How Flourishing With Autism Is Possible

3 min read

Looking back on my 40-year career in autism services, I realized something was missing.

From the beginning, I was implementing strengths-based approaches to autism interventions, or so I thought. As a special educator, I was trained to include strengths in students’ Present Levels of Performance within their Individualized Education Programs. As program director for national non-profit organizations, including Easter Seals and NEXT for AUTISM, I advocated for neuro-inclusivity; I trained Fortune 500 companies to welcome and support a diverse workforce by focusing on employee strengths. In mentoring clinicians entering the autism service field, I advocated for access to effective intervention for all.

But still, I look at the current outcomes for autistic individuals, and they’re wholly unacceptable. With high rates of underemployment and unemployment, families and caregivers reporting tremendous stress and lack of access to services and supports, students with autism underperforming in schools, community service providers unable to attract and retain talent, and the continued deeply rooted stigma and stereotypes about autistic people, there’s much work to be done. If I could go back and start again, back to my classroom and back to my workforce development programs, well-being would be front and center. I would ensure that every student, every employee, every manager, every service provider, and every family member could access and practice the science and skills of well-being.

Positive psychology is the study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions (Gable & Haidt, 2005). Positive psychology practices could be woven through every intervention, every program, and every learning opportunity. Well-being is underrepresented in autism intervention (Vermeulen, 2014), and current outcomes are demonstrative of this lack of attention to well-being. A host of evidence-based well-being practices, such as gratitude have an established literature base for the allistic, and I hope these practices can be widely practiced and adopted in the autism community.

A gratitude practice can improve happiness and life satisfaction and reduce depressive symptoms (Dickens, 2017). Gratitude has been used as an intervention to improve the lived experience of parents of autistic children (Martin et al., 2019). I can think of many ways I could have integrated gratitude into my daily work as a teacher. Our classroom could have ended each day with each student and team member stating one thing we are grateful for; I could have taught students how to keep gratitude journals to promote improved generosity and decrease materialism (Chaplin et al., 2019), modifying those journals with pictures and picture communication symbols for those students that didn’t have strong literacy skills; I could have incorporated gratitude practices into my parent support programs. Like any skill, well-being must be practiced to promote learning and fluency. Well-being practices must be incorporated into classroom and family routines.

I identify as a scientist, but I also strongly identify as a pragmatist; theories and beliefs are measured in terms of the success of their practical application. I want to go forward on this page addressing the how—how autistic individuals, autism service providers, families, and truly the entire autism community embrace and implement well-being practices.

How do we advance well-being and positively affect these unacceptably low outcomes?

We start now.

We start by learning about evidence-informed well-being strategies and practicing them every day. Well-being can be learned, so let’s start learning—together.

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