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Patty Bashe's Blogging Adventure

Good Intentions and Paving the Road to Nowhere

Why is independence so difficult to achieve? Why are too many young people with autism spectrum disorders unable to access the environments and circumstances in which they might find acceptance, praise, friendship, tolerance, welcome, and satisfaction?

As parents and teachers, it is easy and natural to feel compelled to help, assist, support, and attend to someone for whom going about the business of everyday living is challenging. After all, this is a nice thing to do, isn't it? I remember thinking, "So many things are so difficult for my son. Why shouldn't I tie his shoes for him?" At the time, that line of thought made complete sense. It is uncomfortable and at times saddening to see someone you care for struggle, especially when you can so easily make that struggle vanish.

When I talk to other professionals about overdependence (what some call "learned helplessness"), I agree with them when they say that independence is crucially important. But I do not always agree with them about how the cycle of dependence and helplessness began. Despite reading piles of textbooks and countless studies, I have yet to see anything about parents that even begins to touch on the visceral sense of helplessness parents experience as a result of this diagnosis.

As a behavior analyst, I've been trained to look for the consequence of a behavior that makes that behavior more likely to occur again. If you look at the behavior we'll call "doing for" a child, it's easy to see why parents and others do this--again and again and again. "Helping" is unique among things parents of kids with ASDs do in that it works, it helps, and it solves (temporarily) the problem. In the few seconds you pour the juice or button the jacket, you buy a quiet moment and push away another reminder of the countless ways this diagnosis can undermine your child.

Clearly, the road to dependence is paved with good intentions and powerful reinforcers. But it's also a road to nowhere, or at least nowhere you or your child will want to be tomorrow. It can be difficult to give up the comfortable predictability of continuing to do for your child. Creating the environment that fosters independence rather than dependence takes planning and work. However, it is vitally important to your child's success and--most important--his happiness. Real self-esteem is based on what you can do, not how wonderful, smart, brilliant, cute, or creative others tell you that you are. Children on the spectrum are no different.

Thank you for reading!