From neurodiversity to neuroharmony: intellectual disability, autism and happiness

Friday, 24th September 2021 Keynote Peter Vermeulen 09:45am - 10:30am Room: Humboldt

All the research and all the information about how different and unique people with autism and/or an intellectual disability are, has made us forget that they are not only different, but that they share more than we think with all the other people, especially when it comes to basic needs such as happiness. Accepting neurodiversity is fine, but it emphasizes the differences between people. While it is a big step towards more acceptance of autism / intellectual disability as one of the many ways a brain can operate, it is only the first step in our commitment to a better world and more well-being for people with neurodevelopmental challenges. We should also focus on what connects people with intellectual disability/autism with the rest of the human species: the pursuit of happiness.

Happiness has received little attention in the field of autism spectrum disorders/intellectual disability. Outcome and effect studies, for instance, rarely take emotional well-being as a desired outcome. And when the focus is on well-being, it is often from a negative perspective, namely the lack of well-being and quality of life in people with a disability. It is time to take a U-turn in our approach and change from an exclusive focus on what makes people with autism and/or intellectual disability so different and from a negative, clinical and medical approach of happiness in people with disabilities (lack of distress) towards a shared and positive focus (we all want to be happy). In other words: let’s move from neurodiversity to neuroharmony.

In the presentation we will explore how we can increase the well-being of people with ID / autism throughout the lifespan, from early childhood into late adulthood. We will explore ways of assessing the well-being and how to increase it. We will talk about good feeling but also about life satisfaction and contentment as main sources of emotional well-being. And we will illustrate with the story of Thijs, a boy we diagnosed back in the eighties and now a happy adult. His story will show how we can move from neurodiversity to neuroharmony, an inclusive world where people with and without disabilities are living in harmony.

Simple and to the point:

  • The pursuit of happiness connects people with intellectual disability/autism with the rest of the human species
  • In research the focus on emotional well-being is rare. It often focusses on negative aspects, i.e., the lack of quality of life
  • A shared and positive approach with a change from neurodiversity to neuroharmony is desirable
  • Ways of assessing and increasing the well-being in people with intellectual disability/autism will be discussed
  • The case example of a young boy moving to adulthood will show how people with and without disabilities may live in harmony in an inclusive world