Autism and Happiness: Programming for Happiness in Clients with Autism

Several years ago, I attended a keynote presentation with Behavior Analyst, Dr. Dennis Reid. He spoke about the importance of programming for (and measuring) autism and happiness in our children and clients.

Daily Choices

During one of the activities during the keynote, Dr. Reid had the audience members spend 3 minutes writing down every choice we made that morning prior to arriving at the conference. Did we choose to hit the snooze button on our alarm? What did we decide to wear? We decided what to eat and drink, whether we wanted to bring a jacket along, where to park, where to sit. In just 3 minutes I realized that by 9 or 10am I had already made dozens of choices between getting up and going to the conference.

Basically, Dr. Reid made the point that we have many choices throughout our day. These choices are what lead to happiness. He also pointed out that many of our children and clients with autism have few choices.

Measuring Autism and Happiness

As Dr. Reid suggested at the conference, I began almost immediately counting Lucas’s behaviors such as smiles and laughs. I also began giving more choices than ever before. For my son and all my clients, my goal is for each of them to reach their fullest potential and to be as happy as possible.

Over my 2 decades in the autism field, to achieve this goal, I focused heavily on assessment, pairing and manding in my effort to reduce problem behaviors and program for happiness.

My goal for my son Lucas – and for all the children I have worked with who have autism – is for them to be as happy and independent as possible. It’s actually not much different than my goal for my typically developing son, Spencer. I want him to make good choices that lead to his happiness, and to be as independent as possible. But for Lucas and other kids and adults with moderate to severe autism, who can’t make choices very easily and can’t tell us what makes them happy, it is kind of tricky to actually determine if they’re happy. Their happiness levels can affect their social skills.

Ready to start programming for happiness, but don’t know where to start?
Take this quiz

Quality of Life

Lucas can’t tell us, for instance, which job he likes better, or that he’d rather do a puzzle than take a walk, or what his favorite movie or TV show is. So, we need to observe and document his happiness across activities. Lucas’s behavior analyst came up with a data sheet years ago, when he was trying out different jobs and vocational tests. We still use this data sheet today. His one-to-one assistant takes data on the job such as the length of the activity, number of prompts, and Lucas’s affect across that activity. Affect is rated in terms of low, medium, or high. Affect is basically happiness. Does he appear to be happy? Is he smiling? Low means he doesn’t appear to be that happy. Medium is in the middle of the road, and high means he’s happy doing the activity. 

In addition to measuring and documenting his affect, we also document his speed. If he’s going slow, he’s not as motivated as when he’s going fast. We also have her document any hint of problem behavior or agitation. After recording this data, the behavior analyst would be able to graph the data and determine which jobs and activities led to higher affect, fast speed, low prompts, and no problem behavior. Now, we know when Lucas is happy. When people ask me if Lucas is happy at his pre-vocational program that he attends every day, I can confidently say yes. And we have data to prove it, too!

In addition to giving kids as many choices as possible, we also need to be more observant, manage developmental regressive behavior, and document signs of happiness in our children and clients.

Since seeing Dr. Reid’s presentation years ago, I feel strongly that we need to provide our clients with many choices throughout the day and should consider happiness as an important (and attainable) goal. I urge you to start counting smiles and laughs in your children or clients with autism. We should all be programming for happiness.

Ready to start programming for happiness, but don’t know where to start?
Take this quiz