Empathy asks us to put ourselves in the shoes of someone else. In the autistic child’s shoes, what would it feel like to type the word “autism” into a search engine and see how you are defined in terms of decificts, impairments, and challenges…?
The first words that popped up on my screen when I searched the term were “serious”, “disorder”, “impairment”, and “significant challenges”. While it would be unfair to dismiss these descriptions, especially as it may be the reality of many parents with children needing high support, perhaps it’s time to make sure that when the word is typed into a search engine, autism strengths feature prominently, too.
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When I scrolled down to the bottom of my screen, I did find a lone encouraging result clarifying that autism should not be equated with illness, but rather a differently wired brain or way of thinking. To help autistic children thrive, more than an acknowledgement of difference is needed, they need to be acknowledged and celebrated to feel valued.
I wanted to hear from someone with extensive experience helping kids on the spectrum. Karla Pretorius and Nanette Botha, Founders of AIMS Global, have been working in the field of autism since 2004. Parents usually want therapy for their autistic child to address behavior or modify weaknesses, but often therapists are in the best (objective!) position to identify the strengths of the child, too.
When I asked Karla, who has a Master’s degree in Psychology, about strengths in children with autism, especially the kids that she’s worked with, she said: “From my many years of working with autistic children, I have not only noticed their more obvious strengths, such as their ability to remember pertinent details of an event or scene, their absolute honesty, and their sheer joy in their specific interests, but also their determination and resilience. Although we are working towards acceptance, rather than mere awareness as a population embracing difference, we are not there yet. This leads to our autistic children needing to adapt, sometimes change, and most of the time accept that the world is not always autism-friendly.”
Strength on a spectrum
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.; DSM–5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013) is used by clinicians to diagnose autism spectrum disorders according to the manual’s diagnostic criteria. The signs and symptoms listed in the DSM–5 are found in the areas of social, language, and communication abilities, and repetitive/restricted behaviors or interests.
The DSM–5 diagnostic criteria may be open to debate, but the criteria (especially the inclusion of sensory issues and other specific challenges) has value in facilitating the diagnostic process, particularly for less experienced evaluators. But what about a list of autism strengths? Razor sharp attention to detail, incredible long-term memory, knowledge and focus in areas of special interest, and sometimes even savantism—where a specific skill of the autistic mind exceeds the bounds of what we deem humanly possible.
In advocating for more acknowledgement of autism strengths, the reality and seriousness of the condition should not be minimized. Parents sharing heartache on online autism forums (often anonymously), express their frustration and anger when only the genius side, the quirky but brilliant face of autism is portrayed by the media. For parents who deal with an autistic child who needs a high degree of support, this portrayal mocks their reality.
Their reality may entail challenges with verbal and nonverbal language, and difficulty with speech to the degree that the child remains nonvocal long term. Decision making difficulties, challenges with seeing the big picture, learning issues, and detail fixation may interfere with the child’s everyday functioning and emotional development.
Parents with high needs children need acknowledgement for the care they provide in often challenging circumstances. This does not mean they are not also the biggest cheerleaders when it comes to letting the world know about the amazing strengths and skills of their children.
Autism is a spectrum condition, and media portrayal needs to reflect this fact. A preverbal autistic child who needs constant care deserves to be included in how we see and value autism as much as the autistic genius with savant skills. Perhaps when we forget about our preconceived Sheldon Cooper-esque notion of autism, and put ourselves in the shoes of someone on the spectrum, we’ll start to notice their true autism strengths.
A differently wired brain
A review article (Donovan & Basson, 2016) examining the neuroanatomy of autism from a developmental perspective, set out to examine findings—mostly findings which have been replicated in more studies. One such finding, that may illustrate the neuroanatomical difference between people with autism and neurotypical individuals, is the tendency of overgrowth of the frontal cortex that may occur early in life. The review concluded that (in-keeping with mounting evidence) the trajectory of brain growth is different in people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Considering evidence of just how different the brain of an autistic individual may be, and how differently it develops, are we comparing apples and oranges when we measure autistic strengths (and even weaknesses) in neurotypical terms? Perhaps completely separate ways of looking at strengths and weaknesses which accounts for neurodiversity is not feasible or possibly even desirable.
Maybe it doesn’t even matter whether a strength or deficit is defined as such by neurotypical or neurodivergent standards, what matters is that an autistic child feels valued, confident in his/her unique strengths and contributions to the world, with as much control as is possible over his/her environment.
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Strength or weakness?
We want to move away from focusing on deficits in autism, we want to embrace neurodiversity and the idea that we can all learn from and see value in different minds. We should celebrate the strengths of the neurodivergent mind and acknowledge that unique ways of thinking and doing are responsible for a lot of advancement in the world. But is it possible to separate deficits and strengths in ASD, or are the two interchangeably linked depending on context?
A study (Russell et al., 2018) provides some guidance about autism strengths and weaknesses, and it’s valuable because it shares the views of people who are actually on the spectrum. Results from the study suggest that a characteristic like hypersensitivity could be a strength or weakness depending on the context.
The study (Russell et al., 2018) uses the example of hypersensitivity by explaining that a person may view this characteristic as a strength as it leads to enjoyment of nature, but on a busy street it may be considered a weakness if it makes it difficult to cope.
The study brings up an interesting discussion concerning so-called weaknesses in adults and children with autism—what if the child received treatment for hypersensitivity and lost this ability, which may well have been a strength in a particular context?
Interestingly when participants in this study (Russell et al., 2018) were asked about their abilities, the abilities that autistic people considered to be most beneficial were: hyper focus, attention to detail, good memory, and creativity.
It is clear that we need more research, not only to determine whether deficits in autism are perhaps strengths in a different context, but we also need different ways of assessment to discover autism strengths. For example, many children with autism are visual learners but most traditional academic education relies on auditory instruction. Therefore, is it even possible to accurately measure strengths like intelligence and creativity in settings where the odds are stacked against a neurodivergent mind?
These questions need to be answered not only to dispel negative views of neurodiversity, but more importantly, a strength focused approach could help autistic children thrive when they transition to adulthood. Many parents are able to identify skills and abilities in their children through their special interests, afterall that which interests us (and that we spend a lot of time on), often becomes our most valuable skill.
The need for strength-based intervention for autistic adolescents as they prepare for the transition to adulthood, was examined in a study (Warren et al., 2021) where parents identified the strengths of their children. Strengths like intelligence and creativity were identified by parents when talking about their autistic children. The authors feel it’s important to identify and support such strengths to help autistic children to prepare for adulthood.
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As research teaches us more about the unique skills and strengths of the autistic mind, hopefully identifying these attributes will help children on the spectrum feel more valued in neurotypical society. If a child feels valued, his/her unique set of skills may shine. Or in the words of author and speaker Paul Isaacs: “Do not fear people with autism, embrace them. Do not spite people with autism, unite them. Do not deny people with autism, accept them, for then their abilities will shine.”
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
Donovan, A. P., & Basson, M. A. (2017). The neuroanatomy of autism – a developmental perspective. Journal of anatomy, 230(1), 4–15. https://doi.org/10.1111/joa.12542
Russell, G., Kapp, S. K., Elliott, D., Elphick, C., Gwernan-Jones, R., & Owens, C. (2019). Mapping the Autistic Advantage from the Accounts of Adults Diagnosed with Autism: A Qualitative Study. Autism in adulthood : challenges and management, 1(2), 124–133. https://doi.org/10.1089/aut.2018.0035
Sheldon Cooper, fictional character on The Big Bang Theory, created by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady
Warren, N., Eatchel, B., Kirby, A. V., Diener, M., Wright, C., & D’Astous, V. (2021). Parent-identified strengths of autistic youth. Autism : the international journal of research and practice, 25(1), 79–89. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361320945556