It's Time for You to Unlearn the Myth That You Are Independent
In an inclusive and interdependent world, everyone will thrive no matter how much support they need.
Independence is a Myth
We are all dependent on each other.
We each need support, and we all have value. I’ll share why I respect my own vulnerability, and why I no longer fear for my child’s future.
I’ll tell you about a few people who I admire, not in spite of their dependence but because of how they show up authentically through times of dependence.
I’ll share one essential first step you need to take to protect the most vulnerable.
🚫 Myth: Autistic kids won’t be independent adults.
✅ Fact: None of us is truly independent.
The myth is that disabled kids are the only ones who may grow up to be dependent on society to take care of them. We all do. That’s what a society is! Independence is a dangerous myth that our culture exploits.
I’ve written about Katherine May before.
Her writing is such a gift to me that it feels personal, like I am sitting with her, smelling the blueberries she was given as a gift when she was in Maine. I learn about writing. I learn about autism. I feel tender towards her, like a friend I look up to and feel protective of at the same time.
Her latest essay made me angry.
You should really read the whole thing. She is writing from within a state of shutdown. Here is a bit. Just enough to make my point:
“As long as I take a rest, this will pass in a couple of days. I could do with a good night’s sleep, which is strangely elusive at the moment, despite an all-encompassing tiredness… I am in the domain of slow processing. I have to work through every last thing to clear the fog.
“I think I’ve always written to explain myself, to dig a channel for the words that get dammed up, and to form them into a coherent account. Why are you like this? It was a question I was asked many, many times before I had the word for it. Autism. I know a lot of people hate reading that word. I know it feels too big and blunt for some, especially when it’s applied to someone like me, who is after all so affable and capable, so alive to social nuance. It feels like too much to ask, like a demand on your care and attention when there are others out there far more deserving of it...”
Others more deserving? Where have I heard that before?
This scarcity is fed to parents by an education system designed to deny students’ rights. Parents are actually being told that another child deserves the services more, so they should not be advocating for their child. Complete malarkey! Each child must be assessed solely on their unique needs in the current context. If everyone was expected to thrive, if everyone was supported with interdependence in mind, the gatekeepers would be out of a job. Then they could come out from behind their desks and go about the business of supporting students.
Why do we make these comparisons? I hear this often from my most empathetic students. “I SHOULD be grateful.” It’s a judgment. As soon as comparison enters, it isn’t gratitude. What if, instead, we could see each other. “We each have value. Today, I need you. Tomorrow, you will need me. It is just a matter of when. Thank you.”
Too much to ask? A demand on our care and attention? This is someone who lovingly crafts incredible essays and gives them away for free. She has people judging her for needing a rest. This is where my rage comes bubbling up: I’m angry at our society for devaluing the contributions each of us makes to the greater good.
Luckily, Katherine May has people in her life who she trusts to hold her.
“It seems to me that the difference between meltdowns and shutdowns is safety. I trust the people around me to meet my needs in this truly vulnerable moment. I can quietly reboot…
“I have a hidden disability - carefully, stoically hidden, even from myself most of the time. One of the ways that we sideline disabled people is by telling them that they are wallowing in luxury - or being lazy - when they try to meet their basic needs. Many times, I’ve pushed on through obvious signals of burnout in order to avoid this judgement falling on me. It has very real consequences - physical, economic, psychological.”
I aspire to be that safe landing place for my family.
What I’m learning is to ask for my family to also honor my vulnerability and support my needs. One of those needs is for time to myself. I need mental and emotional rest, not just physical. I need it in order to recharge and go on supporting them, yes. But there’s more to it: I need to advocate for my own needs so I can unlearn the myth of independence and see how everything is interdependent. I need to walk on the grass barefoot until I can feel that in my bones.
It may be that right now you are so well supported that you can believe the myth of independence.
When you live with disabled people it is easy to slip into the savior/superhero caregiver role, but that has had damaging consequences in our family. I don’t buy into that narrative that “we’re all a little bit autistic” because there is a specific description of this diagnosis that should not be watered down by such claims. That could become an excuse to deny necessary supports to people who need them. But is it possible that we are all disabled in some way?
Certainly we all need support and recognition. Why is it hard for us to admit that we are each in need of care and attention in some ways at some times? We deserve respect throughout that time, for as long as it takes, no matter how productive we are.
I teach my son life skills and self-regulation skills when he is developmentally ready, and trust him to lead a life that fulfills him. I didn’t always understand this. I was scared. Now I see that the fear I felt wasn’t my own. It was imposed by our ableist, capitalist, exceptionalist culture.
It may be that we are so well supported that we can believe the myth of independence. At some point in our lives, that will change. There will be a time when we need extra care. We may not fully recover, and we are still worthy of respect and care. Our culture makes it so scary to become less productive.
We have all relied on support in the past and we will need help in the future.
I know a nurse. She has cared for others her entire life and is incredibly determined, loving, and capable. Her bones became brittle (as happens to so many of us eventually) and she broke her heel. The recovery was long and hard. Her heel didn’t heal easily, and after a second surgery she spent time in a rehabilitation center. Luckily, she has a financial safety net that supported her during the time she was in that facility.
The staff was kind but overworked, and sometimes condescending. Even when she explained that she, too, is a nurse, they saw her as a patient. She couldn’t walk, so they saw a person who needed help to get around. For that time, she was disabled, and she was treated that way. The experience changed her. She now has more perspective on what patients feel when they are vulnerable.
It felt endless, but eventually she did walk again. She danced at her daughter’s wedding. She left the rehab center behind, but the lesson in interdependence stayed with her. None of us is so capable or independent that we will never need support.
When will society see that we are ALL interdependent?
Capitalism’s job is to get us to be more productive, but only shortsightedly. Capitalism isn’t designed for the long game, or it would see the folly in forcing us through urgency to be more productive than is healthy, or to consume more than the planet can handle. We are being manipulated by an inherited urgency to be seen as capable so we don’t slide into dependency.
We fear losing our independence, when we have never had it in the first place. We are terrified that our children will be dependent, even though we are all interdependent. We all have needs. None of us fulfills our own needs completely alone.
The support we each need deserves to be honored, and the contribution each of us makes has value. We have been taught a myth that some are independent and some dependent, but we’re all dependent on each other. The culture tells us that some contributions are more valuable. Why? Can society continue without truth tellers, sanitation workers, grain growers? Each of us needs what we need. Why not normalize that?
I’m grateful that the value in Katherine May’s work is seen by the world. She couldn’t do what she does, write how she writes, without being exactly who she is… Vulnerability and all. Everyone in our culture needs that grace and space.
I used to fear for my son’s future. Ableism taught me that. Now I work towards a more inclusive future.
We can all reflect on our interdependence, which will give us more understanding and empathy for those in our lives who have current needs, and for ourselves whenever our own needs for support arise.
An empathetic culture will give support to each person according to their need.
If we work on creating a more inclusive and interdependent world, then our kids will thrive no matter how much support they need. Let’s create that world.
The first step is to vote. Vote for inclusive education, equity, disability rights, reproductive rights, and fully funding social services. Even if you don’t need support now, you will. You are interdependent.
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