The Double-Empathy Problem Is Clear When Autistic People Apply for Jobs

Given the choice between using the Welsh language (Cymraeg) or English, I would invariably choose Cymraeg. Not just because I am Welsh and therefore biased, but because though at first glance Cymraeg looks forbidding, the letters and therefore the words can only be pronounced one way making it much easier.

I feel sorry for learners trying to wrap their heads round the many grammar rules and laws you need to master to gain even a beginners grasp of English.

This also applies to my interactions with the non-autistic world and its infuriating, cryptic meanings. How much easier life would be if it was only pronounced one way, if it gracefully glided along, describing its meaning through a simple if/then code…

Instead, much like the English word ‘hough’ can have many different pronunciations and meanings (huff, hock, how, etc) non-autistic language and actions are often bewildering and contradictory– dazzle of hints and secret signals which leave me thinking that much of their language must be in a pitch which I am unable to hear.

This phenomenon of struggling to decode some implied meanings in non autistic behaviour and language is often referred to as an impaired theory of mind (ToM) and seems to be one of the first traits people think of when they think of autistic people. Many autistic campaigners opine that autistic people do not have an impaired ToM, but rather we have an autistic ToM, and that the non-autistics cannot understand us, either.

This is what autistic researcher, Dr. Damian Milton, calls The Double Empathy Problem.

That was thrown into sharp relief for me recently.

I applied for a job at a small, shabby museum around the back of Manchester City Centre that tells the story of the labour struggle in the UK. The job was helping to curate a project describing the fight for disabled people’s rights.

I had already contributed to a film the project was creating, so the project manager emailed me out of the blue inviting me to apply for the job. About two months after applying, the manager contacted all the applicants and told us they had changed the application process.

We now needed to submit a video of ourselves explaining why we wanted the job. I had a couple of goes at creating an impressive video, but in the end decided not to proceed and to drop out of contention.

However, 5 minutes after the deadline passed, I was emailed by the manager out of the blue again, enthusiastically encouraging me to stay in the process. He offered to extend the deadline for me or even to forego the video submission altogether, seemingly desperate for me to stay and continue.

I felt excited. If he was that desperate for me to stay in the process, I must be a strong candidate; and as the project was a very interesting one, I agreed to continue applying. However, after a month-long wait of growing anticipation, I got a brief generic email telling me I had not even been shortlisted for interview.

This left me very angry. The world seemed to spin in front of me. It wasn’t just that I did not get the job, but I also felt that my “impaired theory of mind” had been thrown in my face. Again. Throughout my working life, this has caused me to make expensive errors and to face constant humiliation.

But like most accommodations for autistic people, how simple a thing it would be just to give instruction in a straightforward, unambiguous fashion? There is nobody who would be put at a disadvantage from this adjustment.

What difference is there in ensuring that a sign or written directions are able to be read by people with vision challenges or that your information is in an appropriate format for the Deaf? There is none, and yet this is an adjustment that autistic people seem to be as far away from achieving today as ever.

I despise being seen as a victim, but the orchestra of the non-autistic world still routinely seems to play notes which I cannot physically hear.

Even worse, they blame me for not hearing them. When I complained about the ambiguity of the signals I had been sent, one of the museum’s managers sneered that it was my fault!

I have given up trying to get them to understand, as they appear unable to hear me over their non-autistic privilege; but if I had one wish to change things for our community, it would be for managers and those in power to be sent on a course on the use of Plain English.

Or Cymraeg.

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19 Responses

  1. Yeah. I’m autistic as well, and used to have a very demanding career. And I read this article and still don’t understand exactly what happened or what you did wrong. I have been blindsided often myself, but I was excellent at the parts of my job that were important and pertinent, better than most people at it. But because I was bad at schmoozing, I never reached the level of success that my skills should have warranted. And now I don’t work outside the home at all.

    1. they didn’t do anything wrong and I can only assume that non-autistics would be equally confused and upset by this. the non-autistic world is full of miscommunication, often deliberate by people who like weilding power over others to obfuscate motive.
      Not that autistic people are perfect, but clear communication is a common trait of ours that is often seen as naive.

  2. I guess a certain amount of ambiguity is unavoidable in any language; but could it be that a lot of ambiguity is intentional and is used to isolate “unwanted people” while maintaining plausible deniability (as in, “Of course I wasn’t trying to deny you a job. I would never do such a thing! You must’ve misunderstood my meaning.”)?

    1. That is exactly the case here, it is not the fault of the interviewee that the process was made deliberately opaque and even falsely hopeful. It is in their selfish interests that they pit applicants against each other, it is a polite gladiator battle where you can’t see who you are even competing against. To prevent applicants from realising that their interests are not being looked after, they feed you false hope and promises. This can continue even if you land the job, especially under contract.

    2. Speaking of which, there are some occasions in which a person springs a similar trap and everyone, including the neurotypicals, ends up in that same isolated box because no decent person would ever glean the underlying meaning of the person springing said trap. Like in this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVDdJ6dZ0R4 ) talking about a corrupt Jehovah’s Witness leader wanting to pretend publicly that he isn’t actually, y’know, one of THE main leaders of that religious organization and he’s all upset because that meaniepants congregation won’t stop their kids from openly treating them like the organizational leaders they are – and will treat the leaders as leaders by encouraging this behavior in their kids. In other words, this is a case where the deliberate opaqueness is so bad even neurotypicals get caught by it.

      1. This is very interesting. I’m not sure this video shows exactly the same phenomenon that’s being discussed here, but maybe a very closely related one. The video seems to be more about cult-like mind control and manipulation. I’d say that’s actually something that neurotypicals are possibly more likely to get sucked into than autistic people. Autistic people might actually have an easier time spotting and avoiding that sort of thing. So, in that sense, it’s almost the opposite of what we’re discussing here. But the connection I see is that, precisely because NTs are so prone to creating cult-like environments (I’m using “cult-like” very broadly here to refer to many aspects of modern life, like the way many families and workplaces operate), the use of confusing, ambiguous, coded, impenetrable language (which autistics have so much trouble with) becomes commonplace and “necessary.”

  3. I agree that ambiguity is annoying. I am also sorry that you didn’t get the job.

    I have long had my own issues with not understanding what people want. When I was in my mid-twenties, a female friend called me at 2 AM to tell me that she wanted me. I asked her what she wanted me for. She then told me that she NEEDED me. I asked her why she needed me at two in the morning. My handyman skills were very limited. I could tighten a leaking faucet. I could unclog a toilet. I could even patch a hole in the dry wall, though if this was the problem I suggested that she get her apartment manager to do this. What did she need me to do?

    “JUST GET OVER HERE!” she snapped.

    I rolled out of bed, grabbed my tool kit and the toilet plunger and drove off to this woman’s studio apartment. She met me at the door wearing a sheer nightie. Since once does not ogle one’s friends particularly since we had a friendship agreement, I looked away. I then asked her why she had called me. Did she have a clogged toilet or a leaky faucet? By now it was 2:30 AM.

    She pulled on a bathrobe and sat down on her bed.

    “Just go!” she snapped.

    “But I just got here.”

    “GO AWAY!”

    “But you said you needed me.

    “GO AWAY! I HATE YOU AND NEVER WANT TO SEE YOU AGAIN!”

    I left and was quite confused. After all, she had called me and I had gotten up in the middle of the night to help her. My offer to help was met with anger. I did not understand what had happened.

    Years later after relating this puzzling experience to an NT friend, I was told that “I want you” and “I need you” have alternative meanings that I had not considered. This woman had apparently been inviting me to engage in physical intimacy, though why anyone would want to do this at 2:30 AM on a workday was beyond me.

    I initially discounted this theory. After all, we had had a friendship agreement. Since she had gotten out of a bad relationship, she had asked me if we could just be friends. Since I like knowing what the parameters are to delineate a relationship, I had readily agreed. I said as much to my other friend and further observed that if she had wanted to change our relationship agreement, she should have said something.

    “SHE DID!” observed my friend. “Unfortunately, you didn’t get the message.”

    1. On the one hand it’s true that your friend was sending a signal – but on the other hand even if you’d realised at the time it’s not very positive behaviour from her to be demanding and obscure. It’s a double frustration to be made responsible for not getting hints while the behaviour behind those hints isn’t even a great example of behaviour in general.

  4. Dwi cytuno gyda hyn! Dwi ddim yn deall hyn chwaith. Twice, we have applied for some funding and twice we’ve failed on minor technicalities – like why not just correct those technicalities – or at the very least tell me what those technicalities are so I don’t have to guess?! The rest of our application has always scored highly. I’ve also had two other ND friends suffer the same frustration as you on this recently, solidariaeth.

  5. Considering my comment replying to David above, I’m thinking that your interview situation is less about misreading signals and more the use of certain applicants for “inclusion” for appearance – the plausible deniability thing. It may be true that Autistic people have trouble reading behaviour, but often that behaviour isn’t good and “misreading” it is usually to do with us expecting some consistency which isn’t there. So in this case I see it a not the double empathy problem – it’s being affected by actually undesirable behaviour that NTs can end up saying “it’s the way the world works” as if that validates the majority behaviour.

  6. I co-interview with another person. One of the things I do is tell my co-interviewer not to pay as much attention to the fact that the candidate may not be showing eye contact. When I then interview the candidate, I can assess them on their merits, without letting that issue get in the way.

  7. I am sorry that happened to you. To be given that encouragement and then not even make the short list is beyond frustrating.

    I think the best way to interview autistic folks is to give us a practical task to complete (that has something to do with the job, of course) to demonstrate our competence. The job I am currently in (which is way below my education level, but really all I can handle) I actually got before I was even diagnosed (I got a late diagnosis, at 32), so what they did wasn’t even an accommodation. However, it was the best possible thing they could have done for me, instead of simply relying on a spoken interview.

    I am terrible at job interviews–at answering questions on the fly. I need to have time to actually think about my answer, and if possible, be able to type it out instead of speaking it, as I too easily lose my train of thought while speaking (incidentally, I also have ADHD). However, I am certain that the main reason I landed the job is because they included a practical task. I am a library assistant at a high school, and the task that they had me do during the interview was to put a set of notecards in order based on their call numbers within the Dewey Decimal System. The two ladies interviewing me even left the room while I worked on it, so I wouldn’t feel judged or rushed–and THAT is the proper way to interview an autistic individual.

    1. That interview format was quite fortunate. That thing about job below education level is understood, my imperfect body has not allowed me to pursue either employment or education to the level my mind used to be able to do. In 1990s while working with vocational rehabilitation I tested at postgraduate level reading and writing though I had essentially flunked out of college due to poor physical health. Now, with ME/CFS having been added to the health mix about 17 years ago my mind is no longer that sharp.

  8. I think autistic people often care more about how their words affect others, especially when it comes to invitations and rejection. We tend to take these things seriously and recognize the impact not being selected might have on someone as well as the impact that anticipation we might have at being chosen would have. One of the very nicest rejection emails I received for a poetry submission was from a publication featuring autistic and neurodivergent writers. They put so much thought and care into the email (and expressed there care in language I could understand without having to look for hidden meanings) that I felt inspired to keep writing and keep submitting work. I wish you’d been treated with that level of care and thoughtfulness. Maybe hiring teams need autistic people on them to help with communication.

  9. I really appreciate your article. I work with companies educating them about neurodiversity and making their hiring process more inclusive (and generally more thoughtful and compassionate). You described your experience so well, thank you!

  10. This problem is especially acute when you encounter “competency-based intervieing” – that monstrous process which is supposed to “put everyone on a level playing field”. It doesn’t!

    There are things which are blindingly obvious to the NT which are hopelessly obscure to us NDs, and there are things which are hopelessly obscure to the NT which are blindingly obvious to us NDs … and NEITHER group can accurately identify WHICH THEY ARE. So what happens in a compentency-based application process?

    You get a form which asks you, for instance, to “give an example of a time when you have had to work under pressure”. So you think hard about an excellent example of this … and you carefully structure your answer the way they want it, using the STAR acronym (Situation – Task – Action – Result) and you think you’ve absolutely aced it … then you get a polite rejection and when you ask for feedback you get told “the sifting panel did not feel that your examples demonstrated the required competencies adequately or at all”.

    Why is this happening?

    It’s happening because you have no guidance as to the viewpoint of the sift / interview panel.

    You may have had two examples you could choose from, both of which seemed hideously problematical to you, but only one of which seemed hideously problematical to the NT whilst the other seems trivial to them. You have no way of determining which seems hideously problematical to the NT as well as the ND, and you have a 50% chance of picking the wrong one.

    Conversely, you may easily miss an example that the NT would be very impressed by because it seems hideously problematical to the NT, but to the ND it was so obvious as not to be worth mentioning. So you don’t.

    The result can often be that the ND don’t get through the selection process for jobs that they would be IDEALLY suited to, because the problems that prove intractable to the NT have solutions which are blindingly obvious to the ND … and instead they appoint an NT who can select the competency (horrid word that) examples which will impress the sifters / interviewers with unerring accuracy, yet they struggle to solve the problems in the job that you would solve with barely a second thought …

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