Using a positive psychology approach in working with individuals with an autism spectrum disorder can help them lead a fuller and a more enriched quality of life. Optimism, resilience and kindness are some of the key traits at the core of positive psychology. Through positive psychology, we can promote these and other character strengths not only to enhance an individual’s quality of life, but also to help a person develop new assessment and intervention strategies that focus on positive problem solving.
Positive psychology, at its very core, seeks to identify and understand human strength. It involves looking at what characteristics help a person be resilient in the face of adversity and it looks at what goes right, even in the face of bad situations. Researchers define it as an umbrella term for the study of positive emotions and character traits, and focuses on what is healthy and strength-oriented within people and how these elements help us not only to cope more effectively, but also to flourish and become more adaptable in a world of challenges (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005).
The unique perspective of positive psychology is that it functions from a strength-based rather than a deficit- or pathology-based foundation, where the primary focus is on augmenting positive personal traits to maximize meaning and engagement in life, as well as positive emotional states.
Traditionally, professionals who work with individuals with autism and developmental disabilities rely on a deficit-based model, focusing on a person’s challenges, opposed to strengths. This approach often focuses on external observable behavior. In positive psychology, the main targets for change are internal behaviors, which are not observable. These internal behaviors are the thinking patterns, self-images, attributions and cognitive constructs that lead an individual to feel happy, fulfilled and therefore, an increased self-esteem and well-being. By incorporating both these external and internal behaviors, parents, educators, caregivers and therapists, may be able to address more of the many aspects that create a higher quality of life and a sense of well-being in people with autism and developmental disabilities.
Programs and services in our field are typically designed to decrease inappropriate behaviors and increase desired behaviors. By developing practices which foster positive traits, we can shift the emphasis from specific targeted behaviors to focus on enhancing intrinsic values. By looking at intrinsic values, programming and interventions can be expanded to enhance these character strengths within a wide range of therapeutic techniques that incorporate positive problem solving by utilizing multi-sensory procedures as traditional programs do.
Treatment and programming can continue to focus on basic principles of behavior modification while incorporating visual supports, repeated practice, high levels of reinforcement, while including a positive problem solving approach to allow for opportunities for people to become more independent and fulfilled. For example, if a person with autism consistently destroys community property, in addition to a program targeting property destruction, professionals could also focus on a long-term value of being a productive and integrated member of the community. To achieve this, interventions might reinforce kind, empathetic and courageous behavior as well as teaching optimistic thinking.
The five main character traits in positive psychology are: optimism, humor, self-efficacy, kindness and resilience. In the field of psychology, optimism has been a topic of research for many years. Researchers believe optimism has something to do with maintaining a positive outlook, expecting that positive things will happen and behaving as if anticipating a good outcome. Most of the research has been done on the level of optimism people have when faced with difficult situations or stressful life events. Human responses to familiar life challenges, such as caring for a loved one, going through a major life change, have been studied extensively. In general, the results of these studies have shown that optimistic people tend to enjoy better psychological health, use more coping strategies, feel that they have fewer barriers in fulfilling their goals and benefit more from social support in times of stress.
Promoting optimism in people with an autism spectrum disorder could increase successful problem solving skills, decrease a sense of helplessness and promote a sense of autonomy that could be beneficial. Individuals with an autism spectrum disorder typically have difficulty with social interactions, communication, anxiety and rigidity. At times people on the spectrum experience extreme sensitivity to environmental and sensory stimuli, difficulty coping with change and transitions, stress and problems negotiating the social world. Their difficulties are reflected in higher levels of depression, anxiety, paranoia and phobias, compared to the general population (Bellini, 2004). Fostering an optimistic perspective and alternatives to past behavioral patterns may provide increased capacity to cope with challenging situations and circumstances.
Humor is a fundamental aspect of social interaction. Most of us experience humor without being aware of its many benefits. Research on humor highlights cognitive development, cognition and emotional development. Humor facilitates social connections and interactions that can be both enjoyable and stressful. In such circumstances, most people will turn to humor to relieve both anticipated and actual stress. Individuals with autism are frequently challenged by anxiety and stress responses when confronted with social demands. Cultivating a capacity for understanding and using humor in social situations has the potential to promote participation and reduce stress associated with social demands.
Incorporating humor into the lives of individuals with autism can benefit their well-being. Teaching humor as a source of joy and as a coping strategy are important given studies showing higher levels of anxiety and depression among individuals on the spectrum (Bellini, 2004). Humorous and positive reframing strategies may enable them to cope better and manage challenging life experiences and confront circumstances. Humor comes less naturally to the person with autism but it can be taught. Continued exposure and modeling of humor, for persons on the spectrum will help them learn that the unexpected can be safe as well as funny.
Self-efficacy is the beliefs that people have about their ability and readiness to perform a task. Overall, self-efficacy is required in order to cope effectively with life demands and improve quality of life. Self-efficacy is developed by cumulative successful learning experiences. Individuals with autism struggle with learning new skills and are exposed to frequent failure. Teaching skills, nurturing controllable positive behaviors and habits that lead to productivity and increasing the learners’ awareness of other capabilities can benefit their self-efficacy. Reviewing expectations and behaviors of caregivers and peers, choosing effective teaching methods, increasing self-management and coping skills and helping individuals to own their success can all increase self-efficacy in individuals with autism.
Philosophers have described kindness as helpfulness toward someone in need, not in return for anything. Kind people are described as making thoughtful choices and doing benevolent things for others. Researching kindness and autism often focuses on treating individuals with autism with kindness. If people with autism are taught to administer kind acts, they will more likely be accepted as contributors in the communities and to step out of their more familiar, dependant roles as consumers of service. It is possible to teach kind deeds and other pro-social behavior related to kindness. For example, drama, role-playing, pet and animal therapy and volunteering in the community are all examples that are important building blocks for individuals on the spectrum to foster a higher quality of life.
The last characteristic that positive psychology focuses on is resilience. Resilience is described as an emotional or psychological shield that protects one from the damaging effects of life’s more negative elements. We speak of resilient individuals as those who persevere, carry on, and triumph over challenges and adversity. People with autism spectrum disorders have unique challenges that make them vulnerable in the face of adversity. Their ability to cope and adjust is dependent upon their cognitive capabilities, communication skills, flexibility and social problem-solving capacities. Deficits in coping skills constitute significant contributing factors to increased vulnerability, which can lead to anxiety and depression. Resilience is a key component in reaching effective adaptation and successful coping with life challenges. Resilience can be taught to individuals with autism at all levels of functioning by nurturing self-regulation, increasing opportunities to experience success, autonomy and independence and by increasing problem-solving skills and general knowledge. The way resilience can be measured in people with autism is their ability to express and execute positive preferences and choices, showing a willingness to learn and experience novelties, maintaining a strong support system and by demonstrating self-regulation and self-control under times of stress. Optimism, humor, self-efficacy, kindness and resilience are traits of positive psychology. Individuals with an autism spectrum disorder can be taught to internalize these traits, to help maximize their quality of life. We as parents, professionals and educators, have a responsibility to help support and enhance these traits in individuals with an autism spectrum disorder in order to help empower them to play a more active role in creating their own happiness and enhance their quality of life.
Jill Krata, PhD, is Manager of Clinical Services of the YAI Autism Center. For more information, please visit yai.org/autism or contact YAI LINK for information and referral for services at 1-866-2-YAI-LINK.
Bellini, S. (2004). Social skills deficits and anxiety in high-functioning adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 19, 2, 78-86.
Groden, J., Kantor, A., Woodard, C.R., & Lipsitt, L.P. (2011). How Everyone on the Autism Spectrum, Young and Old can…become resilient, be more optimistic, enjoy humor, be kind and increase self-efficacy. A Positive Psychology Approach. Jessica Kingsley Publishers: London and Philadelphia.
Seligman, M.E.P., Steen, T.A., Park, N. & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 5, 410-421.