Autism and self-determination: the path towards successful citizenship

Poster presented at 12th Autism-Europe International Congress, Nice (France). September 13-15

The concept of neurodiversity (Singer, 1999) has been introduced to make us aware that conditions such as autism are not a (neurological) deficit but part of the natural neurological variation. And, as with biodiversity, we should not only acknowledge this neurological diversity but also cherish it as the basis of the rich tapestry of human variation.

From neurodiversity to neuroharmony

Accepting neurodiversity is a noble goal and we still have a long way to go in creating more acceptance of neurological differences. However, accepting differences is only the first step towards inclusion of people with autism as full and successful citizens.

The focus of neurodiversity is on differences, but in order to ensure that people with autism can really thrive and have quality of life, we need to see how we can connect all these neurological differences into a joint and collaborative societal project. This is what has been named neuroharmony (Vermeulen, 2016). It is about connecting people, just as in music where composers seek to combine and connect the different notes into a harmonious piece of music, a nice melody.

Citizenship model

In order to create neuroharmony, we should abandon the traditional models of disability (the medical and the social one) and replace them by a citizenship model. Because people with autism are citizens, just like all people. With the same duties and rights, and the same need for freedom.

Autistic people can and should be included as valuable citizens. One way to realise this inclusion is seeing autistic people as human beings with the same psychological needs as every other human being. A useful model is Ryan and Deci’s ‘Self Determination Theory’ (2017). According to this empirically based theory of human motivation, development, and wellness, the more the basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are supported, the stronger people will be intrinsically motivated to put efforts in their development and duties. So, the question here is (and that is what is meant by neuroharmony): how can society increase the sense of autonomy, competence and relatedness of autistic people, so that they can contribute more and in more meaningful ways to society than they do today. This includes, but is not limited to the following approaches and strategies:

  • Competence: strengths and interest based approach (not deficit oriented), functional skills training, contextualized apprenticeship
  • Autonomy: autism friendly personal future planning, person centered approaches
  • Relatedness: peer support projects, inclusive projects in the areas of free time and culture

self determination theory


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