Autistically happy.

On the 17th of June 2014 I turned 21 but, oddly enough, this was not the most exciting part of my day. My dad had booked himself and me to go to a talk about autism, given by Peter Vermeulen and hosted by my younger brother’s school, Freemantles. The talk was titled ‘Autism and Happiness’. 

Autism is a subject close to my (and indeed the whole of my family’s) heart after by brother was diagnosed with autism and severe learning difficulties at the age of three. Gregory turned eighteen just a few weeks ago and we are all more than aware of his becoming an adult – not in the least because he’s 6″1 and still growing! His school education will finish next year and we are currently exploring the next stage of his life: we’ve been considering colleges in the nearby area which may take him on for basic courses in life skills, and also discussing the possibility that one day he will require full time care that my parents will be unable to give.

While some ‘high functioning’ autistic individuals are able to live independently, have a job, etc, this is not necessarily the case for all autistic individuals and we are under no illusions that Gregory will probably never be able to live on his own. While we have come to accept his dependence, there is one thing which still preys on our minds constantly – his happiness.

So my dad and myself were sat in a room filled with mums and dads sat on the edges of their seats, hoping to hear pearls of wisdom that could improve the happiness of their children. My dad knocked over his glass of water, I sneezed seventeen times in quick succession (damn you, hay-fever) and the talk began.

The first thing we were confronted with was the statistics, and the statistics didn’t look good. Autistic individuals are more likely to suffer from depression and have a lower quality of life compared to others – according to studies. And here we encounter the first hurdle: the studies. I mean, how on earth do you measure the happiness of an individual?! It’s hardly a subjective, quantitative measure. Further to that, merely 4% of all research into autism covers this topic of ‘happiness’ and surely the happiness of any individual is worth more than 4% worth of our research resources!

Studies often measure happiness by accounting for certain lifestyle aspects – having a partner, living independently, having a job – but these aspects themselves do not necessarily correspond to happiness. Sat in the audience my dad and I were more than aware that Gregory was currently ticking very few of these happiness tick boxes, and probably never would: living independently – probably not; being employed – probably not; forming romantic attachments – probably not. Yet Gregory doesn’t appear to be unhappy. Sure he can be a grumpy teenager – he hates it when I change the TV channel and he really doesn’t like it when I kick him out of the bathroom in the morning – but that doesn’t translate to unhappiness. Instead we should think of what these factors actually represent in terms of happiness; relationships, jobs, living independently, these aspects all have the ability to give someone a sense of worth, and this does translate to happiness.

So now we were asked to think in far more simple terms – what does make people happy? Doing things they like. What doesn’t make people happy? Situations and doing things they don’t like. While these factors may not come into play with regards to having a job or learning maths (maths is ‘icky’ for most people apparently?!) perhaps we can manipulate them to overlap; perhaps we can manipulate these small pleasures into useful means to give an individual a sense of self worth.

This technique is particularly poignant with autistic individuals, since they have the tendency to fixate and obsess over a certain subject. While subjects of interest will vary between individuals, as carers we have the ability to apply these obsessions in various ways to give individuals little tasks to help them learn or to make them feel useful. In fact, there is a whole book written on the subject called ‘Give him the whale,’ which was inspired by a young autistic individual who was obsessed with whales. When the child’s carers asked for advice as to how to get the child to interact in subjects other than whales, the reply given was simply ‘give him the whale!’ By aligning the child’s interests with knowledge they are required to learn, we can encourage their happiness and enjoyment of such subjects.

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