Autism, Empathy, and the Joy of Living as an Openly Autistic Social Worker

Audio recording of the essay below.

Lynne Fetter // @LGFetter

I don’t want to be penned in by the perceptions of non-autistic people, or by representations that stop at the surface or tell the same story again and again. I want to reclaim space; I want to rest my weight against the boundaries set by others and push against them. Writing this is a push, making a little more room for myself and – I hope – others. Can you feel it?

Nell Brown, “This Love”

Being autistic*** in social work is hard. Persistent, harmful stereotypes about autistics paint us as lacking in empathy. Empathy, of course, is widely considered to be a key component of social work practice, so this stereotype about autism creates an environment in our field where we are scared to admit we are autistic for fear of being instantly labeled as lacking in empathy and therefore, not as effective at our jobs as our neurotypical peers. That fear of ours is not unfounded. When we admit we are autistic, we make ourselves even more vulnerable to ableism, bullying, and harassment from our peers. Thus, whether we open up about our autism or not, we are often left to deal with our internalized ableism (ableist ideas that we knowingly or unknowingly turn against ourselves) alone. 

The very assumption that autism means low empathy is far from objective fact. The subjectivity inherent in a clinical diagnosis of autism invites researchers to rely on unfounded, wild conjecture (Jack, 2011). For example, though Simon Baron-Cohen’s Twitter account appears to demonstrate at least partially evolving thought on gender and autism, I know for certain that he had for many years openly insisted, based on his own opinion, that autism represents the “extreme male brain,” which he defined as inherently low on empathy (Baron-Cohen, 2005). His past gendering of autism influences cultural perceptions and representations of it to this day, which are dominated by white men and boys (think about TV shows like The Big Bang Theory, Atypical, and The Good Doctor, which all feature white male autistic people). Baron-Cohen’s theory not only stigmatizes autism but also erases the experiences of autistic women and nonbinary folx and gives currency to (cis)sexist ideas. The dominance of his opinion has nearly filled the vacuum; there has been little space for other conceptualizations of autism and empathy to surface (Jack, 2011). 

However, at long last, new research is emerging which enables us as autistic people to humanize ourselves (Yergeau, 2013): we can think of others. We can be empathetic. This research has found communication and empathy between autistic and non-autistic people to be a relational process (Heasman & Gillespie, 2017; Morrison et al., 2019; Sheppard et al., 2015), and it helps to establish–from an academic, peer-reviewed standpoint–that autistic people do feel empathy. We may express it in different ways, but that doesn’t imply that autistic and non-autistic people can’t learn to communicate empathy so that both parties understand one another. This research aligns with Milton’s (2012) paper that suggested that while empathy has historically been measured based on the presence or absence of predefined socio-emotional traits, the truth about empathy may be much more complex than that. He argued that it is not a predefined trait, but rather a socially constructed reality that unfolds between two or more people over time. This broader interpretation of empathy flexes to allow for the inclusion of perspectives far beyond Simon Baron-Cohen’s rigid insistence on gendered brains.  

Readers with interest in further exploring other ways of conceptualizing autism (including but not limited to autistic empathy) should consider perusing the following: 

It’s heartbreaking to me that I feel I have to start out this piece by defending my ability to feel what others feel–subjecting myself to scans of the dominant and highly ableist/sexist literature–but experience has shown me that I must rigorously do so, or else allow others (including my colleagues in social work) to dehumanize me as “not empathetic enough.” I am willing to hazard a guess that the presence of such ableist ideas in social work plays a large role in autistic social workers’ choice not to disclose their autism. Having to assert one’s own humanity and empathic capability constantly is exhausting. No one wants to do it, and no one wants to face prejudice and discrimination. Many of us remain in the dark, suffering in silence–anxiety, depression, and self-doubt stifling our professional confidence. Until recently, that was me, too–but I am here to assert that all of us deserve to live freely in the light. 

Indeed, when allowed to work openly as an autistic social worker without fear of ableist presuppositions about my capacity for empathy, I move through the world as if bathed in warm light and full of passionate electricity, hardly able to contain my joy in the social work profession. I can add so much more energy and life to this profession when I am able to live openly and don’t have to constantly fear prejudice and discrimination from my coworkers. I can draw from my deep well of experience as a disabled woman and openly share that with the social workers around me. I can throw myself into my work with a uniquely autistic passion and not worry that I will be judged.

Unfortunately, I’ve been told by certain social work colleagues in the past that I need to be more social, I need to get out more, I need to “live a little.” However, what those colleagues didn’t realize is that 1) I am the most extroverted person I know when I’m comfortable in my environment and 2) the time I spend hyperfocusing on my work and “not living” is often the time I feel most alive. To take my work away from me is also to take away a large chunk of my joy, a joy that I refuse to let go because I value and deserve it. My joy enriches my social work practice more than anything else. It also keeps me going and ensures my survival; I simply couldn’t live and work without it.  

I remain forever thankful to my social work colleagues who open their minds to new and rehumanizing ideas about what it means to be autistic. I appreciate those who allow me to exist in this world authentically and lean into my joy, those who encourage and cultivate it in me. Without them, I could not do what I do. 


Plain Language Summary

Audio recording of the plain language version of this essay.

Empathy is a word that means being able to understand and share someone else’s feelings. Empathy is very important in social work. Being an autistic social worker is hard. It’s hard because some people think being autistic means we can’t feel as much empathy. That isn’t true. People might say we aren’t good social workers because we don’t feel empathy. That isn’t true either. A lot of the time, autistic social workers don’t say we are autistic. We worry about bullying at work. Not talking about it can make us feel lonely. 

Simon Baron-Cohen is one of the people who says that autistics don’t feel much empathy. He says this is because we have “male brains.” That is his opinion. He does not have proof that his opinion is a fact. His opinion leaves out autistic women. It also leaves out autistic people who don’t identify as women or men. That means his idea does not include everyone. It is very popular, so a lot of researchers believe it is a fact. His idea is so popular that other researchers’ ideas about autism don’t get published or read as often. 

Recently, other researchers have different ideas about autism. They say that we autistic people can feel empathy. Autistic people might show empathy in different ways than non-autistic people. That doesn’t mean we can’t show empathy so that non-autistic people understand. Empathy is something that happens between two people over time. It can’t always be measured. It is more complicated than having a “male” or “female” brain. 

It is sad that I had to start this essay by explaining autistic empathy. I think that is why many autistic social workers don’t talk about our autism. It can be tiring to explain autistic empathy all the time. It is also hard to face bullying when we tell others that we are autistic. But not telling other people is also hard. Hiding our autism can make us sad, anxious, or upset. We deserve to be free of those difficult emotions. We deserve to leave the dark and live in the light. 

I feel so much lighter when I don’t have to be afraid to talk about being autistic. I bring so much more wisdom to the work day. I have so much more energy and focus. People sometimes see my focus as a bad thing, though. They tell me I’m not social enough. They tell me I need to get out and “live a little.” When I’m sure I can be myself, I’m the most social person I know. I often feel the most alive when I am working. The work I do gives me joy. I want and deserve that joy. It makes me a better social worker and gets me through hard times. 

I’m thankful to the social workers in my life who listen to new ideas about autism. I’m thankful that they let me be who I am and feel my joy.


Audio recording of the language note and author bio that accompany this post

***Language use around autism can be a contentious issue. Different parts of the autism community disagree about which language to use. Some autistic people prefer person-first language. Others prefer identity-first language. Person-first language is “people with autism.” Identity-first language is “autistic people.” The author of this post has chosen to use identity-first language. However, either one is valid. Social workers should respect the language clients, students, or colleagues use to refer to themselves and their disabilities. 


Lynne Fetter is a disabled MSW student at Virginia Commonwealth University. She completed her generalist internship at the Center on Transition Innovations at VCU and will be interning at VCU’s Partnership for People with Disabilities starting in the fall of 2020 during her concentration year in Social Work Administration, Planning, and Policy Practice (SWAPPP). She has a particular passion for speaking and writing about disability representation in social work. 

References

Baron-Cohen, S. (2005, August 8). The male condition. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/08/opinion/the-male-condition.html

Brown, N. (2020). “This love.” In Stim: An autistic anthology (pp. 56-63). Unbound Publishing.

Chapman, R. (2019). Autism as a form of life: Wittgenstein and the psychological coherence of autism. Metaphilosophy, 50(4), 421-440. https://doi.org/10.1111/meta.12366

Heasman, B., & Gillespie, A. (2017). Perspective-taking is two-sided: Misunderstandings between people with Asperger’s syndrome and their family members. Autism, 22(6), 740-750. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361317708287

Jack, J. (2011). “The extreme male brain?” Incrementum and the rhetorical gendering of autism. Disability Studies Quarterly, 31(3). https://doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v31i3.1672

Milton, D. E. (2012). On the ontological status of autism: The ‘double empathy problem’. Disability & Society, 27(6), 883-887. https://doi.org/10.1080/09687599.2012.710008

Morrison, K. E., DeBrabander, K. M., Jones, D. R., Faso, D. J., Ackerman, R. A., & Sasson, N. J. (2019). Outcomes of real-world social interaction for autistic adults paired with autistic compared to typically developing partners. Autism, 24(5), 1067-1080. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361319892701

Rosqvist, H. B., Chown, N., & Stenning, A. (2020). Understanding empathy through a study of autistic life writing: On the importance of neurodivergent morality. In Neurodiversity studies: A new critical paradigm (pp. 1-16). Routledge.

Sheppard, E., Pillai, D., Wong, G. T., Ropar, D., & Mitchell, P. (2015). How easy is it to read the minds of people with autism spectrum disorder? Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46(4), 1247-1254. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-015-2662-8

Yergeau, M. (2013). Clinically significant disturbance: On theorists who theorize theory of mind. Disability Studies Quarterly, 33(4). https://doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v33i4.3876

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