What does happiness mean for autistic individuals, 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 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 neuro-type. But, of the 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 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 autistic children) ‘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, this author believes that some autistic people (remembering that self-medication is carried out by people of all neurologies, obviously!) 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 this author thinks that ‘contentment’ is a good gauge of happiness – for many people, but especially for someone who’s autistic. Defined as ‘satisfaction’ or ‘ease’, this more accurately describes the feeling of ‘balance’ that a person who is autistic 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 that’s autistic, for autistic people with low support needs, who may be trying to juggle family life, the daily grind and perhaps the workplace (maybe without an official autism diagnosis), contentment is key. If I could offer any advice to someone who cares for an autistic person, 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. Too often, we autists have happiness ‘put upon us’, especially at celebratory times. 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; 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.