posts you saw in the autism research sphere this week, feel free to send an email to me at [email protected]. See you next week!