I’ve been doing a lot of thinking/reading/talking about autism and happiness. I think it’s an area that is sadly neglected in our rush to help kids learn important skills (which still matters, but maybe we are doing it wrong). I’ve been noticing just how much correcting we do of people with disabilities and how, even if we mean well, we are sending the overall message of, “you’re not good enough”.
Even when we say something that is supposed to be positive and affirming such as, “I want you to achieve your potential”, the underlying message is “you’re not good enough right now“. I don’t even think most of us could define what we really mean by “achieving potential”, but if someone brings up my potential, I can be pretty sure they don’t think I’m achieving it currently.
Would you allow this to happen to you?
When I really start thinking about it, it is kind of shocking how far we’ve taken our belief that we are justified in trotting out people’s deficits in annual meetings without their permission. I mean, how many of us would willingly be subjected to an IEP meeting or an annual team meeting where a group of people (many of whom you didn’t choose, all of whom have some version of power over you) get to openly discuss your flaws and plan ways for you to improve on them? Who would agree to that?! I don’t even like people to point out one thing that I’m kind of bad at, much less take it upon themselves to make me practice to improve on it, on some kind of schedule that they pick. No way.
But what about independence?
And it would be one thing if we could say to ourselves, “Well, I’m going to make this kid feel bad for a short period of time, in order to help them be independent/employed/happier later in life”. In fact, this is how we usually justify working on goals. However, we do not have a great data that this is actually true. Adults with disabilities, statistically speaking, are unemployed, and often suffer from loneliness and depression. So, even though I do believe in teaching useful skills, I don’t think we can feel super confident that we are justified in the way we teach those skills right now.
I have never seen a formal happiness goal on anyone’s paperwork, in my decade-plus in human services. Maybe this is because we aren’t good at measuring or practicing happiness as neuro-typicals either. We should get better at happiness! According to our meager research in this area, happy people are more confident, more able to learn, and more able to weather the unpredictable nature of life. Plus, it seems fun to work on.
Let’s make sure we’re justified
So, my whole thinking about autism intervention is making a shift. I still really believe in teaching skills, but I also think that we should make sure that we are justified in ‘intervening’ in anyone’s life (by good data-driven outcomes in adulthood) before we go around squashing people’s self-esteem in the name of some future independence that we can’t even deliver on.
When I face my ‘deficits’
The days where I can bear to deal with the things I’m bad at are days when I’ve been happy, done things that made me happy, felt supported and accepted and gotten to choose some aspect (like the time or place or audience)of the way I deal with the flaw.
***Additional note: Globally, we’ve got some big problems and our precious neurotypical thinking is not panning out well in the solution department. Instead of cultivating and encouraging people to think differently, we are systematically convincing all the people who naturally think differently that they will only be worthy people when they are a little more like us. Who would offer up a potential new idea after a lifetime of being corrected for thinking differently? Not me.