Demand, Compliance, and Expectations: Oppressive, Repressive or Empowering?
So, as I navigate the rocky path of social work within the Autistic experience, this question has been mulling over in my head for some time. It’s not because I think its particularly difficult to answer but that all so often, it is the underpinning element of impact on what we do. And it can go so badly wrong whilst also be incredibly successful.
Let’s start with clarifying what I mean.
This is a tricky one as demands can be both imposed by others as well as ourselves. Demands can include the sensory, cognitive, or emotional for an Autistic person. The impact of the typically known senses can incur demand on my being (smell, sound, visual etc) but it can also be the additional impact of interoception (knowing how your body feels) or proprioception (where your body is in space).
A good example is thirst. My body sends a signal. I need to drink. My brain does not respond to the demand. Internally I have control neither for the need nor the response. Sometimes i will recognise I am thirsty. Then I feel a kind of inertia that stops me completing the act of going to the kitchen and pouring a glass of water.
Why? Perhaps I am deep in the monotropic flow of something important or interesting. Or sometimes there isn’t any obvious trigger. The enigmatic aspect of demand avoidance I experience as part of my Autism. But it is literally a life threatening enigma if I cant find solutions to overcome it. I can respond to crisis and make important decisions under pressure in my work but need prompts to eat and drink and look after myself in that way. A great example of how functional labels for Autism are useless.
Information- processing can be a huge demand. An email comes in. I open it; I’ve seen whom it’s from so I self-congratulate as that is overcoming a demand, as I anticipate a command, request or need to unpick information. My demand avoidance here is a coping mechanism against overwhelm through cognitive overload. But it could also be an emotional overload as I run the gauntlet of how many different (possibly indistinguishable) emotions I am about to experience. Its exhausting. And I haven’t even read it yet.
The email is as expected. It is one of many in my inbox. I hear a cacophony of thoughts as I attempt to imagine how that other person, or people, were thinking when they wrote it and how they will respond when they receive whatever response I will eventually offer. Who says we don’t have theory of mind huh? I feel the shut down seeping in. It’s like molten lead flowing into my limbs, my brain, my psyche. All feels heavy, suffocating time and infecting thought when both are essentially precious in that moment. I am using all my energy to focus and decipher meaning. The email has lots of filler words but there are commands wrapped up in a passive aggressive window dressing. This is the last section;
“when you get a moment, id appreciate a discussion. it is necessary that we catch up about some things that are essential for your team”
So, am I in trouble? Is this a friendly request? What actually is it asking for? I have a moment now, but I’m guessing that isn’t what you mean as I’m in early to avoid the melee of the office to be able to focus and read. You are not here. A discussion is bigger than a moment – isn’t it?
Here is what the email actually meant
“I have been told to organise a staff development day. I want you to do some things to help plan and run it"
Both are demands. But had I received the second one, whilst I would have struggled managing the demand, it would have had a sense of meaning. And therein lies the difference. I will always struggle with demand and demand avoidance, whether they be internal, individual, interpersonal or social. But place them within a context and meaning, and i can relate relevance to manage and interpret whether, how, and with what I respond.
Let’s compare with compliance.
This infers an expectation you will respond in a determined way (usually not determined by you). It links closely with expectations for example dress code at work or meeting statutory requirements in your role. However, these are socially determined and, unless clearly defined in law or policy, are often a mismatch of vagueness created by the dominant authority. Compliance needs demands imposed on self or others for it to be achieved. And to achieve a certain standard, compliance requires expectations these will be met and consequences if they are not.
But demand, compliance and expectation are not a causal, linear or universally understood set. They can shift and change depending on what they are for, who is requesting and how they are requested. For example, there is an expectation that social workers will support families. Can’t see any argument there. A fundamental context of my role. There are demands placed on social workers to have appropriate training, to see families regularly, to create and manage effective outcome focused plans. Families place demands on what they want you to do, when and how. These demands may conflict, however they are usually linked to that person, or group’s understanding of expectation (which may also differ).
Compliance in statutory social work however is measured mainly quantitatively such as frequency of meetings and visits or recording processes and how quickly you send out your plans. We begin to see a disconnect between context, need and conformity. Quality of involvement, or what you do with children to ensure their needs are met, or perseverance in developing trusting relationships doesn’t make it into the compliance top set. Unless you are being inspected of course.....
Now, this is not a good mix for my autistic, turbo- charged, social justice value set. So, I advocate. For the families and for my team. I argue a visit one day out of internally imposed deadlines is justifiable if it has purpose and meaning to affect change or its unavoidable. My stimming increases (masked of course) as I calmly explain a child has been ill, or a parent fearful, and the worker has respectfully worked to ensure distress is avoided. I question the validity of a support visit being measured in timescales rather than outcomes. I am told it is to avoid drift. I point out drift occurs when plans are not followed or need not responded to by agencies, so this is the opposite of drift and indeed a needs led response. I am told if I cannot comply, I will be “put on Capability" (for those non-social worky folks that’s a support policy used as a threat). I mute. Emotional demand kicks in with a freeze response and I can no longer control speech. I have been silenced. For now.
Share the power
So how on earth can any of this be empowering? Well, we work from within the constraints to enable others see they have control. We work with families expectations as our guide and an honesty about what we are required to do. From the start. We frame our language to the need of the family and use it in everything we do including plans, records, letters etc. We navigate uncertainty and discord, with transparency and context of both role and the child’s circumstances. We seek to meet demands of the family with a desire to understand context and meaning so if it isnt safe or possible, we share this with context and meaning too. Not shifting blame. Shifting perspective. And shifting the emphasis from compliance to expectation so needs can be discussed in a more open and collaborative way, even if we cant agree on desires or wants.
I think of pirates when I think of this. Different captains of different crews seeking an agreement even when they are not mutually allied, to meet a common goal. “ Do we have an accord?” we are never always going to sail the same ship or become comrades but for now, it is a respectful, if initially uneasy, arrangement until the need is met, or the agreement broken.
So showing up, being clear from the start and respecting perspectives meets expectations and begins to explore demands for families. I didn’t say it is easy. But its essential. And how does that empower? Because families and especially children learn they have a voice and an element of control within a system that actually has an element of flex within its boundaries. Challenge can be heard and respected without battles if we enable it to happen. That relies of course on you as the social worker, your manager and team.
Reclaim the narrative
And here’s your empowering bit. Work as a team. Find a collaborate approach to the compliance measures. Seek ally-ship from your manager in showcasing good outcomes as good practice. Get effective, peer-recommended training in aspects of practice you are unsure of. Bring your learning from families to the team and learn from each other. Grow.
Managers, place demand in context. Explain why and how the team can identify solutions. Look beyond the numbers. See the numbers become an outcome of the expectations delivered. Lead by example and show confidence in your team to achieve, both to them and to senior leaders.
Is autism a help or a hindrance here then? I struggle with demand of many varieties however, as I work to combat my own internalised ableism, I also know my strengths have facilitated growth in my practice and that of others that despite the threat of the “C” word, or stigma. I can lead and model with results. My wonderful autism helps me see patterns, in families and my team. I see who works together well and encourage creativity whilst keeping an eye on how that meets demand. I keep my communication clear (well, on a good day), and I model self-learning when things don’t go as I want or expect them. I guess I assume nothing but with an overriding expectation everyone will seek to bring their best selves and let me support when this isn’t possible. I am honest in my failures and open about my limitations. And it works.
I seek excellently imperfect practice between humans. And when it is allowed to happen, i see it.
Sound great doesn’t it? Almost a systemic heaven, social- work style. Just one small problem – we need to change the language and motivations of compliance and demand across all levels. We need senior leaders to see the creativity of success as compliance and create an environment that welcomes this and looks beyond the ‘norm’. That, I guess, is the harder nut to crack. We need to be nurtured by those in charge. They need to be encouraged by the policy and law makers that the quality of the profession and the lives of those we work with to affect change is the most important focus, not numbers, specific behaviours or fear.
I also seek acceptance, trust and clarity from those above me, but it looks like I have to wait a bit longer. I demand change. I expect progress. I live in hope. And perpetual persistence. And the need to ask the awkward questions.
Respectfully. Consistently. Loudly