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Reflections on a Safe Space

I have been doing a lot of reflecting over the last week or so. However, it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to meet with one of my lovely neurokin that I realised how much I value the safety of the Autistic space

This post is my attempt to share my reflective experience with you


The Social Work Perspective

In social work we work with many individuals who have experienced trauma, and we are aware of the impact unresolved trauma can potentially have on the person, their relationships, and their daily lives. We know it is important to work in a trauma informed way with that other person, seeking to understand their lived experience and to seek to avoid any further trauma as we aim to affect change and a sense of safety whatever that may look like for that person (adult or child).

We also, in social work, know through practice and research that enabling safe spaces for us to explore our own self-care to address impact on working with trauma, is essential. both so we can practice effectively and safely but also to keep ourselves safe.

Over the last few years, the emphasis on reflective supervision has increased with an

expectation that this is offered within social work organisations to enable good practice. This expectation has been interpreted differently in my experience however should include opportunity to unpick and explore how we have identified and managed our emotional responses to situations, so we are aware of our own assumptions, biases, strengths, and barriers in our practice with others. We need to be aware of how we influence, and are influenced by, others. Good supervision includes space, time, and commitment both by the supervisor and the supervisee (or group). Power and responsibility are shared regarding what is discussed and it should be a collaborative process within a contained space.

In theory this sounds great, in practice the reflective space is often negated for crisis management, priorities dictated by others or an assumption that talking is less valuable than being seen to “do “something. The value of being able to make sense of what is getting in the way of solutions or success (proactive) is overridden by a need to show you are responding in

the immediacy (reactive) often without the outcomes we are really hoping for. We know this, it still happens. We tell ourselves; it is what it is, not much we can do about it etc. Hmmm not quite modelling what we tell families or expect of them is it? Ambivalence increases if our own self-care isn’t attended to, a bit of a vicious cycle, as we burn, and change slips further away. Burnout creeps closer, social workers leave or go off sick and problems and pressures persist.

What I’m trying to say is lack of reflective safe spaces causes harm, to us, the people we work with, and our profession.

So, what do we need to make it happen? Apart from the obvious time, room, commitment, we also need a trusting relationship with the person or people we share it with. And to create and develop trust, we need to ensure we have good effective communication to create shared meaning and understanding.


The Autistic Perspective

This week several things collided and imploded for me. Issues at work that amplified my sense I am not heard effectively with an impact on me, and others didn’t help. It reinforced my experience of microaggressions within the workplace despite some good intentions alongside frustrations around my sense of accomplishment for issues important to me. Typical autistic experiences unfortunately and ones I would usually expend a lot of energy challenging. However, this week the Spectrum 10K project (S10K) burst onto the scene. In a fanfare of science and benevolence, spokespeople heralded a game changer narrative of research that would bring us Autistics out of the darkness of uncertainty and tell us how we could improve our well being within a subtitle of neurodiversity.

And initially I was curious. I was interested. So, I delved a little deeper in my objectivity to see what this wondrous project could achieve. As I delved, I gained a sense of S10k as, at best, the Charity Model of disability on speed. Rescuing us poor hapless Autistic people by telling us what the more or less desirable traits and aspects of our existence were; telling us who we are through our biological makeup, making us “better”. Fixing, not only us but how society could understand us through a genetic perspective. At worst, I saw the biggest backwards step in Autism research bringing us closer to Kanner than I ever want to be.

And I experienced the biggest trauma response I’ve had in a long time. I couldn’t get my head round exactly why. But it was huge. After I looked at the website for ARC (Autism Research Centre) who are running the research, and the profiles of the research team I experienced physical, cognitive, and emotional impact. I lost the ability to speak. I sat frozen staring at the screen without being able to shift my gaze, change the window, turn off the computer. I played a loop of phrasing I had read in my head (I am not a visual person unless distressed where very stark and vivid images can be replayed on a loop). I felt emotions I couldn’t name but were overpowering and physically painful. I felt violated.

Over the next couple of days, I struggled to function, at work and personally. I withdrew. Due to the nature of what I needed to do, my direct interaction with others was less so my changes were less noticeable and noticed. I’m not sure if that was helpful to be honest as if someone had noticed I would have struggled to verbalise what was going on. But perhaps being noticed would have been a catalyst to enable me to move out of that state and into a safer one.

And then I had a meeting with someone else who is Autistic. Our meeting was work related and we are not in regular communication. It was on Zoom. It was glorious.


Authentic Connection

I can’t remember who first brought up S10K, but it didn’t take long. We both started saying how tired we were, how difficult this week had been, very polite, accommodating, tentative around each other. And then it was like a code name had been uttered and the floodgates opened. An unspoken permission. I won’t share exactly what we shared but we placed pain, hurt, fear, shock, disbelief, anger and other emotive states in that virtual room. We stimmed, we non-spoke, we connected. We were authentically ourselves. And it was powerful.

Whilst this was so valuable and so effective for both of us, we both reflected on how we couldn’t have done this or explained how we were feeling and why with anyone who was Neurotypical. We didn’t think they would understand or that we could connect in the same way as effectively. We may have been wrong however it was the prevailing sense with both of us that we needed that safe space of understanding, meaning and connection with our neurokin, our Autistic community. We got it without labour, expectation, or assimilation. We had our safe haven we couldn’t find even with our nearest and dearest.

I thought of me as social worker. As someone who identifies with the trauma survivor, the person seeking the safe haven and enabling that safe space. I thought of me as manager, enabling reflexive spaces and shared meaning in the work context. I wondered how my involvement was perceived and whether shared meaning or connection could be achieved and how I knew if it was or wasn’t.

And then I thought about me as supervisee. And how, as an Autistic person, my ability to share my trauma, how my perspectives may be perceived and how often it is misconstrued. Connection lost. I considered the importance of seeking that understanding early with the other person and how I am not solely responsible for ensuring this but how dependent I am on the motivation and understanding of the other person to identify and ‘see’ through the lens of Autism. It’s that extra tall, slippery step to climb and I have no control over it.

In that reflexive moment I felt the heavy, despondent powerlessness that comes from perpetual social disability. I have an attentive line manager who is curious and seeks to understand but there is still a need from me to explain, educate and lead. And still, it leads to miscommunication, despite the good intentions. I don’t blame them. It’s just another demand, another hoop to jump through, another barrier. And I didn’t feel that obligation or pressure to either accommodate or assimilate with my Autistic friend. We just 'were'.

So what do I take from this reflection?


My Commitment to You

Communication is vital. Space is necessary. However, meaning, understanding and trust each other want to share in this process, is what makes connection possible and valid. I may not get that fully in my relationships with my Neurotypical colleagues, family, or friends but I can seek to identify where can be developed and possible, then ask them to work with me honestly and inclusively. Not as their educator. And I as an Autistic person can ask that without shame, guilt, or deference as it is mutually beneficial for both of us. And that is OK.

I do also however recognise the pain, trauma, and distress of not having this space when I have needed it, or not having a communication partner willing to learn and accept me and what I need. That was a stark revelation for me this week. I still have trauma from stigma and fear of being erased in some way from society. It is very real and S10K has reinforced that. This is not OK. No-one should live in fear no matter if it is not apparent or obvious to others. Covert threats to your existence are like coercive control. Gaslighting is a term that is overused and often minimised especially in social media. However, S10K is grand scale gaslighting, publicly demonstrating care and motivation to support and 'make better' whilst behind closed doors subtly erasing confidence, self-efficacy, and identity of an entire community. Coercing parents, agencies, and others to participate for the good of their loved ones and unwittingly perpetuating harm. Using our own words and terms against us so we begin to doubt what we really mean or believe. Do you think I am over-reacting? Why do you think that? Is it because such eminent experts couldn't possibly do such a thing? Perhaps it is your time to reflect and be curious.

But ultimately my biggest celebration, the biggest validation of this minefield of cognitive-emotive explosions, is how beautiful the safe space becomes with the inclusion of Autistic connection. I love you, my Autistic neurokin. I value you, I hear you and, if you ever need a safe haven, I am here for you.

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