So I found myself on Dictionary.com the other day, and drawn to the definition of the word, “independent.” According to this source, independent can mean a number of things, and I would like to take this opportunity to explore these meanings a bit as I reflect on how much focus is being placed on fostering independence in the lives of the young people I teach (not to mention the ones I live with). And not coincidentally, I have given more than a passing thought to what independent means in my own little world. So here it is:
Independent is defined as:
Not influenced or controlled by others in matters of opinion, conduct, etc.; thinking or acting for oneself. Not subject to another's authority or jurisdiction; autonomous; free; not influenced by the thought or action of others; not dependent; not depending or contingent upon something else for existence, operation, etc. Not relying on another or others for aid or support.
Hmmm. Here’s the part where I get confused. I have taught individuals with autism spectrum diagnoses young enough to still legitimately be in diapers and old enough to be able to consume alcohol legally in all 50 states. The one common denominator—regardless of whether the particular lesson being imparted has to do with simple greetings, multi-step tasks, or taking care of one’s personal hygiene needs—has been that we want the individual to be able to demonstrate that they can perform the skill or task independent of prompts or assistance. There is nothing we are asking our young people to do that we want them to need to rely on others for… just like the definition says, right? Well of course. And in my own little universe, the idea of asking for help, of admitting help may be needed, of knowing when and how and where to ask for help (all, by the way, areas we focus specifically on in my Career Education part of the universe) has only recently reached the point where I can recognize that admitting that I need help is not the same thing as admitting helplessness.
So we want to teach our students how to be independent in everything. At least, that’s what all of my data collection over the years would lead me to conclude! But back to my confusion … at the same time I am teaching students how to independently do this, that or the other thing, I also want them to recognize, understand and most of all value the idea of interdependence. I want them to be able to listen to what their supervisor on the job tells them to do and just DO IT BECAUSE THE BOSS SAID SO while at the same time not being subject to another’s authority or jurisdiction. Then, I want them to know when to ask a coworker to lend them a hand on a certain job while at the same time not relying on another or others for aid or support. Then, just to top it off, I would like very much, personally, to be able to listen to the input of my colleagues, supervisors and subordinates and integrate the valuable pieces they bring to a discussion while at the same time not being influenced or controlled in matters of opinion or conduct. Okay. Remind me again, exactly what should the end result be? Because as one might deduce, I seem to perhaps still be just a little confused. So I went back and looked up interdependence, and found that definition pretty clear-cut: “Depending on each other.” So maybe, in the midst of all this quest for independence, we should keep in mind that accessing help is not the same as being helpless. On the contrary.