One of my favourite sessions from APAC17 was Peter Vermeulan’s presentation on autism and happiness. Peter is a co-director at Autisme Centraal in Belgium, a centre for training and expertise in autism, where they seek to bridge the gap between the academic/scientific world and everyday life.

In his keynote presentation, Peter made the case that neurodiversity (the concept there is no such thing as a “normal brain” as every brain is different) is only the first step in autism acceptance. He proposed a new concept, called neuroharmony, bringing together all different notes (ways of thinking) to make something beautiful. A single note or way of thinking isn’t all that remarkable but when you bring different notes together, you create a symphony of ideas.

Peter started out by remarking on how similar we all are, when you think about our core needs (think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs or any needs model). We all need food, shelter, water, a sense of self-worth, meaning and happiness in our lives, regardless of the note we play in life.

However, Peter pointed out that measuring how our needs are met can disadvantage those who play different notes, as the criteria used is not accurate for all. When you concentrate on objective measures of health, employment, success, etc., neurodiverse individuals will not be considered as successful, as they often don’t meet the same measures of success, as their neurotypical counterparts.

It comes down to the fact that objective criteria cannot reflect subjective quality of life. While it might appear that one individual is not “succeeding”, that doesn’t take into account their state of happiness or wellbeing. Peter illustrated this by comparing the wellbeing of two autistic adults. One lives in a group home and cannot live independently. He doesn’t have a job, a car, a house or anything measured by objective criteria. Yet he is living a happy & fulfilled life. Meanwhile, the other lives independently, holds a job and is viewed to be more successful by society. Yet, he is not happy, fulfilled nor living his best life. It was a stark contrast and a timely reminder that “success” is not the same for everyone.

Peter used this example to illustrate that a needs model, including wellbeing as a criteria, provides better and more practical outcomes, particularly for neurodiverse individuals. He also noted that there’s no link to IQ or intelligence when it comes to greater happiness or unhappiness – you are no happier with greater intelligence. In fact, it appears that autistic individuals who are happier tend to display less autistic behaviours, because their wellbeing is being supported. It has nothing to do with personal achievement but, more to do with personal wellbeing.

Ironically, little to no research has been undertaken to measure happiness and wellbeing in autistic individuals, even with a potential link between wellbeing and reduced autistic symptoms. Instead, there is a continued focus on the negatives – mental health issues, life challenges, deficits – but not much in the way of researching how positive wellbeing, happiness and meaning can improve quality of life.

We also need to understand the difference between a pleasant life and a meaningful life. We all want to feel safe and enjoy life but we also need purpose and direction. It’s often not enough to simply live a pleasant life – everyone needs a path to follow and a way to contribute in a meaningful way. This is a vital ingredient when looking at autism and happiness.

It’s clear that a meaningful life increases happiness. Employment can be therapeutic and lessen autistic symptoms by providing meaning and focus in life. Unfortunately, the statistics are not good when it comes to autistic employment. In the UK, only 16% are in full-time paid employment and unemployment and underemployment are common around the globe. Peter believes that every person can contribute and should have the opportunity to do so, to improve happiness and overall wellbeing.

People who are happier and more fulfilled, are more successful in life, in whatever form they choose. Given the issues with typical success models, it’s important to avoid forcing autistics into neurotypical versions of happiness. They should be encouraged to be “autistically happy”. It’s not up to us to determine someone else’s happiness – it’s entirely up to the individual themselves.

Peter then went on to remind us of the following points when supporting autistic individuals:

  • avoid stereotypical ideas of autism (not all are hyper sensitive, etc.)
  • flip the switch and look at sensory preferences, rather than sensory triggers (look for the positives)
  • autism is not an alibi or an excuse (challenge and push the individual forward)
  • many autistics require high expectations along with high support (don’t make assumptions)
  • it’s important to provide moments of disappointment as learning opportunities
  • don’t avoid challenges but ensure the person has control when facing them (to avoid learned helplessness)
  • physical health and fitness is important and should be encouraged (lowers stress hormones)
  • sleep is another big factor in wellbeing and should be prioritised

Peter then went on to note It’s important as a society to consider what we can offer to autistic individuals. But, it’s just as important for us to consider what can autistics offer to society? This is the way to embrace neuroharmony.

Peter ended with a plea to make autism “smaller again”. It’s not as big or scary or special as it’s been made out to be. Everyone is different. Everyone is special. We should dial it back a notch to allow autistic individuals to be appreciated for who they are and for what they contribute, rather than for a diagnosis.

Peter’s presentation was engaging, informative and positive. This is exactly what we all need to do when it comes to supporting autistic individuals in our lives. We need to put their happiness and wellbeing first. Appreciate their strengths. Support their challenges. Encourage their growth. Seize all opportunities. Find the positives.

As parents, educators and service providers, we need to put our own expectations of success and happiness for our kids to one side and support them in what makes THEM happy. We cannot allow our neurotypical expectations to colour their life. We need to recognise their interests and strengths and give them every opportunity to make the most of them.

Instead of focusing on the negatives and the deficits of autism, we need to start looking for the potential and for the opportunities in each person. This was a key point made all through APAC17 and one definitely worth remembering.

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