For most children, especially those with developmental challenges like autism, one of their primary goals is independence. While it is important for every child to live in the world without being fully reliant or dependent on others, independence may not necessarily be the correct goal. Why? When we are independent, we do everything for ourselves. We don’t need anybody for anything. As a result, we don’t need relationships, we don’t need to communicate, we don’t need to socialize. In other words, we don’t need other people. One of the reasons doctors, educators, and therapists see independence as the goal is because it is the polar opposite of dependance. If we are dependent, then we can’t do anything on our own, and we need someone else to help us do everything. While we shouldn’t encourage dependence, should we encourage independence?
Independence and dependence are two polar ends of the same spectrum, and neither on their own leave room for a full balanced life. Teaching a child to be on their own or to fully rely on others doesn’t lead to healthy successful long-term outcomes. However, there is a middle ground or ‘gray area’, and at The Greenspan Floortime Approach ® we encourage interdependence.
Being independent is important for survival, however being successful in a world that relies on communication and socializing is impossible without interdependence. While there are few different forms of interdependence, it is broadly described as two or more people relying on each other and providing help/support. According to www.hope-wellness.com, “in an interdependent relationship, both partners have a sense of healthy autonomy. Emotional closeness is still there, but each partner is able to make their own decisions and take responsibility for their choices. Each partner feels safe to express themselves, and trust that their partner will do the same.”
Interdependence is using our independent skill sets while also working with others in order to achieve our goals. The world is an interdependent place, and people are interdependent organisms. When we look at successful people, these people have surrounded themselves with family, friends, and other loved or trusted people to help them in their personal lives and possibly teams of co-workers and staff that help balance them out their professional skill sets. If we achieve interdependence in different areas of our lives, then we can have a well-rounded approach to achieving success and dealing with challenges, both personally and professionally.
This principle is most important to take into consideration when we look at the goal of independence for a child early in life. If we interrupt a child’s natural developmental trajectory which encourages interdependence through prioritizing relationships and communication early in life, then they may develop the skills to achieve many of their daily needs on their own, but they will work around and avoid using skills for socializing, communicating, adapting, negotiating, and compromising. How many times during a moment of disagreement or conflict have we all said to ourselves “it’s easier to just do this myself”.
There will be times in our lives when we have to do things on our own, be independent, but the truth is even independence requires interdependence. Unless we want to live off the grid as a recluse, to communicate and understand other people and their perspectives is necessary to get through most days. Even relatively simple activities like going to the grocery store or setting up an appt with your doctor require these skills. Most jobs require some interaction and possible collaboration with people. While these may be small moments in our lives, they still require us to interact, communicate, read and respond to emotional signals, and sometimes adapt and compromise. All of this requires the social and communication skills necessary for interdependence.
Early in life, if we teach a child independence, we see that they tend to avoid communicating and problem solving with people and prefer to do things on their own. Unfortunately, we’ve seen clinically that these ‘independent” children don’t ‘need’ other people. They get good at and prefer doing things on their own. As a result, they avoid developing the communication and social skills necessary to be interdependent. The social and communication skills they do develop are limited, rigid, and lack adaptability. We end up with an individual who may be able to get their daily needs met, especially nowadays with on-demand economies, but will struggle with accessing the broad range of experiences and relationships that lead to higher levels of happiness and success, and lower incidences of mental health challenges and substance abuse.
Most of us want our child to go to college, get a job, and have relationships, and all of these things are attainable for most children, even those with developmental challenges like ASD. Dr. Greenspan showed that many of the families who dedicated themselves to his social-emotional model and intervention, The Greenspan Floortime Approach®, helped their child achieve these outcomes. Of the children who achieve this level of social-emotional growth, none set independence as one of their top goals. Instead, they first improved their social-emotional health and mastered their social-emotional skills, and then began to learn how to do some things on their own.
There is an order of operations to achieving healthy development and being able to connect, engage, socialize, interact, communicate, and adapt are some of the many primary goals. Learning to do things on our own and developing independence around certain pursuits in life is a secondary concern. We now know from a growing body of research that the most important set of skills which predict positive adult outcomes are social-emotional skills as measured by age 5.
One of the more comprehensive studies of this kind was conducted by Penn St. and Duke, “the researchers found that a higher rating for social competency as a kindergartener was significantly associated with all five of the outcome domains studied. For every one-point increase in a student’s social competency score, he or she was twice as likely to graduate from college and 46 percent more likely to have a full-time job by the age of 25.
For every one-point decrease in the child’s score, he or she had a 67 percent higher chance of having been arrested and an 82 percent higher chance of being in or on a waiting list for public housing at age 25. The study controlled for the effects of poverty, race, having teenage parents, family stress and neighborhood crime, and for the children’s aggression and reading levels in kindergarten.” (https://www.psu.edu/news/research/story/early-prosocial-behavior-good-predictor-kids-future/)
Children with developmental delays and ASD experience weak or missing sets of these early social-emotional skills, or as we call them milestones. By prioritizing and focusing on establishing and strengthening these milestones early in life, children can grow and live full lives with meaningful relationships, carriers, and a variety of interests. Achieving this while respecting each child’s individual neurodiversity will require modifying the environment to support each child’s sensory and emotional regulatory profiles, providing consistent nurturing 1 on 1 and small group social-emotional opportunities regularly throughout each day, and ensuring each child is participating in a voluntary socially engaged and thinking based manner. These are all tenants of The Greenspan Floortime Approach® and doing this will require a shift in our society’s belief in the importance of early academic drilling, compliance-based learning, and encouraging activities during early childhood like independent play.
Learn how to apply The Greenspan Floortime Approach®. Register for the Professional or Caregiver/Parent Course at www.stanleygreenspan.com. Parents and Professionals can also receive Greenspan Floortime® Expert tele-coaching with video analysis and feedback.
For in-person Greenspan Floortime® based OT, SLP, Social Group Programs, and coaching contact The Floortime Center®, www.thefloortimecenter.com.