Diary of an autistic social work student: “it’s tiring trying to fit into a neuro-typical world”

One social work student reflects on the additional challenges facing autistic social workers and their need for greater awareness from their peers

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'Sensory overload' Photo: REX/Victoria Simpson

I sat quietly, listening to a skills lecture on autism, secretly hoping my fellow students would take on board what was being taught. But instead, they just laughed when statements were read out to demonstrate how autistic people understand things literally. I squirmed inside, wondering what was so funny.

Why do I feel so uncomfortable disclosing my disability? Surely whilst studying for a social work degree I can be honest about who I am- isn’t it one course on which people shouldn’t care about my label? But nevertheless I don’t feel I should be forced into disclosing that I’m autistic. I believe that, especially on a social work course, other students should be mindful of hidden as well as visible disabilities.

Daily challenges 

I struggle with group work, and peer reviewed presentations are really hard for me, especially when the feedback states  “lack of eye contact”. Not everyone is comfortable with eye contact, so I don’t understand why it is seen as negative in assessments.

I remember walking into a room that had three different groups all chatting about their own presentation. I began to overload with the lighting and the noise of all the groups’ different conversations.

I said to one of our group members that I didn’t feel comfortable practising our presentation with the other groups in there. I didn’t expect the student to respond in the way they did, but they couldn’t accept that I didn’t feel comfortable and stormed off. At that point I could have disclosed my autism, but since we’d had a skills day only a few weeks earlier, I felt  the student should have been more mindful.

Strategies for coping 

Strategies that the enabling centre have put in to place for my sensory overload include having a note taker for lectures, although students assume it’s for other reasons and not because I’m autistic.

I wouldn’t be able to listen to a recorded lecture as I would pick up every single detail. It’s especially hard dealing with the noise in a classroom: when someone is eating I can hear it from across the room. Clicking pens and whispering between students drown out the lecturer at times. My brain can’t filter the noise like other students can and it’s very tiring trying.

Neuro-typical world

It’s extremely tiring in general trying to fit into a neuro-typical world. I’ve found that mindfulness and meditation help me to deal with some of the hypersensitivity I experience, as concentrating on my breathing allows me to shift my attention from the emotion I’m feeling.

My experiences as an autistic social work student have made me reflect on why service users are involved in other skills days but not in the autism skills day. An autistic person is likely to be better equipped to talk about how to communicate with them during a meltdown than someone who’s never experienced it.

Embarking on a social work career, I think students should be mindful of autism.  After all, if they can’t be mindful of their fellow student, how will they deal with an autistic service user?

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8 Responses to Diary of an autistic social work student: “it’s tiring trying to fit into a neuro-typical world”

  1. Leanne October 16, 2014 at 11:24 am #

    A great article , I have Dyslexia and have just qualified as a Social Worker. I found similar experiences and became extreamly frustrated but was able to reflect on my own feelings and abilities. This I feel will allow us a social worker to work more effectively with service users. It will be in our practice that we empower our service user to have a voice and challenge these spectives. Good luck in your career x

  2. John Ramsey October 16, 2014 at 11:42 am #

    Thank you for sharing an intersting article. It does raise some questions for me which I hope you will accept as a genuine attempt to increase my understanding, rather than any implicit criticism or prejudice.

    The first is that I think that a necessary aptitude for social workers is the ability to empathise with clients. If we accept that an impaired theory of mind is part of the definition of autism, do you think this will impact on your effectiveness?

    The second question is that, if the releatively subdued environment of a lecture room can be owerwhelming, do you think you wil be able to cope in fruaght sutuations with clients?

    I do actively support the rights of disabled people in the workplace, and I would be interested to know what you think you would need as a social worker, as opposed to a student.
    In any event, I do wish you well with your chosen career!

  3. Damian October 16, 2014 at 2:42 pm #

    Well – it is not at all ‘accepted’ that we have an impaired theory of mind – this is a partial and inaccurate theory / heuristic. We are of a differing disposition to the majority and this causes difficulties in empathy and understanding in both directions (what I have theorised as the double empathy problem). How much empathy and theory of autistic mind were the fellow students displaying here? With ’empathy’, also comes ‘apathy’, ‘dyspathy’ and even ‘antipathy’ – these can also be disabling for a social worker and their clients! An autistic person with the understanding and experience this writer is showing could be a great addition to any social work team. For social work to ‘work’ in needs a diversity of practitioners. So – should we not also employ people from other minority groups? We deal with overload everyday – and one would not be pursuing such a career if one was not willing to find ways of navigating such situations and putting the client first.

  4. student October 16, 2014 at 6:30 pm #

    As a student S.W. With dyslexia .I got asked from a placement manager : How can you be a social worker with dyslexia. I responded with defence, and it made me more determined to Finnish my degree. Even though I had to study twice as hard as the other students without a disability. Its awful in this world that people are still ignorant towards disability.

  5. Kris October 16, 2014 at 7:01 pm #

    I was also a social work student diagnosed with Asperger’s, dyslexia and dyscalculia and colour blindness and i will say that i have never met a group of people so offensive and closed minded as the students in my class and also more disconcertingly, the tutors that we were taught by. I have spent years developing my coping mechanisms and skills in life to a stage where most people would not notice the traits unless they have had experience of being around others with ASD;even those that do notice them, they are shocked should i be open about it.
    From comments from tutors such as “no one in this class knows what it is like to live with the disabilities the service users may face” then proceeding to provide stereotyped and offensive generalisations of people with ASD, to hearing comments such as “people with learning difficulties should not be allowed children” from students which went unchallenged by staff members-I was shocked. To say that i supposedly lack empathy, I seem to have more than past, current and future practitioners that I came across there. I remember a class specifically devoted to “disability awareness”; the powerpoint was written on a white background with sky blue font (which I could not see at all), the handouts in some ridiculous and tiny font I could not read and the information put across laughable, if it was not so offensive and hypocritical.

    It amazes me that I was shunned by my class for being different to my peers and for challenging oppressive comments, yet feedback from placements was always fantastic and I have been able to build positive relationships with the individuals I have worked with. Its a confusing world. The university experience was difficult for me; I faced similar issues to the author of the article, most of which would not be taken seriously by anyone who does not also experience them. Trying to “fit in” or even cope each day with the same routines as others is hugely draining and tiring for me- the amount of concentration I put in to just listening to a conversation when there is background noise is like running a marathon (which i have also done!) but I love the job, and wouldn’t change it. When i hear people doubting my ability to empathise, I show them the quality of my work. My lack of emotional literacy is made up for by my ability to analyse, my desire to understand and my genuine interest in people and I have not failed so far. My previous experiences make me more aware of the needs of others, visible or not, which I hope makes me a good practitioner.

    I would one day like to collate the experiences of social work students with any “disability” and produce some sort of work which will highlight issues which may be faced in the classroom and the work place, and how it is not something to fear, but to learn about and understand. Not that I wish to put my negative experiences to all institutions and individuals, but it does seem to be a little looked into issue which we can all learn from.

  6. Jason October 16, 2014 at 7:41 pm #

    Great article, I have just finished my degree in social work and I have Tourettes (part of the ASD) and I am hard of hearing (I wear an hearing aid). Having Tourettes makes things like reading and writing very hard to do, it’s amplified by the stress assignments and deadlines have on you, plus being in busy lecture room’s does not help. But you learn to pull through, the resilience that we have empowers us to do this, we will make the better social workers because of this experience.

  7. jennie October 18, 2014 at 7:07 pm #

    I think that having a social worker with aspergers would be absolutely beneficial to those who also have it, from my own experience people like to talk to someone who has shared experience and helps people not to feel like a ‘freak’ (the words of a service user with aspergers).
    My friends and I, when we did the course had a discussion where we stated we all felt like we all had some traits and as for empathy I am well aware mine sometimes affects what I see and my interpretation of it, and wish I found it easier to step back and analyse without emotions.
    aspergers is the same as anything, you find ways to cope and adapt, no one would say you can’t be a social worker because you find it better to write reports at night or need three cups off coffee before you start in the morning. That’s how you cope everyone has coping mechanisms and strengths as well as weaknesses .

  8. Ken October 20, 2014 at 9:28 pm #

    Interesting comments. I’ve always felt that my most important and valuable qualification had been that I have occasionally crossed the thin white line we all tread. Turn your idiosyncrasies upside down to others by showing them that differences are important, interesting and relevant to us all. Care should never be learnt in the classroom with box ticking and the perfect example as the guide. Rather it should be taught with compassion and understanding. Care is easy to apply when we give it in the context of our own failings.
    Good luck with your career and believe in yourself. You have much to give others.