I recently ran across the term ‘happy autism’ in a book I was reading (which, of course, I’ve now forgotten the title of). Essentially, the author used this term to describe his autistic child, who clearly 1) met all three components of the so-called ‘autism triad’, and 2) was generally very happy and content most of the time.
[Note: I also recently came across the term ‘autism triad’, which is defined nicely by Wikipedia as the three characteristic signs of autism: impairments in social interaction; impairments in communication; and restricted interests and repetitive behavior.]
I have mixed feelings about the term ‘happy autism’, though. On the one hand, it does describe our son very well. He’s definitely autistic, and he’s quite happy, content, and peaceful most of the time.
I think the general public on average assumes that our children are always screaming, breaking things, freaking out over little details, or whatever, and that our lives as parents are miserable black holes devoid of hope. Of course, under a variety of conditions, our children can have a very hard time and our days can sometimes go straight down the toilet, but the reality of our lives is usually quite different than the way things are portrayed in the media and in film and TV. It’s good to have words that help counteract those stereotypes.
On the other hand, the term implies that those who don’t have ‘happy autism’ are unhappy, miserable, or whatever the opposite of that term might be. It’s like with everything that involves putting adjectives and modifiers in front of ‘autism’. For example, we try to categorize it as high-functioning, mild, moderate, or severe, though there are nearly no diagnostic criteria that describe what any of this actually means in real-life terms. We even go back and forth about what is actually ‘on the spectrum’ and what isn’t. And on and on from there.
There’s also the debate about whether we should describe our children as “children with autism” or “autistic children”. Dissecting what implications both of those have would take at least a whole other post.
My point here for now is in trying to figure out whether many of these adjectives are even useful. As one who is primarily a writer, I believe the way we say things is important and that words have the power to affect opinions, perspectives, and our fundamental values about life.
For me ‘autism’ is a word that helps us get a foothold into understanding how the J-Man thinks and feels and communicates and processes everything he experiences during the day. But, always and forever, he is uniquely the J-Man. He has been diagnosed with autism and sensory processing disorder and likely apraxia and other things as well, but he is far, far, far greater than the sum of these parts.
Whatever terminology we use, it should pass one basic test. It should empower our children and anyone with autism to say without hesitation, “This is who I am, and I am proud to be me.”