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Academic Profile - Peter Mitchell 

Autism and the double empathy problem

We caught up with Professor Peter Mitchell, Head of School for Social Sciences, following his trip to Universiti Islam Sultan Sharif Ali (UNISSA) in Brunei as part of the UK-Brunei Higher Education Teaching and Learning Partnership Grant from the British Council, to get an insight into the trip and his research. 

Can you tell us a bit about the trip to Brunei?

The main reason for the collaboration with staff at UNISSA was to share best practice in student placements. Min Yong was the lead on the project, entitled ‘Learning from COVID-19 Pandemic: Best practice exchanges on student placement in higher education and exploring partnership on student and staff mobility’ and I was there, along with Alison Hedley, to represent University of Bradford. 

Prof Peter Mitchell

During the visit I gave a presentation on research I’ve been leading and where there might be some mutual interest; the presentation was on the topic of ‘The Double Empathy Problem’, a recently developed theory that gives new insights into the lived experience of having autism. UNISSA advertised the session widely, including outside the university, so external education and health professionals attended who wanted to understand any implications and relevance for them, which prompted a very interesting discussion afterwards. 

Prof Peter Mitchell and Alison Hedley from the University of Bradford with staff from UNISSA in Brunei

Prof Peter Mitchell (centre) and Alison Hedley (fourth from right) from the University of Bradford with academics from UNISSA, Brunei. (Photo credit: UNISSA)

Can you give an overview of your research into autism?

My work looks at what has been termed the double empathy problem, in that not only do autistic people struggle to read others in society, society as a whole finds it hard to understand them too. 

It is well known that autistic people have difficulty understanding other people – not just what they say, but their motivations, personality, etc. In contrast, people who are not autistic can generally do this and completely take it for granted - it's an almost miraculous ability that most of us have without even realising it. But autistic people can't do that, or at least, it's something they have difficulty with. 

For example, if a test participant watched a short video of a random stranger and was asked questions like “What are they looking at?”, “Can you guess what was just said to them?” or “Can you guess if this person is alone?”, in all likelihood an observer would say, “this person is just sitting there with a blank expression, so I have no idea”. 

But if you ask them to take a guess, they usually will be surprisingly accurate, well above what you'd expect by chance alone. People, those who are not autistic, can make inferences about personality, and even about whether the person is with somebody else, even in the absence of any apparent physical clues about anybody else being there. And they can make inferences about what the person is thinking about and their current state, but if you ask an autistic person to do that, they usually perform very poorly. 

But there's another side to the coin, which is it's not just that autistic people have difficulty understanding others in society. It's also that others in society don't understand them. 

If you ask a non-autistic person to watch a video of an autistic individual and ask them to make all these inferences, they're not likely to make accurate inference. So, autistic people are not very effective in reading the minds of other people, but likewise other people are not very effective at reading the minds of autistic people. 

Are there other societal challenges that autistic people face? 

We’ve discovered quite recently that if you show a video of a person and ask them how they feel about the person. If the person in the video is autistic, the likelihood is the observer will respond in a negative way, even though they had not been told explicitly that the person in the video is autistic.

The tendency for autistic people to be judged negatively in this way correlates strongly with it being difficult to infer things about them.  That has consequences for autistic people because if we do some research into what it's like being autistic and how autistic people feel about life, they tend to say that that nobody likes them, which in fact is not inaccurate based on our findings. And this in turn leads to very high levels of issues of mental health in autism and, sadly, alarmingly high rates of attempted suicide and actual suicide.

In short, autistic people are misunderstood and that in turn has an impact on mental health in autism.

How can society work to address these issues?

I suspect that there is a shift starting to happen in society’s understanding of mental health in general, but because there is an unconscious bias at work here, we should be bringing this out into the open so that everyone can be a bit more reflective about it. This is applicable to autism, but probably all sorts of other things like different cultures - people with different customs and different styles of interaction. And in reality, it's just a different way of expressing yourself. It doesn't mean the person in front of you is a threat or that they’re not fundamentally a good person, it's just a different style. 

What’s next for you in terms of research? 

There are papers in the pipeline which are pursuing this further. What's not been done yet is making the connection explicitly and directly between how people are perceived and their mental health. I think it's very plausible speculation, but the empirical connection hasn't yet been established. This is quite a big piece of work, and the key to this is co-author Sarah Cassidy, a specialist on mental health in autism, who I’ve also collaborated with previously.