This is a thing I’ve been thinking about for a while, and it’s going to be a Very Long Post.
I keep seeing discussions of emotional labour, and I keep seeing them not mention autism.
- Sometimes they don’t mention disability at all.
- Sometimes they mention disability on a list of marginalizations: “Women are expected to do emotional labour, and so are queer femmes, women of colour, disabled women, etc.” But they don’t really unpack that, except in terms of the amount.
- Sometimes they mention disability in terms of spoons – as in, whether or not you have the spoons to do emotional labour today, or whether or not you have the spoons to reciprocate when someone does emotional labour for you.
So I want to talk in a more specific way about the relationship between autism and emotional labour. A lot of this will mean connecting some dots that have been talked about elsewhere, but that I haven’t seen put together in this particular way.
What is emotional labour?
Emotional labour is the mental and emotional work we do to maintain relationships with other people, whether that relationship is an intimate one, or simply coexisting with strangers in a public place.
A lot of people don’t realize that emotional labour is work. It takes time, effort, and spoons from the person doing it. Women and other marginalized groups are often expected to do more emotional labour than others, and that’s not fair.
If you’re nodding impatiently because this is super 101 and you knew it already, you can skip ahead to the next section. Otherwise, you might want to take a break to educate yourself.
This MetaFilter thread is often used as a good introduction to emotional labour. It’s also REALLY LONG, and can be a little overwhelming, so bear that in mind.
I also like this pair of articles, both of which start to describe how I think emotional labour SHOULD work, in a fair society:
- “A Modest Proposal for a Fair Trade Emotional Labour Economy”, by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. (This article also starts with a good 101 summing up of what emotional labour is, in case you didn’t want to read the MetaFilter thread.)
- “Three Thoughts on Emotional Labour”, by Clementine Morrigan.
A couple of things to remember here
Not everyone, or even every feminist, will agree with these things, but they’re central to how I think about emotional labour right now, and to the attitudes I am bringing into this post.
1: Emotional labour is not bad. We are not trying to eradicate emotional labour from society; it is the glue that holds society together! We are trying to handle it in a more ethical way, which might include things like “make sure it’s consensual” and “make sure everybody does their fair share.”
2: Emotional labour is not capitalist. An ethical attitude towards emotional labour is not capitalist. It’s not “fuck you, pay me” (although there are circumstances where you CAN pay people for it, and that’s okay!) It’s not, “you don’t deserve to be listened to, because you haven’t listened to X number of people today and your balance is overdrawn.” Keeping score too closely harms relationships. Ethical emotional labour practices are more about making sure that everybody is okay with what they’re doing and nobody is exploited. We do want reciprocity, but healthy reciprocity is often long-term and approximate, and sometimes disability or other factors make it difficult to achieve.
3: Emotional labour is a lot of things.
This is the thing that took me the longest to wrap my head around after reading the MetaFilter thread. People would make sweeping statements about what emotional labour was like, but they all seemed to be talking about different things.
For instance, the following things are all forms of emotional labour:
- Being friendly to customers while working in customer service, even if you don’t feel like it.
- Lending a listening ear to a friend.
- Mentally keeping track of what needs to be done around the house and paying attention to the house’s current state, so that you can notice chores that need to be done without needing to be reminded.
- Educating people about a topic (I am doing emotional labour by writing this post right now! 😀 )
- Keeping in touch with people by checking in, sending Christmas cards, making dates to get together, and other forms of relationship organization.
These are five completely different things and there are MANY MORE!
We don’t call all of these things “emotional labour” because we believe that they are all the same thing. We call them emotional labour because we believe that they all are forms of mental work that are often not recognized as work, and that are often done by women and other marginalized groups because no one else will do them.
Because they all share this problem, they can be treated in similar ways.
So what does this have to do with autism?
If you read my short list of different kinds of emotional labour – or if you read the MetaFilter thread just now – then you probably have some idea of where this is going.
Autism makes many forms of emotional labour difficult!
Many of the complaints that NTs have about autistic people boil down to the fact that autistic people are not doing enough emotional labour for them. Whether it’s little things like not making the right facial expressions to put people at ease, or big and intimate things like not knowing how to express affection the right way in a relationship.
As autistic (or autistic-friendly) feminists, how can we ask for reciprocal emotional labour in a way that doesn’t toss autistic people to the curb?
The answer, I think, has a lot of parts. “Cut autistic people some slack” might be one part of the answer – but it can’t be the whole one.
I’m going to talk about forms of emotional labour that are more difficult for many autistic people, but also about forms that many of us are good at – and I’m also going to talk about special forms of emotional labour that are only ever asked of disabled people.
Then I’m going to talk about some ways we might fix some of this.
When Emotional Labour Is Hard
If you read the MetaFilter thread, you’ve probably already pictured this scenario. Let’s imagine an autistic man married to an NT woman. (Possibly a stereotype, but also the situation of many people IRL, including people I know, so let’s just run with it for now.)
The NT woman says, “My husband isn’t doing any emotional labour for me. He never knows what I’m thinking or feeling unless I tell him. If I tell him what to do, he’ll do it, but that doesn’t feel like enough. Just once, I want someone to notice I’ve had a bad day and know how to comfort me, without my having to say anything. When my husband doesn’t do that, I feel so invisible and lonely.”
The autistic man says, “I don’t understand how to make my wife happy. She wants me to guess what she is feeling, but I can’t read her facial expressions or body language, so I can’t guess! Why can’t she just tell me what she wants? I always do whatever she asks of me, and it kills me that this isn’t enough.
Neither partner in this scenario is wrong. Both are suffering because of unmet needs. The NT woman needs to feel that her partner sees her and is paying attention to her. The autistic man needs instructions that he can understand.
(Note that I’ve assumed that both partners are acting in good faith. That is to say, I am assuming that neither partner is abusive or lying about their needs, that the autistic man does in fact follow verbal instructions, etc. I am assuming that the problem they are actually having matches the problem that they both describe. I know that this is not an assumption that can be made about every couple, but it’s an assumption that is true for some, and I’m not interested in talking about couples for whom it is not true.)
In a sense, both of these partners need emotional labour that their partner cannot do for them. Paying attention to a partner’s moods and needs, without being explicitly told, is emotional labour. So is communicating your needs to a partner in a way that they will understand. The autistic man can’t seem to do his share at all. The NT woman can do hers, in theory – but it may always be exhausting and upsetting for her, and her corresponding need may never be met.
Is there a way to solve this problem? Maybe. We’ll come back to it later in the post.
Types of emotional labour that are hard
Every autistic person is different, but here are some types of emotional labour that will be hard for many autistic people to do:
- Noticing how people are feeling based on their facial expressions, body language, and other nonverbal cues. Some of us can learn this with time and practice; some of us cannot learn it at all. (And some of us are hyper-empathic, but might struggle with other skills, such as figuring out what an NT person actually wants you to do about their feelings.)
- Noticing anything about what people expect us to do, if they haven’t explicitly said it to us.
- Making small talk, being friendly, and otherwise putting people at ease.
- Anything that involves initiating a social interaction – including all of those pesky “keep in touch” tasks that I listed above.
- Many of us struggle with executive dysfunction, which means every task related to organization or life skills is a struggle – including keeping track of what housework needs to be done, or keeping track of anything much, really. Or remembering to do a thing that another person needs you to, even if you KNOW they need it.
But emotional labour isn’t just one thing. And there are some forms of emotional labour that many autistic people might be especially good at.
Types of emotional labour that might not be so hard
- Remember when I said that educating people is emotional labour? Autistic people are GREAT at that. An autistic person who is hyperfocused on a social justice topic will educate you about it for DAYS.
- Many autistic people are great listeners. Some are great listeners for other autistic people; some are great listeners for people of many neurotypes. Some of the best listeners I know are autistic, and I have to actively check myself to make sure I’m not leaning on their skills in a way that’s not consensual or reciprocal enough.
- Those of us who have good executive function are often excellent organizers, and will be great at keeping track of schedules and to-do lists without reminders, especially if the schedule involves a strong routine.
- Many autistic people are very rules-oriented, and will faithfully research and follow the rules of any situation that they’re in, even when most NTs wouldn’t bother.
- Many autistic people have a strong need to be orderly and tidy, and will VERY quickly notice anything around the house that needs to be picked back up. (Having the executive function to do it correctly is another matter…)
Maybe the autistic man in our example is good at some kinds of emotional labour, and maybe he and his wife can use those strengths to negotiate. Maybe he can’t read faces, but is a great listener; maybe his wife can accept that she’ll need to tell him explicitly how she feels, if she knows that he’ll patiently listen to her talk about it for as long as she needs. Or maybe he can’t read faces, but can pay attention to the state of the house; maybe it will be easier for her to deal with having to tell him explicitly how she feels, if she knows that she won’t also have to remind him explicitly about every other little thing.
Depending on his specific strengths and weaknesses, the autistic man might also be able to create a workaround. Maybe he’s not good at reading faces, but he’s great at recognizing patterns, so he can learn over time that, when his wife sits a certain way or responds in a certain way to polite questions, it means she needs a certain kind of attention. Maybe she can, in return, be patient and provide feedback as he works on developing this skill over time.
All of this really depends on the people involved and their specific needs, and on some really personal stuff about where those needs come from. But before we do that, there’s one other thing that we need to remember.
Autistic people are actually doing emotional labour all the time
Any autistic person who “passes”, or tries to pass, is doing a ton of invisible emotional labour by definition. Even people who don’t pass usually do some of this labour so that they will bother people less.
Most of the material in social skills classes for autistic people is geared towards teaching us to do even more of this emotional labour in even more circumstances.
Stuff like the MetaFilter thread doesn’t mention this very much, because it’s written by allistic people.
But the following things are all ALSO forms of emotional labour:
- Trying desparately to figure out people’s facial expressions, when reading faces doesn’t come naturally to you. (This and other items on the list are still emotional labour, even when they are unsuccessful. Building a bridge is still labour, even if the bridge falls down.)
- Trying to figure out how to respond appropriately to a social situation, when actually you are baffled or just want to go away.
- Trying REALLY HARD to organize your shit even though you have executive function problems.
- Enduring sensory discomfort, like lights and noise and other people, so that you can do an important thing that unavoidably involves them (and everything does).
- Suppressing types of stims that you know will bother people around you or otherwise draw unwanted attention.
- Trying to figure out the appropriate way to say a potentially hurtful thing instead of just blurting it out.
- Asking people explicitly how they are feeling or what they need, because you know it’s important and you know you won’t figure it out on your own. Working up your courage and asking even though you know some people are offended by being asked.
- Asking for accommodations, especially in an environment that you’re not sure will take you seriously.
- Working up the courage to do social interactions that you know will be exhausting but necessary.
- Trying to figure out ways to do basic things like make friends or express your emotions safely, when the NT way of doing them makes no sense to you.
- Dealing with the ableist things people do and say all day.
- Dealing with anxiety, depression, trauma, OCD, and the MANY OTHER very common comorbid conditions of autism.
I could go on and on; there are many things that should be on a list like this.
Here is how I know that these things are emotional labour. They are work. They take time, effort, and spoons. They are important work – sometimes the situation that makes them necessary is unfair, but you can’t solve them by saying “well, if it takes so many spoons, just don’t do that thing anymore.” (I have deliberately left out several obvious items, like “making eye contact even when it’s painful and overwhelming and leaves you unable to process what the person is actually saying”, because I really DO think that autistic people shouldn’t do that thing anymore. 😛 )
And they’re work that NTs don’t recognize as work. Even when NTs explicitly teach us to do these things, it’s hard for NTs to think about them as effortful. If an autistic person successfully does all of these things, it means they are doing a lot of work. But if an NT person sees an autistic person successfully doing all of these things, they all too often think, “Well, I guess that person isn’t very autistic anymore.” NTs expect us to do all this work, and they expect it not to cost anything – which is the exact thing that happens with emotional labour between women and men.
As you might have guessed, autistic people who are socialized female end up doing more of this emotional labour than autistic men. Sometimes this work is referred to as “masking” or “disguising” autistic traits. It leads to fewer girls than boys being diagnosed with autism. It also leads to autistic girls being measurably worse at many basic tasks – possibly because so much more of their attention is taken up by the emotional labour of trying not to bother NTs.
So if you are autistic, and your heart sinks when you read about emotional labour – if you think, “God, they’re saying I’m terrible and broken, because I know I can never do half of these things” – keep this in mind. Some types of emotional labour are hard because you’re impaired at them. But sometimes it’s hard because you’ve already been doing it all day – in ways that NT feminists may not ever understand.
Giving autistic people a break
So let’s return to our example with that autistic-NT couple. Depending on the people, it might help for the NT woman to explicitly recognize that her husband is having trouble with this because he is disabled. He’s not being lazy and he isn’t intentionally ignoring her. He literally can’t see the things that she needs him to see.
He can, in turn, recognize that the NT woman isn’t making ridiculous and impossible demands. She isn’t asking him to “magically read her mind.” She’s asking him to do a thing that she and her NT friends probably do for each other all the time. It just happens that it’s a thing he cannot do.
This may not fix everything, but it would foster a spirit of forgiveness and acceptance, and a non-judgmental curiosity about alternative solutions to the problem.
…But not too much of a break
At the same time as all this, we have to acknowledge that there are forms of emotional labour that you just can’t get out of.
Things like respecting people’s boundaries (including sexual boundaries). Things like dealing with frustration in non-violent ways. Things like choosing words carefully enough that you don’t end up verbally abusing people. If you want to not literally be a criminal, these things are NOT NEGOTIABLE. If you don’t currently have the skills for them, you have to commit yourself to learning. No excuses. No “but I’m disabled and it’s hard”. Yes, it may be hard, but you still have to do it.
In the long run, relationships – even with other autistic people! – won’t work out unless you learn a few other emotional labour skills, too. I don’t want to harp too much on these, because I feel like I’m still figuring them out myself. But if a friend or partner doesn’t feel respected and appreciated, they probably won’t stick around.
The emotional labour that you do to help and support your friends might not look the same as someone else’s. It might not look the way NTs say it should look. There might not be much to it, if you don’t have many spoons to do it with. But it’s gotta be there, in some form that works for both you and the friends in question. Or you won’t have friends. Not even other autistic friends. That’s the ugly truth.
This stuff can be really, genuinely hard for us, and I’m struggling with how to phrase it here. I know autistic people, maybe including myself, who beat themselves up way too much about this stuff. People who’ve already been told over and over that if they don’t do [whatever totally arbitrary thing NTs came up with that hurts them and is really hard], they’ll never be worthy of love. These people are probably reading the above paragraph and cringing. I’m sorry. You know who you are, and I don’t mean you. I’m just saying this part because I don’t want MRAs coming into my mentions, basically. For every one of us who agonizes over whether they’re doing enough for their friends, there’s someone else out there who’s going, “Fuck you, I’m autistic. I don’t have to do emotional labour.” And that’s not the correct response.
If that “fuck you” response sounds totally alien to you, if you’re one of the people who instinctively agonizes over this and are feeling a little triggered by this part of the article, then I also have this to say: Hi. I see you. Yes, this is fucking hard. I actually think that’s one of the worst things about autism and emotional labour. We grow up being told awful, abusive things about what we NEED TO DO in order to be ACCEPTABLE and RESPECT PEOPLE. And some of it is wrong, or even actively harmful to us – but other parts are things that we genuinely need to do if we’re going to be safe people. It can be triggery and feel horrible to even try to sort through these things as an adult, and figure out which ones are ableist bullshit, and which ones are real. And maybe it’s not a process that is ever over. But sorting through it is work that is necessary and good and brave. And thank you for reading this far.
I mentioned, way up there somewhere, that score-keeping too closely is bad for relationships. This isn’t just my opinion, it is a documented finding in social psychology. People can play silly games keeping score around chores like housework – “Well, I cleaned the sink, and you didn’t INSTANTLY do an equivalent chore, so I am better than you and I win the game.” These games are really toxic and I don’t recommend them.
People can play silly games like this with emotional labour, too. We don’t need to play those games.
Instead of score-keeping, reciprocity in relationships needs to take a longer view. Both partners need to be able to trust that their needs will be met and that their partner won’t take advantage of their good will. Both will be doing work at times. Both will be resting, or receiving the other person’s labour, at times. Sometimes things will be harder for one of them, and the other will need to pick up the slack; sometimes, it may be the reverse.
Both partners also need to trust that their partner will honour their consent and ability to make choices about the labour that they do, and that their labour will be acknowledged and appreciated.
This stuff gets really tricky when one partner is disabled or in crisis in a way that makes it hard for them to reciprocate emotional labour. Maybe they can do a little, but the amount that they can do is much smaller than the amount that they need.
If we want our emotional labour economy not to be ableist, then we need not to leave these people behind.
Sometimes a patient friend can stick with you, if you’re in this situation. (You are not horrible or taking advantage of them. You are disabled, and they are choosing to do work to help you.) Sometimes they can’t. Sometimes friends will be able to stick with you in some ways, but will need to draw boundaries around others. Sometimes we as a society don’t really have a good solution for this kind of problem at all. It doesn’t mean anyone is evil – and it doesn’t mean anyone is undeserving.
If you are ever in this situation, it helps to keep in mind the other ethical principles of emotional labour. To thank the people who are helping you for their work, to ask after them or do something else small – even if it’s a tiny token compared to what they are doing for you – and to make sure that their consent to this labour is ongoing and unpressured.
I have one more thing to say about this imaginary example we’ve been working through, with the autistic-NT couple.
Maybe, this couple ends up acknowledging that the autistic man’s face-blindness is not his fault. Maybe they’ve non-judgmentally talked through lots of possible solutions, and tried some, and nothing works. Either the autistic man can’t do it, or the NT woman can’t be happy with what he can do.
Maybe they just learn to live with the fact that there’s a need in their relationship that won’t be met. No relationship is perfect. Maybe they’re both happy enough with the rest of the relationship that they can accept this part, and live with it together without both blaming each other. That’s a valid choice. In a lot of autistic-NT relationships, it may be the best choice.
Or maybe this is a deal-breaker for both of them, and maybe they part ways.
If this happens, it doesn’t mean that the autistic man has Failed At Emotional Labour Forever. It also doesn’t mean that the NT woman has Failed At Disability Acceptance Forever.
What it means is that, like in so many other relationships, they had incompatible needs.
Emotional labour is a need. We need to feel that the people who love us are there for us. That need may look like different things to different people, but it’s a need that is real. Both the autistic man and the NT woman, in this scenario, deserve to have their needs met.
Sometimes, the solution to stuff like this is that the autistic man should date another autistic person – or, at least, a person who is comfortable with needing to explicitly verbalize things. (That person will still have emotional labour needs – everyone does, and I’m not cool with using autistic women as sops to throw to disgruntled autistic men – but maybe they will have different ones that are more possible for him to meet.) And the NT woman should date someone who is good at picking up on what she nonverbally communicates. I don’t want to segregate people by neurotype, but sometimes, when we form relationships with people who are more like us – people who don’t instinctively expect us to be something we’re not – our relationships improve.
Emotional labour is important. It’s real work, it takes real spoons, and everyone needs to do their share.
Some types of emotional labour are harder for autistic people. Some aren’t. And many autistic people are already doing a lot of emotional labour just to survive in an NT world.
Doing your share of emotional labour around NTs is really hard. You might need to experiment to find ways of doing it that work for you. You might find that you are already doing more emotional labour than they are, but in ways that are invisible to them. You might not be able to do it at all. You might be incompatible with some people, because they want forms of emotional labour that you can’t do. It’s still worth looking at what you can do, and making sure that you are treating friends appropriately.