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Social Autonomy

Social Autonomy

What is Social Autonomy? Find out from Enel Cuore what it is, why it’s important, how to teach autonomy, and strategies to adopt


What is social autonomy?

The word autonomy comes from the Greek word αὐτός (self) and νέμω (to govern): thus, its literal meaning is “to govern oneself.” This term can be used in a variety of contexts, from politics to psychology and pedagogy.
With regard to individuals, autonomy is often confused with the concept of independence, but its meaning is actually much broader and concerns the very essence of a person's life.


Personal and social autonomy

Autonomy means “knowing how to do something on your own” and “not having to depend on others,” but being truly autonomous is something that goes beyond the ability to carry out simple actions on your own. It means, above all, having complete control of your life, being able to make decisions, assume responsibility, and fully benefit from this achieved autonomy.

Personal autonomy also concerns the ability to maintain interpersonal relationships and behave appropriately in the social context in which one lives: this is known as social autonomy.
Being socially autonomous is often much more complicated than being personally autonomous, due to specific personal difficulties in socialization and to the presence of social contexts that hinder the full development of social autonomy, especially for people in more vulnerable groups.

Teaching social autonomy

Developing the necessary skills and competencies that can foster personal and social autonomy is one of the key objectives of every educational strategy.

One of the key functions of the famous Montessori method, which is still applied in tens of thousands of schools throughout the world, is to teach autonomy (as well as self-discipline). To highlight the importance of teaching autonomy as effectively as possible, Maria Montessori explained that, in their first years of life, children build and refine fundamental skills by properly exercising their senses and movement, in order to lead an independent life as an adult.

Naturally, achieving these competences is a gradual process and a crucial role is played by the environment in which a child grows up; it must offer opportunities for activities and stimuli that can foster the development of the more strictly social aspect of autonomy.

In particular, Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child has pinpointed three skills (or executive functions) that must be developed during the first years of life:

  1. Working memory, which governs our ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of various types of information over short periods of time. 
  2. Mental flexibility, which allows us to apply different rules in different settings. 
  3. Inhibitory self-control, which enables us to set priorities and resist impulsive actions. 

Children aren't born with these skills – but they are born with the potential to develop them. Some do so quickly and almost completely on their own, while other children need more outside support. In these cases especially, their relationships with adults, the conditions in their home environment, and their social context are crucially important.

Autonomy and disability

In addition to the family context, the scholastic environment also plays a decisive role in building personal and social autonomy. At school in particular, autonomy is synonymous with inclusion: this latter concept takes on a delicate meaning, especially when there are students with disabilities in the classroom.

The social inclusion of students with disabilities is a fundamental prerequisite in order for them to achieve social autonomy. Fortunately, for several decades now, the Italian school system has been following a path of growing awareness regarding issues related to inclusive education, even though the road ahead isn't complete yet.

A fundamental turning point was without a doubt Law 104 of 1992, also known as the “Legislative framework for assistance, social integration, and the rights of persons with disabilities”. One of the law's key points was to create the Individualized Education Plan (IEP), an educational plan that each class council must develop in order to meet the needs of every student with a certified disability.

The law requires that a unique IEP be prepared for each student with a disability: in fact, personalized education is the prerequisite for any form of inclusion. Generally, an IEP is a document that includes both an analysis of the initial conditions, as well as the activities to be conducted on an operational level; it is written by a team of educators, the special needs teacher, and the family.

More recently, further legislative innovations have been enacted, such as Legislative Decree 66/2017 on scholastic inclusion, which introduces, among other things, the use of the International Classification of Functioning for Children and Youth (ICF-CY) in the IEP. The ICF-CY provides a standard language and conceptual basis for the definition and measurement of children’s development, disabilities and health, and thus supports an even more scientific and rigorous approach to designing an educational plan for students with disabilities.


Women and autonomy

The topic of women's social autonomy, one of today's most delicate and relevant topics, is closely linked to the evolution of women's emancipation. If we consider that just over a century ago, women in Italy couldn't vote, they weren't allowed to manage the money they earned, and they couldn't even instigate legal action, there is no doubt that we’ve made great strides forward in recent decades in terms of women’s social autonomy. However, much remains to be done.

Among the many aspects that still limit women’s full autonomy, is the issue of equal pay: at work, women are still paid less than men, as evidenced by the most recent survey of the Women in Work Index, according to which there is an average 15% gap between what men and women earn (with major fluctuations depending on the country). This gap increases for women with children, and the recent COVID-19 pandemic certainly hasn't improved the situation.

One evident consequence of this lack of equality at work is that it hinders another fundamental form of women's autonomy: economic autonomy. Until women are economically independent, they will never be able to consider themselves completely autonomous.

Strategies for improvement

As already pointed out, teaching autonomy necessarily involves social inclusion: in the school environment, this approach isn’t limited to students with disabilities but rather concerns all those children and youngsters who risk being discriminated against or excluded by educational strategies because they come from a disadvantaged or vulnerable situation.

The need for an effective commitment to guarantee the social autonomy of people, in particular those with disabilities, is also sanctioned in article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which asserts that States “must ensure that persons with disabilities can live in society autonomously and are included in the community with equal access to community services and facilities,” through effective and appropriate measures to facilitate the full enjoyment of this right.
With this in mind, Mettiamo su casa! is a call for ideas that has led to the selection of seven projects to support the independent life of adults with intellectual and relational disabilities, including forms of co-housing

The importance of social inclusion is also tangible in the business environment, where the valorization of diversity creates value and is a true driver of innovation, bringing concrete results. The paper “Delivering through Diversity,” issued by the consulting company McKinsey in 2018, calculated that companies with a mixed ethnic composition have a 35% greater probability of success than others.

More and more companies are moving in this direction and our Group is strongly committed to promoting inclusion at every level. We have included diversity and inclusion in our 2019-2021 sustainability plan as criteria when measuring the achievement of our objectives. But this journey began much further back, with a whole series of initiatives and specific actions launched over the years whose aim has been to encourage an all-around culture of inclusion.