Austism and Happiness

Individual student

Thoughts in response to Dr Peter Vermeulen's address, Autism SA Conference February 2018


Vermeulen began with Maslow's hierarchy and reminded us that for those with ASD safety and security is closely allied to predictability.  He has reviewed research into adult outcomes for people with ASD and found that the criteria for success are external factors like employment and living situation rather than “wellbeing”.  There is very little on mental health, and what there is examines mental health issues like anxiety and depression, which are risks for those with ASD, but does not look at how to build positive wellbeing.  (This reflects general psychology before the development of positive psychology and the exploration of mental wellbeing, rather than only illness.)  Vermeulen argued that interventions mostly focus on mitigating specific deficits, and rather than work to enable people to be “less autistic”, we should focus on ensuring “more wellbeing”, and indeed in doing this many autism symptoms, exacerbated by anxiety, will be reduced.


Vermeulen focussed on happiness, essentially the Positive emotion, Meaning and + physical wellness of Seligman's PERMA+:  



from the News & Views of

Anne Williams, Consulting Educator

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For Positive emotion he focussed particularly on feelings of pleasure.  These are generally easy to provide, but Vermeulen had two warnings:

-     such emotions can be volatile, easily affected by external factors, including negative sensory input

-     we need to avoid framing these in neurotypical ways.  The example he gave was concern about the boy who just watched others play and did not participate, which concerned staff.  Investigation found he actively enjoyed watching, perhaps in the way others enjoy being sports spectators.  


In relation to Meaning, a more resilient source of happiness, Vermeulen focussed on employment, paid and voluntary, urging us to find work that used the skills or interests of our students to provide a purposeful role in the community.  He cited research that showed students with ASD are generally less physically active and fit than typically developing peers.  Given the known effect of physical activity on anxiety, this is particularly important to address.  Perhaps because of sensory issues, eating problems are common in ASD.  Finding enjoyable activities and nutritious food for those with ASD will contribute significantly to their wellbeing.

Listening to Vermeulen I immediately began to think how the work I have done recently with positive psychology research might particularly inform planning for students with ASD.  


Fredrickson's “Broaden and Build” research shows that positive emotions widen thoughts and actions during the emotion and help people develop resources for resilience.  The frequent experience of even fleeting positive emotions builds enduring thinking patterns, social behaviour, health, and physiological reactions in an upward spiral.  So lots of even brief experiences of joy, amusement, interest, pride and other positive emotions have long lasting effects.  


How do we ensure “flow” tasks – that experience of timeless absorption – for those with ASD? “Flow arises when skills are matched to the challenge of the activity, and can be especially rewarding when both challenge and skills are high (Diener).”  How is flow the same or different from obsessive interests?


How would teaching with a growth mindset affect a special needs program?  how would you teach those with ASD to develop a growth mindset?


What would an IEP framed around PERMA+ look like?


Some key take-away messages from Vermeulen:

Working for “feeling good” not just “calm”.

Balancing challenge and protection – “high expectations and high levels of support”.

Developing “autistic-friendly” situations by asking (1) how can the community bring pleasure into the

lives of those with autism and (2) how can they contribute to the community?


I would love the opportunity to work with teachers to explore further applying positive psychology research and principles in programs for students with special needs.  Reflecting on good practice with this population will, as it so often does, strengthen good practice for all populations.