top of page

What is the double empathy problem?

In 2012, Damien Milton coined the term  ‘Double Empathy Problem’ 


He described it as a “lack of insight … it is true that autistic people often lack insight about non-[autistic] perceptions and culture, yet it is equally the case that non-[autistic] people lack insight into the minds and culture of ‘autistic people’” 

He adds that “[o]ne could say that many autistic people have indeed gained a greater level of insight into non-[autistic] society, and more than vice versa, perhaps due to the need to survive and potentially thrive in a non-[autistic] culture” (p. 886)

Let’s explore using an animal metaphor  of a squirrel and an octopus


According to the double empathy
problem, a squirrel would understand
and communicate clearly with squirrels. 

                                                             And an octopus would understand and                                                                    communicate clearly with their fellow                                                                      octopi.

A challenge may arise when squirrels and octopi come together. The squirrel would be more comfortable communicating as if the octopi were a squirrel and the octopi would be more comfortable communicating as if the squirrel were an octopi. 

The octopi expects the squirrel to conform (communicate and behave as if an octopi) It is odd that the octopi does not consider changing their communication and try to ‘speak’ squirrel.



What do we do?

First, we need to understand and accept that a squirrel will never be an octopus. And an octopus will never be a squirrel. Just like a neurodivergent person will never be neurotypical and vice versa.  


Second, we need to be talking about the double empathy problem. This is important. It allows us to begin a dialogue of meeting the other where they are at.  Allowing the squirrel (autistic person) to be a squirrel and respecting their communication style. The goal is to meet in the middle. 

At the ocean front. 

Where both can coexist.

Over a nice cup of tea.

Where a squirrel can

be a squirrel. And an 

octopus can be an 



Milton, D.E.M. (2012) On the ontological status of autism: the ‘double empathy problem’, Disability & Society, 27:6, 883-887

bottom of page