Joy and Autism 1

 

The most widely disseminated public narratives about autism outline the “tragedy” of the condition—the despair and misery it supposedly creates, especially among the parents of children with autism.  These narratives were brought to special prominence in the controversy surrounding Autism Speaks’s notorious 2009 ad campaign “I Am Autism,” but they are also extremely common in the titles of books and articles, as well as in everyday conversation.  The fact is, however, that many parents of autistic children find their family life far from “tragic.”  And more importantly, many autistic people describe their own lives in very positive terms, while still acknowledging the difficulties they face.

I wanted to start this series of posts on autism and emotion with a discussion of joy, because—although the word seldom appears in media accounts of autism, and although the emotion itself has seldom been studied by researchers on autism—autistic people themselves often write about joy, about the delight and deep pleasure they find in their special interests, in the sensory world around them, and especially in the practice of “stimming.”

Here is the incomparable Julia Bascom, in a blog post that has circulated widely within the neurodiversity community, entitled “The Obsessive Joy of Autism”:

One of the things about autism is that a lot of things can make you terribly unhappy while barely affecting others. A lot of things are harder.

But some things? Some things are so much easier. Sometimes being autistic means that you get to be incredibly happy. And then you get to flap. You get to perseverate. You get to have just about the coolest obsessions. . . .

It’s that the experience is so rich. It’s textured, vibrant, and layered. It exudes joy. It is a hug machine for my brain. It makes my heart pump faster and my mouth twitch back into a smile every few minutes. I feel like I’m sparkling. Every inch of me is totally engaged in and powered up by the obsession. Things are clear.

It is beautiful. It is perfect.

I flap a lot when I think about Glee or when I finish a sudoku puzzle. I make funny little sounds. I spin. I rock. I laugh. I am happy. Being autistic, to me, means a lot of different things, but one of the best things is that I can be so happy, so enraptured about things no one else understands and so wrapped up in my own joy that, not only does it not matter that no one else shares it, but it can become contagious.

If I could change three things about how the world sees autism, they would be these. That the world would see that we feel joy—sometimes a joy so intense and private and all-encompassing that it eclipses anything the world might feel. That the world would stop punishing us for our joy, stop grabbing flapping hands and eliminating interests that are not “age-appropriate”, stop shaming and gas-lighting us into believing that we are never, and can never be, happy. And that our joy would be valued in and of itself, seen as a necessary and beautiful part of our disability, pursued, and shared.[1]

The very intensity of the autistic experience—the heightened sensory experience, the deep focus on special interests, the broad awareness of multiple stimuli—can cause considerable distress when beyond the individual’s control, but it can also give rise to astonishing experiences of beauty, delight, sensual pleasure, and joy when the individual can make use of that experience for her or his own ends.

Such moments of delight are achieved primarily through what scientists often describe dismissively as “stereotypic” or “repetitive” behaviors—hand flapping, rocking, spinning, bouncing, etc.  For many years, autism therapists tried to eliminate these behaviors, in an attempt to “normalize” autistic people.  The mantra “quiet hands” was regularly chanted in special education classrooms.  More recently, scientists and autism professionals have begun to recognize the importance of “self-stimulatory behaviors” (another scientific term for these actions) as a calming response to stressful situations.  It has therefore become less common for therapists to try to eliminate them completely, although it is still usually recommended that they encourage their clients to self-soothe in more “socially acceptable” ways (by playing with fidget toys, sitting in special chairs, etc.), rather than by the means of their own choosing.  However, I have never seen a scientist, teacher, or therapist recognize the importance of self-stimulation as a source of positive, indeed deeply positive, emotional experience.

The value of “stimming” is, however, a frequent theme of autistic writing (which scientists and other professionals who wish to understand autistic experience would do well to consult).[2]   Rocking, hand-flapping, and spinning are not only responses to distress, but also, and much more importantly, forms of play.  They provide intense satisfaction, mental stimulation, and sensory delight to autistic adults as well as children:

“When I flap I get a feeling of overwhelming joy and creative thoughts and images come from no where. My brain functioning becomes super fast and I can create perfect images or beautiful sentences in my mind.”[3] 

“I have difficulty regulating many of my body functions such as heat and cold or being overwhelmed by too much motion, light, sounds, etc. but I have access to a deep, deep, deep joy by manipulating movement, light, sounds, etc. on my own.[4]

“In the past year I have rediscovered the joy of stimming. I have unearthed a playfulness within me that I thought was lost.”[5]    

This “obsessive joy” is a wonderfully positive thing—that should be encouraged in autistic children and celebrated in autistic adults.  It can, however, also have an addictive quality, which I will discuss in my next post.

 

 

 

[1] Julia Bascom, “The Obsessive Joy of Autism,” Just Stimming blog (https://juststimming.wordpress.com/2011/04/05/the-obsessive-joy-of-autism/

[2] http://what-is-stimming.org/links/

[3] October 7, 2010 comment by “NothingsWrongWithMe” on “Understanding Hand-Flapping and What to Do (Or Not Do) About It,” on the Aspiring Dad blog (https://aspiringdad.wordpress.com/2008/01/30/understanding-hand-flapping-and-what-to-do-or-not-do-about-it/)

[4] “I is for Identity-first Language” April 10, 2015, on the Unstrange Mind blog (https://unstrangemind.wordpress.com/2015/04/10/i-is-for-identity-first-language/)

[5] “At the Intersection of Gender and Autism—Part 3” December 4, 2014, Musings of an Aspie blog (https://musingsofanaspie.com/tag/girlhood/)

 

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