I strive to raise the profile of Autistic social workers, to empower the Autistic lived experience to be an emancipatory, empowered and included one, in whatever society it inhabits.
But I don’t represent everyone, I can't, because I haven’t lived your life, your experience, your identities. And I don’t want to assume 'you' because power is more substantial as a collective that individuals trying to shout against the noise.
This reflection uses an analogy of song, considering recent discussions around how people want to be represented, the beauty of difference within difference, and why we should embrace rather than seek to conform.
Note: While I use terms such as voice and singing this should not be assumed to always be verbally constructed. All voices, no matter how they are created and shared are valid.
Surface-level thinking brings surface-level solutions
There is always lots of talk about language and what is preferred by the 'autistic community'. There is research to show a generalised preference for both autistic people but also disabled people. An even broader scope of folk! It’s identity-first by the way. I’m not going to go into the debate about that – there are plenty of other opportunities to explore that if you are interested.
Additionally, we have other debates going on about how to describe ourselves within a neurodiversity approach. Are we neurodivergent, neurodistinct or neurodifferent? Is someone more “neurosparkly” or “neurospicy”? All these terms are wrapped in a film of rationale inevitably linked with internalised ableism or reclamation of an identity that was, still is, considered a disorder in the everyday language used to describe Autistic and neurodifferent people by those who are not.
And that is more than OK when choosing for yourself. It needs to fit as closely as possible who you are, and as a lot of us have very spiky profiles when it comes to neurodevelopment, this makes sense to me. Just don’t tell others how or what to call themselves. Because there isn’t one truth. You don’t get a free pass to dictate just because you have an element of membership in the group.
So if we only stayed on the surface of the language debate, we will continue to get transient, superficial agreements, that, as with other aspects of culture, shift and change with context, time and place. The new agreed name will be replaced with another newer name, with similar arguments as to why and why not. A perpetual debate that does not begin to look at the roots of the dilemma. Same song, different tune.
Cacophany vs Euphony
As with all communities, however, to use an analogy, there are different songs being sung, with different voices offering a range of pitch and tone. With autism, this is no different. With neurodivergence, this gets even greater. Songs invariably are representations, and communications of our experiences, and our lives. They contain different words, emotions, intonations, chords, and compositions. They may be sung individually and at times combine to form choirs of connections to different aspects of identity.
However, if we do not work to understand the musicality within our connections as well as between, we risk a cacophony of sound. Cacophonies are harsh and discordant. Notes and phrases collide as the instruments fight to play their tune, for songs to be heard in that space at the same time.
We may be so intent on getting our part, our song, to the audience, that we forget we are part of the choir. We neglect the whole piece in favour of specific recognition. But the audience, the wider societies in which we reside, hear only melee. The tune is lost, the emotion disconnected, the message indistinct, the experience uninviting.
Even worse, members of our community who have been drowned out by the loudest, hear that too. They leave the choir to sing alone or elsewhere where their songs are accepted. Even worse, they stop singing. The ability to connect with other voices singing similar songs, willing to harmonise, becomes less accessible. Not impossible but another barrier to knock down within a community that says it strives for inclusion and speaks (sings) for all.
But we must keep singing, the community choir argues. We must be heard! Our song is important! But who is still singing? And who is choosing the songs to sing? We are perpetuating exactly what we seek to quell – the demand to conform to the hierarchy of who can sing the loudest. Musical supremacy. The song gets quieter as there are fewer voices though. The power is reduced. The words are less clear to be heard.
Social work soundbytes
This is not just within the autism communities. This could also be argued regarding the social work profession. Social workers are not all the same. We have different identities. We are different practitioners. We come with our own songs and are expected to sing the statutory songbook with one voice, one tone, without them. Especially if our identity music clashes with the chords of the profession.
It starts in social work education as a student. Learning environments offer different ways to sing the same songs and whilst voices are praised and encouraged, they gradually lose their individuality as the pitch of placements dictates how the choir masters select their new sopranos, tenors and basses.
We try our hardest as it's so important to us we can sing with the rest, so we can enable the songs of others to be heard. But social work in the UK is steeped in disharmony. It is racist. The most recent study of racism in the profession evidenced that (Gurau and Bacchoo, 2022). It is ableist. Every day I hear of neurodivergent and disabled social workers, who actually survived through education, say they are leaving because their needs are not being met, often intentionally. Then you have research indicating LGBTQIA+ microaggressions in social work education (Atteberry-Ash et al, 2019) and a Department of Education report on Transgender in Child and Family social work, describing awareness and training in transgender issues as “variable, yet largely deficient” (Hudson-Sharp, 2018; 34)
So if you are an Autistic social worker, and a member of the Global Majority, a gender identity that is not cis-male or female, or one that includes additional disabilities, whose song are you able to sing? Openly. Authentically. Without risk.
You may be saying right now that this is not you. Perhaps. But who is challenging it beyond those who are directly affected? Have you sought to learn the songs of those who don’t share all your identities? Or do you perpetuate the normative music, singing the same songs again and again?
Whether you sing within the Autistic or social work community choirs, or indeed, like me, both of them, the focus should not be on just whether the notes are right, but whether we are seeking a collective euphony.
Bringing out the advocate euphony
A musical euphony is pleasing and harmonious. It lifts and soars, conveying the collective emotion captured in voices that work together to produce something profound and powerful to those who hear it. This doesn’t just magically happen. It requires creativity and learning each other's musical originality and nuances. Embracing creative differences and negotiating how this can be shared whilst still evoking the key meaningful melodies and impacts. It also requires patience, grace and respect, things that cannot be experienced if everyone rushes to showcase their own talents at the expense of others.
I am a bit of a reluctant advocate. I never expected nor actually wanted to be one. The fact I had to is not lost on me and perhaps is what drives me to speak out as much as I can, in as many different ways as I can. But one advocate should be the sum of many others. My skill sets do not align with all that is social media, for example, and I had to reach out to other Autistic people for help. I still can't do memes and will never broach Twitter/X or equivalent so I rely on others to get heard. I in turn offer whatever they need or seek to amplify their work. An acknowledgement of skills sharing to mutually enhance and support each other's voices.
I also took time (and continue to take time) to learn about my own white privilege and the power that provides, and to link collaboratively with Global Majority parents and social workers, some of whom are also Autistic. We collectively reflect and explore connections and differences within our lived experiences. We’ve worked hard on learning about racism, ableism, classism and other ‘isms’ and how these interconnect. I learn from my children, I learn from my friends and colleagues within the LGBTQIA+ communities whose identities differ from mine and we trade our music. In an inclusive and anti-oppressive world, it is how it should be. I quiet my voice when I haven’t the right to solo. We celebrate and hold each other up whilst also challenging and holding each other to account when required. I do not exist as I do without their wisdom and comradeship.
My advocacy is rooted in my voice but is shaped and guided by the voices of others. We are co-writers of the melodies. Our song catalogue is getting stronger and our music richer, more resonant and louder as a result. We are creating deeper harmonies, and more beautiful chords, with an aim to entice others to join the chorus and add verses.
The Autistic community has so many rich harmonies. It has so many beautiful identity voices. Social work has some amazing chords and creative composers. Both ‘communities’ hold the power to utilise these assets to create powerful impacts including with each other. We just need to listen, Within. Between. Then collaborate to write the most powerful songs that have to be heard.
Imagine how high our voices could soar.
Imagine what we could change then.
Atteberry-Ash, B., Speer, S. R., K. Kattari, S., & Kinney, M. K. (2019). Does it get better? LGBTQ social work students and experiences with harmful discourse. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services, 31(2), 223-241.
Gurau, O and Bacchoo, A (2022) Anti-Racism Report, full report; What Works for Children’s Social Care https://whatworks-csc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/WWCSC_SWE_PSWN_Anti-Racism_Full_Report_March2022 .pdf accessed May 2023
Hudson-Sharp, N (2018) Transgender awareness in child and family social work education , National Institute of Economic and Social Research, Department for Education, https://www.niesr.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Transgender_awareness_in_child_and_family_social_work_education-4.pdf accessed May 2023