The Interdependence Mindset

Brenda Dater, MSW, MPH

Brenda Dater, MSW, MPH

About the Author

Brenda Dater, MSW, MPH, is the executive director at AANE and the author of Parenting Without Panic. Brenda is a mom of three, and her eldest is an Autistic transgender woman. Brenda has facilitated parent support groups for over 20 years and thoroughly enjoys creating an environment where parents can find the support, information, and the community they need.

Independence and Interdependence can co-exist.

Although our society pushes the idea of independence, very few people (no matter their neurology) are completely independent. We all need help at times for a variety of reasons. Maybe a person asks for help from someone else who has an expertise or skill in a particular area, or a special circumstance means that person can’t do something they usually do. Having the right kind of help at the right time can lower anyone’s anxiety and stress. Relying on others, and having others rely on you, creates meaningful connections, and this interdependence needs to be valued as much as independence.

Help is not a bad four-letter word.

One of my most memorable conversations with an Autistic adult revolved around accepting help. This 28 year-old explained that he had been taught from an early age that he needed to do everything himself. His parents wanted to make sure he could “make his way in the world,” and so they discouraged him from admitting he needed help. Whether he was in school or at work, he would tell his teachers or bosses that everything was fine and he didn’t need additional support. Meanwhile, he wouldn’t turn work in or would miss work deadlines, and he ended up with failing grades and losing his job.

I hope everyone reading or listening to this will hear this single message: Admitting you find something difficult and may need help does not make you weak. You will be a stronger and more confident person if you can communicate this to bosses or teachers and ask for the accommodations or support that will help you thrive without sacrificing your health and energy. Of course some workplaces and schools might not be fully supportive, and in those cases more advocacy will be needed so that everyone can ask for what they need.

Interdependence in action.

My 26 year old Autistic daughter, Rachel, wanted me to share our experience on this topic, and likes to say, “I need help when I need it – but not all the time.” For example, she is completely independent with her graduate school work, shopping, and laundry. And sometimes she needs extra help with something she’s been independent with for a long time, like figuring out a medication problem at the pharmacy. Her energy levels may shift from day to day or even hour to hour. So some days she can take on demanding tasks like talking to her health insurance company on the phone, and on other days, she’ll ask if I can make the call. It could be because she had too many hard things to deal with in one day or because she didn’t sleep well. My helping her on the days she is too exhausted does not mean she won’t go back to taking care of it herself when she is ready. It’s no different than when Rachel runs an errand to the grocery store for me if I’m too tired after work.

Is interdependence creating lifelong dependence?

Sometimes parents come to me worried that their Autistic child of any age has or will become too dependent on their assistance. They are concerned that they’ve taken over too many challenging tasks for their child without helping them learn how to cope with the inevitable challenges they will face.

Of course there is a balance between offering support when needed and always stepping in. Figuring out the right balance can be tricky. As a parent I don’t want to stunt my Autistic child’s growth by assuming she can’t do things. I also don’t want her to feel like I don’t understand the very real struggle and pain she experiences when the demands of her life exceed her capacity. With my daughter, I try to have an open dialogue with her to discover what the barrier is. Is it heightened anxiety? Is she unsure how long a particular task is going to take? This helps me gauge whether to encourage her to do something that is hard, or whether it is something she needs more support with. On difficult days or when she is too exhausted, I might step in more. I’ve learned to be flexible in my support and she has learned that she can stretch and do things she initially thought she couldn’t.

Learning how to take care of oneself and manage day-to-day responsibilities of school, home, work or social relationships, can build self-esteem and confidence. Similarly, when a person needs more help to achieve their goals, or follow through with tasks, they can feel a sense of accomplishment by recognizing, acknowledging, and addressing their need for support. Understanding the flow of independence and interdependence throughout our lives can help us reach our goals and feel connected to each other.

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