Multiply life by two: The importance of reciprocal support relationships in the lives of diverse learners

As a diverse learner, you will, at times be a challenge to the people you interact with regularly; your co-workers, romantic partners, friends, family, supervisors, business partners.  Being a challenge isn’t unique to diverse learners……everyone is a pain sometimes. However, we tend to make mistakes that others might view as careless or lazy, but are actually the result of the unique way our minds process the world. We may make these mistakes fairly often, even though good coping strategies can help to minimize their frequency and consequences.

We will always have gaps in our functioning.  Learning disabilities, autism, and other brain based differences are permanent, so most of us will always need some level (though it may be small) of extra support. Reciprocal support relationships are an effective, sustainable way to build this support.

All relationships are based on reciprocity. Both people need to get something out of it.  Diverse learners can create relationships that help address our weaknesses in specific areas and allow us to offer our strengths in ways that complement the other person’s needs.  For example, if you have a disorder of written expression but are exceptionally gifted in math, can you find a colleague at work who writes well but hates handling your department’s budget?  She handles correspondence for both of you, while you take charge of tracking and reporting her expenses.   If you have ADHD and have trouble remembering to pay the bills, but you’re a creative cook, can you hand off the money management to your partner or your parents and in exchange, cook dinner several times a week?   The point is to make the relationship a reciprocal one.  If it’s not reciprocal, it’s not sustainable, and if it’s not sustainable, it does not lead to true independence.

I know what you’re thinking… How can I be independent if I am dependent on a reciprocal support relationship?  Independence does not mean doing everything without help. Nobody does it all without help.  It means being able to advocate and get the help you need on your own; knowing how and who to ask, taking the right steps, and being persistent/creative until you get it.

What do you look for in a good partner for these relationships?  The person will:

  • Recognize your strengths
  • Understand your weaknesses as an issue of the brain and not a character flaw
  • Have a need for help in an area of life that’s important to them
  • Give, and take, constructive criticism
  • Be respectful
  • Be trustworthy

Here are a few things you can do to build and maintain a healthy reciprocal support relationship:

  • Explain your disability and how it contributes to your area of weakness and the habits or behaviors that others find annoying.
  • Clearly communicate the specific things you need help with….remembering birthdays, paying bills, writing reports, etc.
  • Ask the other person what they need and how they’d like you to help address it.
  • Take extra care to recognize and validate efforts made to support you.
  • Take steps take to minimize the mistakes you make that cause grief to the people in these relationships (coping strategies!), and make sure you explicitly tell them of your efforts.
  • Ask for feedback…. and give feedback… on a regular basis.

Finally, be confident in your contribution. A neuro-typical thinking person can greatly benefit from these relationships as diverse thinkers provide flavor and ingenuity, as well as uncommon knowledge, perspective, and skill sets. True, sometimes diverse thinkers require a bit more investment on the front end, but the returns are great. Besides, you always appreciate something more when you have to work for it, right?

Paraphrasing the Indigo Girls song just a little, “Adding up the total of a reciprocal relationship that’s true, multiplies life by the power of two!”

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