Asperger’s, autism / ASD – what does happiness mean and how do we find contentment?
“Clap along if you know what happiness is to you”
I wanted to explore what happiness means for an autistic person. Many clinical psychologists ask that question – what makes you happy? – during their autism spectrum disorder (ASD) assessment.
If you’re seeking some definitions of the word happy, you’ll find descriptions like joyful, cheerful, blissful, exultant and jovial. Which all sound a bit… over the top. Autism, as a spectrum, is of course different for everyone who has the condition. But, of the high-functioning-autistic people that I know, I wouldn’t necessarily describe many of them as exultant and jovial. For many autistic people, their demeanour can appear to be more quietly observant; sometimes serious. It doesn’t mean they wouldn’t describe themselves as happy, of course! Just that the way they communicate can be softer, and more introverted than some ‘neurotypical’ peers who wear their hearts on their sleeves.
Certainly, there can be an autistic ‘mask’, one that we may even be using to subconsciously deceive ourselves as an autistic person, that seems joyful in a slightly manic way. As if we’re somehow trying to prove to ourselves and the people we’re with that we are, indeed, happy!
For anyone whose autism spectrum condition (ASC) means they have sensory processing issues, on some occasions this can lead them to appearing overtly happy or joyful, especially in young people. Specifically I am referring to issues of hyposensitivity, or sensory seeking, whereby people (notably children on the autistic spectrum) ‘seek’ more sensory stimulation, e.g. jumping, crashing, spinning and bumping into things and people, often accompanied with ‘manic’ behaviours, noises and seemingly-happy laughter. (The UK’s National Autistic Society has more info HERE.)
In adults, I believe autistic people who use alcohol as a way to alleviate their social communication problems can appear ‘the life and soul of the party’; they may seem outgoing, animated even, and seemingly happy. But is this alcohol-enduced state – perhaps similar to the child who uses spinning to change his mental and emotional state – actual happiness?
Satisfaction and ease
After some consideration I think that ‘contentment’ is a good gauge of happiness – for many people, but especially for someone with autism. Defined as ‘satisfaction’ or ‘ease’, this more accurately describes the feeling of ‘balance’ that a person with autism feels when content. Repetitive thinking patterns slowed down? Anxiety reduced? Sense of serenity or calm washing over you (or the autistic person who care for)? Not feeling the need to ‘mask’ and hide your feelings? Smiling seems natural and easy? This is surely contentment.
Although this theory applies to anyone with an ASD/ASC, for people with a high functioning autism profile, e.g. Asperger Syndrome, who may be trying to juggle family life, the daily grind and perhaps the workplace (maybe without an autism diagnosis), contentment is key. This group of people are described as high functioning, as they can generally appear to function well in a neurotypical world. If I could offer any advice to someone who cares for a person with autism, especially a child or young person, along the lines of finding happiness, it would be to let them access contentment. This could be by allowing them to engage in (or talk about) their special interest, but equally it could be just sitting at home quietly listening to their favourite music, with minimal conversation. It could be sitting on a picnic blanket in a beautiful outdoor space, without socialisation. In any case, if you are seeking happiness as an autistic person, or hoping that the autistic child you care for can become happier, try to work out what it means for you and your family, and think laterally – it may not be the bells and whistles and all-singing-all-dancing happiness depicted in the movies. A quiet, contended mind can be the happiest feeling of all.
A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism Spectrum Disorders; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences.
(Farrell Williams’ jaunty ditty ‘Happy’ may be full of mainly nonsense lyrics, but here’s some sensible advice: “Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth; if you know what happiness is to you.”)
Also published on Medium.