Saturday, 24 March 2018

Social Worker Training and Autism

For a good few years now, I and other autistic professionals have been training Social Workers.  Sometimes, trainees, but more often ones who have been doing the job for a very long time.  Some, in very senior roles.

One recent session, part of a series, saw around 40 Social Workers trained.  As usual, some of senior rank amongst them.  The team covered autism training for a day, so around six hours of updating people on the latest thinking.  When we do the training, we're talking about the research, the brain scans, practical examples, exercises.  This isn't a random autistic person standing up to talk about their childhood as a sort of 'zoo exhibit'.    

At the end of it, there was a queue of Social Workers coming up to us, to say, "Thank you, that was brillliant" and "That was amongst the best training we've ever had", etc.  One in particular said, "I had no idea.  None.  I've been filling out the assessment forms for years and until this session, I did not know what I was doing.  I would have put 'not applicable' through most of it".  Another, "I wouldn't have known you were autistic.  I was so focused on autistic people in care homes  - you know with multiple disabilities or learning disabilities as well.  I didn't know how much knowledge I was missing on autism."

Recalling prior sessions, these are common comments.  

The picture at the top shows 100 dots.  Let us assume those are 100 autistic people.  Two of the dots are a different colour.  That's the proportion of how many autistic people are in care homes in the country.  The rest of us are expected to cope in society.  Whether by living collaboratively with family, or on our own.  And, to our credit, many of us find ways to do that, with the mutual support of one another.

We are 98 out of those 100, and the focus of Social Work training has most often been the other two percent.  The other two percent are important, of course, also.

This presents a considerable problem for safeguarding, in particular. If you are trained to believe that autistic people are in care homes or supported living, rocking and flapping, barely able to hold a crayon, barely able to add two and two together....and you see someone like me...well, what are you going to think?  You'll think there's nothing to consider, perhaps.  That it's a trivial thing for us to live in a society where there are predators, and where one has to negotiate with fellow humans for just about everything - from friendship to getting a tradesperson round to the house.

Let's look again at the statistics around autism.  We know that 80% of autistic people are defrauded by people they thought were friends.  We know that 30% of autistic women disclose having been raped.  The sensory situation for us is major, and the reality is that we are often blinded and deafened by the sensory world around us.  Unable to see who is a predator.  80% of autistic people are sometimes non-verbal during stressful situations, so completely unable to speak up for ourselves in words during those moments.  Perhaps unable to scream or shout for help.  

Look up the words Sensory Autism Vimeo online and watch the two minute film, with the sound turned up.  That's a reality for so many autistic people.  It's not a manipulative or nasty behaviour.  It's pain.

I get a certain number of Social Worker-trained individuals who do  not realise that the entire landscape of autism understanding has changed in the last few years.  If their knowledge is not up to date, (from actually-autistic specialists or teams where autistic people are equally valued as professionals)  they cannot possibly be in a position to offer safeguarding expertise around autism. 

I see them wading into situations where they are conversing with autistic people, and completely misunderstand the dynamic.  They assume that the autistic person is communicating 'rudely' and so go on the offensive with them.  They assume that the escalation that results means that they need to be more firm, exert more power.  They are misreading the whole situation, because of their lack of knowledge.  I see autistic people pushed into meltdown, shutdown and general not-coping by this escalation of ignorance.  Then, we find people being Sectioned, or put into increasingly expensive care settings.  Few situations were necessary.  They are caused by the ignorance of others, in many cases.

I am very thankful to be working with groups across the country, and with the best of minds in the academic and research fields.  People like me are brought in to assess academic materials for accuracy and appropriate language.  We are hired to provide expertise to Psychologists, Psychiatrists and similar professionals.  This is no longer a landscape of 'we visit autistic people in a care home and do things to them'.  This is a collaborative partnership between equals.   Am I something special?  No, I'm one of many professionals doing such work, whilst preparing for the Masters degree. Be aware that we exist, and in increasing numbers.  Make contact with such people.  

I am extremely glad of that radical change in thinking over the last years, and the resulting improvements in autistic lives.  The suicide and self-harm rates for autism are stratospheric because so few people have been trained on the communication and culture of autism, or the basic information about sensory processing for us. 

Be allies.  Find out.

Thank you for reading.