A Pop Culture Analysis of the 'Double Empathy Problem'
The Big Bang Theory dream for those with autism.
Posted December 10, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- The Big Bang Theory depicts characters with autistic traits who are accepted and loved. Yet, people with autism often feel left out.
- The "double empathy" problem states that communication breakdowns between autistic and non-autistic people are a two-way issue.
- Pop culture depicts autism in a way that is exemplary of the "double empathy" problem.
- "Double empathy" may be the solution to many of the difficulties people with autism face.
I love watching The Big Bang Theory.
Sheldon Cooper has been thought of as the archetypal autistic male. He has special skills, lacks social skills, hates touch, loves trains, is good at math, and is funny and quirky. Even though he is difficult, people work to make him feel love and belonging.
From my perspective, almost all the characters in The Big Bang Theory could be diagnosed with autism.
Amy Farrah Fowler is so socially awkward she is oblivious to everyone around her. She is hyper-fixated on Sheldon and science. She avoids change.
Howard Walowitz sticks to the same rigid lifestyle living with his mother well until adulthood. He could live on his own, but he is unable to change until after he is married. He is hyper-fixated on numerous pop culture nonsense.
What I love about all these characters is that they are my fantasy. I am autistic, awkward, and weird, and people don’t stick beside me and try to comfort me through it. For the most part, people avoid me. I am unable to enter pair-bonded relationships, and my life is one of isolation. I have worked with adults with autism for years now.
I have had several crises calls this week with clients with autism who have wept and said, “I just wish I could be normal.” I have listened for hours as they cry that they would give anything to just be like the neurotypicals they see. The truth is, they don’t really want to be normal. They want The Big Bang Theory autistic dream. They want to be loved for who they are.
When I dig down with them, all the meltdowns and shutdowns and stimming wouldn’t be so bad if they could live in a world where their friends, significant others, family, and coworkers loved them through it and supported their disability. If they could be a Sheldon and have a job that forgave all their mistakes and continued to support their work and provided them with a work environment that supported their disability and friends that were willing to drive them places because they were too anxious to drive while still having a partner who loves them through all their meltdowns, they might not call me at 2:00 am weeping “I just wish I could be normal.”
I wish I could be normal every day. I watch neurotypical marriages and friendships with envy. I am not sure how to behave in a relationship. I always do everything wrong, and to this day, I still don’t understand what I have done.
Relationships, friendships, family members, and colleagues drift away from me for reasons I will never really know. I have had trouble finding work environments that I could stay in for long periods of time without melting down. I had to build my own neuroaffirmative practice to have that dream. I want The Big Bang Theory dream.
It isn’t just The Big Bang Theory. Pop culture loves people with autism. They aren’t always labeled as having autism, but the quirky, weird person with vague levels of OCD that lives on the sidelines of every sitcom is a trope that is beloved by all.
In all these Hollywood stories, there is this empathy for the quirky, socially awkward character. The normal characters love them despite their flaws and often work to support them despite their disability.
In the show Community, the entire group works together to walk Abed through his numerous meltdowns, no matter how hard or difficult his meltdowns are.
In the show Bob’s Burgers, Tina Belcher is hyper-fixated on erotic zombie butt stories and has no special skills. She is hyperverbal and makes everyone uncomfortable, but the kids at school still invite her to things. Her family loves her and supports her hyper-fixations. After Tina melts down, her family doesn’t punish her or yell at her for being difficult. Her father even dresses as a pony and goes to a pony convention for her. The people around these pop culture characters show empathy and love for the characters with autism.
This is what we need. This is what all people with autism need. We need empathy. Many advocates of the neuroaffirmative approaches to autism advocate for something some call "double empathy." Many of those of us with autism would argue that this would be the ideal way to treat us.
According to Rachel Zamzow (2021),
An emerging line of work supports a more nuanced look at the social abilities of autistic people. Proponents of an idea called the ‘double empathy problem’ believe that communication breakdowns between autistic and non-autistic people are a two-way issue, caused by both parties’ difficulties in understanding.
This ‘double problem’ challenges long-held theories of autism that point to social shortcomings of people with autism as the reason interactions flop. It also echoes principles of neurodiversity in its assumption that autistic people simply have a different way of communicating rather than a deficient one.
According to those who advocate for double empathy, the best treatment for my clients who call wishing they could be normal would be for others to begin to work to understand them. People with autism go through life trying desperately to please neurotypicals and adapt to neurotypical expectations. Many go through ABA and social skills training that uses classical conditioning to teach them how to pretend to be normal. Others are disciplined harshly as children for their atypical behavior.
We are often ostracized and isolated (Fitzpatrick et al.) The double empathy problem hypothesizes that if this ended, many of the struggles people with autism have would be greatly reduced. If people with autism were treated like they are in popular media, they could live happy lives, and perhaps the battle cry of “I wish I were normal” wouldn’t be so common. If others could learn some empathy for autism, we could all live The Big Bang Theory dream.
Bishop-Fitzpatrick, Mazefsky, C.A, & Each, S. M et al. (2017). The comined impact of social support and perceived stress on quality of life in adults with autism spectrum disorder and without intellectual disability. Sage Journals. Vol. 22, issue 6
Zamzow, Rachel (2021) Double Empath, Explained. Spectrum News. www.spectrumnews.org