Independence or Connection: Part 6 of a Talk on Autism

Nicholas Hemachandra in the Appalachian Mountains today, July 25, 2015.
Nicholas Hemachandra in the Appalachian Mountains today, July 25, 2015.

[This entry is the concluding post of a six-part series presenting my talk on autism delivered at the Autism and the Pursuit of Happiness conference at the University of North Carolina earlier this year. I invite you to read all the parts in the series — the entire talk. Please see the links at the bottom of this post if you would like to read the other entries first; the series starts with Part 1 here. Thank you! ~ rah]

The final value contrast I want to highlight today is INDEPENDENCE OR CONNECTION.

Again, these values aren’t necessarily opposites at all. But they are competing values in emphasis by parents, families, support agencies, and general communities.

We spend many childhoods for autistics trying to helping build connections and bridges — trying to foster relationships that carry meaning for all involved. And, sometimes when that is finally getting some traction, we see the transition to adulthood arrive.

And we flip.

Instead we now hope our children need not rely on anyone. We decide we need to promote their independence. We need to reduce or eliminate supports so these children or young adults can achieve independence — so they can live more common adult lives, lives that in contemporary culture mean relying on no one but themselves.

But again we should be compelled to ask ourselves what normative looks like — and why it holds value. Or, rather, who it holds value for.

What are we working toward and why? Is someone’s best, happiest life necessarily the one in which they fit in the most and live the most commonly?

Is achieving independence always the best for these children, or is it often what’s best for us? Of course both may be true, but we are obligated to be clear that we are not confusing the one for the other.

In emphasizing independence for autistic adults, not simply as a tool of equipment but as goal and outcome, we undermine much of what we’ve been working toward together throughout childhood.

We create a goal that fosters isolation.

Independence as a guiding principal has implications across the spectrum of adulthood. It emphasizes stripping away supports that might contribute to happiness. It limits choices in multiple areas by giving them a requirement that an individual might not be able to meet. In other words, you can play in these arenas only if you can do so on your own. It potentially impacts, to name just a few important areas:

  • what relationships are possible for someone and if they’re navigated freely and safely, or if they’re avoided;
  • where someone lives and with whom;
  • sexuality: autistic people have sexual identities that need expressing, and sexual and romantic relationships are truly only healthy and fully realized in an interdependent context;
  • how and if people participate in community or if they are isolated;
  • career: are autistic people steered toward what they enjoy, what gives substance and meaning to their specific lives, or simply toward what is most available and practical — and likely what other autistics do;
  • and what family relationships look like in adult life.

As in childhood, in adulthood parental and community messages about living are best generated, delivered, and received when coming from places of love and hope, not fear. We all make better choices from a place of love, rather than a place of fear.

Nicholas Hemachandra and Ray Hemachandra
Nicholas Hemachandra and Ray Hemachandra

With children, as parents we’re better able to assess honestly, to change course, and above all to listen — to respect the individuality of the human being we’re helping to raise — from that place of love and hope.

Rather than striving to create independence, we should try to build agency in autistic people, as in all people, and then embrace and build a shared concept and guiding principle of life interdependence — not dependence, not independence, but mutuality, reciprocity, interactive ties of belonging and support and respect.

To be sure, it’s not easy. In contemporary society, non-autistic, neurotypical adults often struggle to achieve interdependence in their relationships. It can be thought of as weakness. It can be felt as making you vulnerable, even though I think it makes you much stronger.

And, also, some autistic adults might prefer independence to interdependence, simply because they have been burned too often by violations of trust. To be sure, I absolutely respect their ability to choose: again, agency must be theirs, because their lives are theirs, not ours, not mine, not yours.

Without question the autistic adult should be the driver of values then and the primary creator of her or his own adult life. That always has primacy: Autistic adults get to express who they are and who they want to be.

But in many families, just like families of non-autistic children, those values reflect the familial culture. So our values matter and should be determined purposefully, consciously, with genuine care — thought about, talked about, and realized with intention.

If you are a parent of an autistic child, you realize and hope: As an adult, like as a child, your child will grow beyond your vision with individual experiences and perspectives that form a life that has some shared parts — interdependent, if we are lucky — but that is still lived uniquely.

What gives an autistic adult her or his best chance at happiness isn’t different at all from what gives an autistic child her or his best chance at happiness, which again isn’t different at all from what gives a non-autistic child her or his best chance at happiness: a lived culture of family and community that ripples with values and practices of kindness, support, interdependence, respect, and love.

Thank you for visiting my blog. If you missed the other posts in this series, here are links to them, and if you’re so engaged as to leave a comment on this page or to share the posts on social media using the share buttons toward the bottom of the page, I genuinely appreciate it:
Part 1: Accept or Reject
Part 2: Grieve or Live
Part 3: Support or Save
Part 4: Acceptance or Self-Acceptance
Part 5: You As Autism or You as You

Ray Hemachandra making this presentation at the Autism and the Pursuit of Happiness conference at the University of North Carolina earlier this year.

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