Dear AuSM Therapist,
Everyone keeps telling me I need to be more independent. I’m doing my best and I don’t know what they mean. What do people mean when they tell me to “try to be more independent”? I want to do what they ask but I don't know how.
Young and Autistic
Dear Young and Autistic,
It’s definitely okay to be confused by that statement, even though the people in your life mean well when they say it. My experience as a therapist tells me that the statement comes from a fear that you will not be “successful” in adulthood. Unfortunately, what a lot of people forget is that “success” is extremely subjective.
The people saying this to you are thinking a lot about your future and comparing it either to their own journey or the journey they hope you will have. What they hope for you is most likely something along the lines of living in your own home (be it an apartment or house); having relationships (friends and intimate relationships); and being able to manage daily living tasks like keeping your home clean, self-care including hygiene, making appointments, and managing your money well. When you start breaking all of that down, it’s a lot!
Saying "try to be more independent" might mean that they want you to do these things without them. But taken literally, the idea of being completely independent is unrealistic. Humans are social animals and we depend on each other and interact in order to accomplish tasks. What they really may want is for you to be initiating more tasks on your own.
Initiation is a common executive dysfunction within the autism community and it has to be addressed by analyzing the barriers to it. For example, if they tell you you need to be more independent by calling for the refills on your prescriptions, do you know why you currently don’t do that on your own? If you know that, you can determine a way to change that. Sometimes things aren’t changeable and you may always need support for some tasks.
A common example of this is spontaneous communication. Within the autism community, there are many reasons spontaneous communication (i.e. sharing how your day was; conflict resolution, etc.) doesn’t happen. Sometimes it’s because the autistic person doesn’t know that the other people don’t already know the information. Sometimes it’s forgetting to tell someone something important (working memory deficit). There are some things you can do to remind yourself to think about this skill, such as setting reminders to tell someone something or sending e-mails in the moment with pertinent information. However, it’s also important for those close to you to remember this is an aspect of autism and to support you with accommodations or reminders.
I also recommend that you find a useful way to ask people exactly what they mean in order to obtain more information. For example, if you go to someone and ask them to make a phone call for you and they say “you need to be more independent,” I wonder what would happen if you were able to explain how anxious you feel making unscripted phone calls and then ask them how they handle such things. Typically, people close to you want the best for you and they may be forgetting how autism interacts with daily life. Collaboration can be an effective way to handle these situations.
Now, sometimes, people say things like that out of frustration. I encourage you not to take that personally and to know that the frustration is about what that person is feeling and going through in their own day. The way you would know if this is the case is when you advocate for yourself, they may get more flustered. At that point, it’s often best to give them space and see if you can get support from someone else or give that person time to re-set and gain some energy back!
I hope this helps explain that statement a little more. Good luck in your adventures in interdependence.