Pitfalls of a Strengths-Based Model for Autism

The idea that those involved in the lives of autistic individuals should focus on the strengths instead of the deficits of the person with autism, is a well-spread and well-known one. In this post I’m going to challenge that notion, not because I don’t think it’s important to see the strengths of those with autism, but because (I believe) the strengths-based focus is ultimately exclusionary and unhelpful to broader positive goals and to what is in the best interests of autistic individuals. I know many people reading this are going to disagree at the outset; by the end of the post I hope to have made you reconsider your views, even though you may yet continue to hold those views.

The first time I encountered the “think and focus on the positive” approach to autism, was in my own son’s early intervention therapy forms. Every time we filled out a form about where he needed help, we also had to fill out the inevitable section about what was great about him, which I found immensely irritating. I had my hands full with my son on a minute-by-minute basis, and dealing with endless government and medical bureaucracy, yet I was expected to spend time recounting information that was never used in his therapies and which I already knew as his mother: Why my son was great, what he was great at.

Therapies were aimed at helping him overcome his deficits, that is the point of the interventions. All the feel-good stuff didn’t belong on government forms, it was a waste of my time and theirs, and rather belittling to me as his mother – the notion that I wouldn’t appreciate his awesomeness unless someone else made me write it down every time I sought help for his challenges. Figuring out his motivators where relevant for a therapy was always worked out as part of the therapy process anyway, not once did I ever see them utilize the sections of the forms where I had to say why I loved my son despite his autism.

This positive approach to autism – shifting focus from deficits to strengths – is most commonly seen in trying to fix damaging and ignorant public attitudes towards autism. In this particular realm it makes sense, as long as people don’t try to universalize such strengths to every person with autism; that is just as incorrect as the basis of existing negative attitudes. Along the same lines, the positivity-shift is also an approach often used in getting people to understand and treat autistic people as individuals, and not as merely an instance of a diagnosis. Again, this makes sense, autism is, after all, a diagnosis.

The problem is when people – including professionals – try to push this further into the very act and process of diagnosing and treating autism. A prime example is this blog post, by someone who professionally works with autistics and would like to see a strengths-based model at the clinical level. She gives examples of replacement terms in place of deficit-focused language. As I went through her list, the problems with a strength-based model became striking. By the end of the post, I’d shifted from being open-minded about the potential benefits, to being more firmly against such a shift.

First off, such a model is highly exclusionary. A model that looks for and focuses on strengths and gifts, excludes those who function at a lower level or don’t have those gifts. There are a large proportion of autistic individuals who are intellectually disabled and / or struggle daily without some off-setting “gift” from their autism. Any model that excludes the worst affected, is surely of limited use in a clinical context. A deficits based model will capture those across the spectrum, in the way that a strengths-based one will not.

Similarly, the model perpetuates incorrect stereotypes – such as that all autistic people carry savant skills or have high IQs. Claims like this are simply incorrect and have not been shown to be the case. Saying and acting as if it is, denies reality, and further frustrates and confuses desperate parents, and places high expectations on autistics that many cannot and will not be able to live up to. Surely it would make more sense to focus on the individual with autism as an individual, rather than creating yet more difficult and nuanced criteria that they must meet before they can be considered “truly” autistic..?

Furthermore, the point of a diagnosis is to identify where an individual requires help. Shifting to a strengths-based model seems to overlook this central function of diagnosis: If someone is doing just fine and exhibits a wide range of strengths rather than deficits, why does it make sense for governments and insurers to shell out millions to help them and their carers and families? We’re already in a battle to make these governing bodies appreciate the difficulties and be willing to help us address them.

You may reply that the point of such a model is to get a more rounded picture of the entire person. But since when has “capturing the entire person” been the point or function of a diagnosis? It’s meant to identify an aspect of the wider person, the aspect that needs assistance. If we start placing all the strengths and other aspects of a person into a  diagnosis, we turn a diagnosis into someone closer to an identity, which is not necessarily (and I would argue, not generally) healthy, helpful, or accurate. In fact it goes towards a notion that needs to be widely fought in my opinion: The notion that autism somehow defines the entire person (see a previous post of mine of the individuality of autistics).

There is a something further than concerns me here, which I think goes little appreciated too: When we redesign language (and criteria) to be more upbeat, positive, and strengths-based, I see the furthering of a very concerning attitude that is already prevalent in wider society; the attitude that mental conditions are not real conditions, they’re just bad personalities, poor choices, or excuses for everything from bad behaviour to poor parenting. If we say that autism is really quite “OK” (or whatever positive term you want), we would seem to be reinforcing the all-too-common view that it’s just a condition in the minds of un-accepting and attention-demanding parents, and of money-hungry psychiatrists who like inventing conditions so they and “Big Pharma” can get their pay check for helping children who have nothing particularly “wrong” with them.

I don’t need autism clinicians to have a positive view of autism, because their job is to help what my son struggles with, not to address his entire personality. They don’t need to know every nuance of what he’s good at, or why he is awesome, that’s my job at his mother, and I know those things so intimately and expansively that no list could ever hope to capture my son, and any list that sets out to do so will always fail.

When it comes to working with one-on-one therapists, it may seem important that they focus on the strengths and not just the deficits since they are dealing with an entire child. But every therapist who has ever worked with my son, has first dealt with him with me right there, and every single time I have seen evidence that they don’t look at him and see “autism,” they look at him and see a person, just like I do. They find things to laugh along with, they enjoy and revel in his triumphs, they are distraught when he is hurt or distressed; they are human, dealing with a human. No more do they than I need someone telling us how awesome this kid is and what he’s good at; we see it everyday. Those who don’t or choose not to, are unlikely to be made better people or better therapists because you changed a few words on a list. (After all, therapists are not the ill-informed and untrained public, with no personal interaction with “real life” autistic people, they know – or should know – that a diagnosis does not define an entire person.)

Do I think language matters? Yes. Do I think people should be more aware of the complexities and variety of autistic individuals? Yes. Do I think these ends are served by changing diagnostic lists and forcing already stressed and exhausted parents to fill out sections in every form about how great their child is? No, I do not. Nor do I think that the outcomes of changing language around autism to a strengths-based one, is always or necessarily helpful, accurate, or beneficial to the individuals affected.

I know I won’t have changed many minds with this post, and believe me when I say that I understand why, I really do (but go ahead and tell me in the comments anyway, that’s fine, I am open to having my own mind changed). I also know that the people promoting this strengths-based approach have their hearts in the right place. I’m just concerned that the down-sides of such an approach don’t get much consideration, and I wanted to put forward some of the very-real concerns. When we make a change for what is perceived to be the better – when we choose different words, different focuses, different attitudes – it makes sense to examine whether they really are a change for the better for the people most affected by the term at issue in the first place.

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43 Responses to Pitfalls of a Strengths-Based Model for Autism

  1. jimreeve says:

    I somewhat agree with what you’re saying. People that focus on strengths are doing something good. There’s nothing like focusing on any and all things positive. But that doesn’t mean that a parent shouldn’t also focus on the negative, especially when it comes to improvement. We used to focus on the positive more, but we found that doing so didnt always seem to help Jacob. I mean, no one wants to be unhappy right? We just felt that if we dealt with the negatives head on, then there would eventually be more positives to enjoy.

  2. nikki says:

    This deserves so much more comment but for now just thank you. I really couldn’t agree more. Whenever I hear someone saying “he must be soo GIFTED for ..” Right after I tell about my son’s struggle w basic life and social skills, I feel like getting a tantrum myself. Great post, makes soo much sense to me.

  3. Really interesting points. I’d say there are at least two areas in which a strengths based perspective may be worthwhile. First, when communicating about autism with your autistic child. I’d think the reasons for that are pretty obvious. This doesn’t mean denying the hard parts, but providing balance by emphasising the positives (hopefully there’s at least one).
    Second, in the school environment. Whilst it’s essential that schools understand your child’s unique struggles they also should know your child’s unique strengths. When our kids are feeling stressed, anxious or frustrated with particular aspects of the curriculum it helps to know a child’s strengths to develop better forms of assistance and support (i.e. visual aides for visual leaners) Or to give the child some time out focussing on the things they are good at rather than those they are not. Also teachers can remind the student when they are having a rough day and their confidence is down about those strengths.
    I think for my kids, who are very cognisant of themselves in relation to others, their ‘deficits’, and are prone to frustration and anxiety, emphasis on strengths helps.
    Im not sure that’s a strengths based perspective in the pure sense, but it is about trying to provide balance to the often overwhelmingly negative perceptions of people on the spectrum, and the self criticism that can come at the Aspergers end of the spectrum (I cant speak for non Aspie end, but perhaps the same applies?).

    • Very worthwhile additions to the discussion Sharon. I agree that it’s vital that we not let an autism diagnosis make a child (or adult) feel like a lesser human-being or see themselves in a negative light, and to that end it may indeed be beneficial to focus on strengths instead of or as well as the challenges when dealing with them on a personal social level in particular, such as in schooling and families, as you identify and illustrate so well. For me, the concern is primarily at the diagnostic and treatment level, where a deficits focus makes practical sense (and for the other reasons I talk about in my post). Thanks for sharing your perspective and thoughts.

    • So glad you wrote this so I don’t have to. What Sharon said.

  4. Lisa says:

    Yes! You have stated it all so well. I’m right there on the same page with you. Shared because it’s just so good. The only thing I will say is that if there is a therapist who needs to be told what the strengths are because they seem solely aware of the deficits, than I think it’s time for a new therapist. I agree the therapists that truly help want to know how to help where things are painful, where there is a need, that usually equates to where there is a deficit. The only way I want something to be “strength based” is in determining whether my child’s strengths can be a really good motivator for some of the therapy activities. Again, well done.

  5. quintorpian says:

    For me, as with any ‘either-or’ situation , it just seems to me that there is no one preferable position to describe autism without excluding people. I can see that having a deficit-based diagnostic model makes sense when you are needing services and recognition that there are real difficulties to be addressed. When I was trying to get services for my son (who is on the aspergers end of the spectrum) there was no request to write anything positive and I imagine if I had it would have just been used as a reason to deny him services (which they did anyway leaving me to pay for everything myself). Many of the challenges faced by aspergers-type children are pretty subtle seen from the outside and easily written off as an eccentric version of normal. So i wouldn’t dispute the need for identification of impairments.

    However like Sharon, above, I need to use a strength-based, or even better, a neutral language for describing autistic characteristics when talking with my son (who said to me “i don’t want to have a disorder’) whose sense of personal confidence is pretty fragile. And also when addressing those who will look upon my son with pity and exclude him due to their own discomfort with difference.

    It has always seemed strange and unacceptable to me that the people who most need society’s support to function independently must simultaneously wear descriptions imposed upon them by others that emphasise their deficits. Fine when they are young and are under the care of their parents and need services. But I imagine that it might feel very demotivating for at least some autistic people who become aware of the label and its negative slant and all the societal prejudice that comes with it. I think there needs to be some way to support the AS individual’s own self belief in a positive frame while still giving parents and professionals the leverage they need to provide supports where they are needed.

  6. Jodi says:

    I guess I’m in the unique position of being a mother to my 8 year old son who is moderately to severely autistic and my 6 year old son who has PDDNOS and quite independent now; as well as being a Paediatric Occupational Therapist working with children with autism spectrum disorders. As a parent, I find assessments that focus solely on my 8 year old’s “deficits” to be devastating and negative. I find it incredibly helpful to be asked what I think he does well. It shows me the therapist or teacher wants to gain fuller understanding of my child instead of looking at then through a narrow lens. A deficit approach doesn’t capture his interests, strengths, abilities. Over focusing on his deficits is not helpful – his strengths and abilities must be considered as part of his “whole self” because that is partly what enables the therapist to engage with him in a therapeutic way.
    As a therapist myself I try to always bring in a child’s strengths and abilities. That is not glossing over their challenges, it is taking a balanced perspective on the whole child.

    • Hi Jodi. I disagree with some of what you’ve said here, but my reasons why are already provided in the post so I won’t simply recap them. Regardless, I appreciate you commenting and explaining your perspective, thank you.

  7. Rose says:

    Sometimes the weaknesses are such a part of one’s makeup, they can’t be remedied, at least not within our current understanding. The brightest student I ever had, who could talk about anything in depth, with understanding, in a sophisticated way…could not do basic addition quickly like his peers, pass a spelling test, or write legibly. Had he been treated for his phenomenal weaknesses, and been put in Special Ed to remedy that, I’m not sure he could have survived his education. He was loved, his senior year ~oral~ exams were given to all students of the Science teacher so Eddie could pass.

    He’s done well in life in spite of his weaknesses. He was good practice for my son.

    I don’t TRY to be contrary…it just comes naturally. (Ben was considered ODD at one time, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or something like that. “You’ve got it!” my husband says…)

    I guess we all are different. Me, most of all…ha!

  8. Christa says:

    t I don’t totally disagree with you but at the same time I can’t totally agree either. I definitely understand the frustrations of some of those forms, and to combat some of that frustration on my end, I photocopy sections like that and just include it with the paperwork. Some physicians and therapists believe that having a look at the full picture helps with treatment.
    I can understand your point on the positive language aspect. I have to disagree to a point though. In my house, we have dealt with disabilities way before we ever knew about autism. Our experience is with physical disabilities and ADHD. I can attest that when we focused only on fixing/treating the deficits the results were not good. It negatively effected the person’s esteem and made them only focus on their problem areas. That’s not to say you shouldn’t treat the problem areas but I think balance is important.

    I also know several people on the spectrum that are considered low functioning and they have fantastic strengths that are usually overlooked initially. I don’t think people are specifically asking for savant skills on those forms. I think they also want to know things like them being affectionate or liking to make people life or wanting to help others.

    • Christa says:

      Ugh… make people laugh. Stupid auto correct.

      • Hi Christa. Just to clarify on what the forms ask for: No they aren’t looking for savant skills, that wasn’t what I meant at all or have found in the forms. The usual form asked me what was great about my son, or what my son is really good at, that sort of thing, which is not the same as asking for savant skills, but that makes no difference to my concerns and annoyance: The info was still never used anyway and was not necessary to help my son, it was clearly about trying to be upbeat, when the point of the process though was to help my son with his challenges. I hope that clarifies that aspect. Also, because the wording would differ from form to form, it wasn’t the sort of thing I could simply photocopy and re-use. I understand and respect your other points about balance, I just don’t think it is helpful or even necessarily good to empathise strengths – particularly instead of deficits – at the clinical level, for the reasons I gave in the post. I do appreciate you sharing your views and why you hold them, thank you for taking the time to comment.

  9. Really well written post
    I somewhat agree ( that the thought every autistic child has to have savant skills puts pressure on those with intellectual disabilities )
    I somewhat disagree with some of your other points – I think thinking about both strengths and weaknesses is important
    The govt forms that make us write out some good stuff – I think its fine – When we were getting EI for R – I was actually appreciative of this. I see so many parents just overwhelmed by the autism diagnosis ( no kidding ) and at that time a reminder that each child has strengths too I found as good
    Where we started ( TN ) I thought the negative thinking around autism -created lots of problems but I did not feel the same way about positive thinking. Ditto with the fixing based model of some of the old fashioned ABA
    What is most fascinating to me – is how much we all differ from each other and how our lenses are formed by our own experience

    • Very true Floortime Mama, I openly acknowledge that my views are shaped by what I’ve been through and the severity of my own son’s autism. I think some of my concerns and arguments stand on their own merits, but when it comes to things like filling out forms and my own attitudes towards my son as his mother, I know those experiences can’t be universalised. I want to clarify that I wasn’t saying recognising and knowing strengths isn’t important, rather my concern is when we shift towards that specific or exclusive focus at the clinical level, but I recognise that you may be taking issue with that aspect of my post too. Either way, thanks for commenting, I definitely learn and expand my understanding by hearing from other parents and autistic individuals, which I see as part of the point of blogging in the first place 🙂

    • Oh and I meant to add that I totally understood that you were not saying “ignore the strengths” – of course there needs to be balance of building on strengths and solving for weaknesses
      Its just that I perceive the current balance to be more on fixing weakness and I wish it were shifted more on strengths

  10. Serenity says:

    As an Aspie, I few it as part as who I am in that autism shapes how I see and interact with the world. For me, autism is very much how my brain is wired and is a part of my neurology. Yes, I am an individual. I look at my diagnosis as a key to a door. Saying “I am an Aspie” means that I am also part of a larger community that mostly understands and accepts me, and where I can relate in my ability to unrelate. In a sense, it’s an identity that signals “Yes, you may think I am weird, but there’s a valid reason.” For me, as an adult, this is especially important in that, for many years before I was diagnosed, I was utterly alone and unable to connect to anyone like myself. Yes, I am more than my diagnosis, but, as that diagnosis involves my neurology, it affects my relationship to the outside world. It’s similar to the fact that I am a diabetic: I’m still very much an individual, but when I’m in the larger world as a whole, I use it as a descriptor to explain why I cannot eat a doughnut, or relating to other diabetics. When something so profoundly effects a person, it inherently becomes a part of their identity.

  11. grahamta says:

    Definitely doing strength-based only while putting blinders on is a problem as you said. And all kids are different, so I see a danger in the extreme “presume confidence” approach.I am more of a Floortime/RDU person, but we still do a lot with straight work (puzzles, reading, etc), but I try to incorporate a cooperative style now because it seems to reach my daughter better. It is technically working on deficits though.

    Using interests and strengths as a springboard to other skills and higher development is hard. It is a delicate dance and I have to compete with the stim. Which was nearly impossible for me until my daughter’s stim calmed down, which thankfully has happened. Example: water. She LOVES water in all forms and in all ways, but it took her calming down a bit and increasing her receptive language, and me learning to be more innovative, before we started making progress. Water has helped her interact with others (in the pool), learn how to squeeze to improve hand use (I put colored seltzer water in a easy to squeeze condiment bottle and it turned out she loved watching the bubbles form as she squeezed harder), and learn how to target and drink out of an open container by pouring colored seltzer water into various containers on the light table. It took me forever to figure out how to push her up the developmental ladder with her water interest, so in that sense using strengths and interests were a lot harder than I ever imagined.

  12. grahamta says:

    That was supposed to be RDI above. Sorry…typed this very fast. And a clarification…why do I go through the trouble to use these methods? My child is very sensitive and her confidence is easily shaken, and resisted straight ABA. Basically no progress for us on ABA, so I had to change my approach. Working off of her strengths/interests and at her developmental level with small challenges worked it works best for her. But it is not easy.

    • Thanks for sharing that grahamta. I have often used motivators with my son, and I use what he’s good at help compensate for what he struggles with, and I do highlight for him personally what he is good at so he doesn’t have a negative self-image, so there are most definitely ways in which looking at and using strengths in various contexts can be valuable. Thanks for sharing how it’s helped you.

  13. I posted this in the conversation we’re having on my facebook wall about this blog- and I thought I’d add it here…

    I feel the same way! She articulated it SO WELL. When I fill those things out for both kids, I get irritated. Even at the damn IEPs when we go over what she can do. It’s nice to have that along with the harsh reality of what she can’t do…but really…isn’t that what we’re there for?

    With Casey, it’s so great for the therapists, teachers etc to know what he’s good at and his special interests. They use this to draw out other things that he’s deficient at. But that doesn’t need to be written into an IEP. That’s something that great therapists and teachers learn from me and as they move along with him.

    I guess at some point there’s been a change in the belief that parents can’t handle the truth or the reality of what we’re really facing. And that’s just not true. It isn’t any fun to hear, but really, if we don’t base our goals in reality, in making up for what their disabilities take from them…we’re not going to help them.

    • Thank you so much for that comment Lexi. There’s a comment that I received on this post that I chose not to publish because it was such an out-right personal attack (essentially an ad hominem) and I will not let people use my blog to such ends (it’s in my comment policy; I get to stop people being cruel dicks on my blog). Basically they accused me of being afraid of therapists seeing how much I dislike my son, as the only rational explanation for why I’d dislike that part of the form asking about how awesome he is. So your comment is all the more awesome, after I had to read that nasty piece if rubbish. Again, thank you xxx

  14. As with ALL of your posts, fantastic job, lady. You amaze me in what you get me to rethink, or how you put words to feelings I’ve been having.

  15. wantapeanut says:

    It may be valuable to use a person’s strengths to help with the deficits. If I am a great reader, or musically talented, it can be helpful to take advantage of those strengths, or interests, to teach other concepts. Though this certainly isn’t unique to autism.

    My son is severely affected. He is a wonderful child but he doesn’t have strengths, per se, nor does he have a lot of interests. As you say, this model would fail him. Instead, we meet him where he is and teach him the eat we can.

  16. mattyangel says:

    This is something that most people who support those with autism do not think about… and something that makes me cranky

    What if what I am good at is not what I enjoy doing?

    Under a strength model, pushing me to do computer things, which I am good at… has made me upset. I use them cause I have to, I am good at them because I as curious and had to be… but I do not like them.

    People pushing me to be out of comfort… has helped me to do and try things I would never try. These things are not things I am good at, sometimes things I am afraid of or terrible at… but many of these things I enjoy.

    If all help and support for autism was around what I could do well, how will I learn and grow and try things… and find what I like?

    Support for someone with Autism should be around what they can do… what they can’t do… what they enjoy doing… and what can be done to help the person learn, experience and have a fulfilling life… which at times means going out of comfort.

    Hope words ok 🙂 It very tiring time,

  17. @mom2mikey says:

    I define strength-based as quite a bit different from “talents and gifts”. I define strength-based as “that which makes you strong”. When I speak of a strength-based focus to educating any student or parenting any child (not just those with autism or a disability label), I am speaking of ensuring that we are doing it in a way that empowers rather than disables. For someone who has strong visual processing skills and is challenged by print or auditory processing, visual supports will “make them strong” and thus we must consider multi-modal instruction for them and the class (because chances are there will be several students in the class whose processing strength is visual). When a child struggles with fine motor skills but is good at using a computer/keyboard, it makes sense to do writing assignments using the keyboard as then we are focusing on the writing assignment rather than the fine motor skills. Using the keyboard makes that student “strong” in doing what the class is doing. It also empowers that student because it eliminates some of the processing challenges (in this case the visual spacial types of things) and allows the student to do the thinking required for writing. If a child has delayed social-emotional development and has a particular interest and you use that interest to pracitce and learn social and emotional skills you are making them strong because they will engage in the learning more as a result of their interest in the topic. If a child works better in a quiet, non-stimulating environment then them knowing that and choosing to go to that type of space to work means they can do their work and that makes them strong (i.e. empowers them). If a child has a body that needs to move a lot then it would make them strong to learn in ways that allow them to move a lot and to perhaps be involved in sports teams in some way. If that same child struggles with social relationships and ends up being good at the sport, then chances are we will have an easier time facilitating realtionships in the midddle of that sport then we would in the middle of something he is challenged with as his energy would be going towards other things then social interaction.

    What it comes down to in my mind is having a full profile of a student and then taking and applying the things that make them strong to support them in overcoming barriers to being able to fully participatein the world.

    The other component of a strength-based focus is that we recognize that students are on a path to do doing things rather than think in terms that they can’t. Scaffolding learning makes students strong. Rather than saying a child can’t do something, we think in terms of the child can do it with the support of an adult and then we set up the steps that we are going to take to eliminate or reduce supports until the student can do it as independently as possible. It does change how people think when you reword the statement that someone can’t do it to they can do with a certain type of support. It does change how people interact with a student if a continuum of what they can do is laid out starting with “He can —- with adult support” to a place where he can do it alone. As a parent I have heard too many times that my son can’t do a certain thing when in reality he can if the right supports are in place. This gets people focusing on the next step in reducing supports rather than on the fact that he can’t.

    The bottom line is that it it not actually about ignoring the things that create barrires but about seeing that barriers can be overcome if we think about and grow the things that can be done instead of focusing on what can’t be done.

    In the end I think we are all saying the same thing and that is that we need to support those with Autism to reach their maximum potential and we do that through empowering, rather than disabiling, them. I just equate empowering them to strength-based because I see strength-based as “that which makes you strong”.

    Finally, we need to recognize that part of this is about recognizing that there are some envrironments that are disabling and it is okay for people to take control over their environment and make it work for them. They do not have to just learn to just accept things as that is the way they are. They need to know themselves and know the things that make them strong and learn how to advoacte for those things in all environments.

  18. I think too much is focused on what I can do and not what I have trouble on. Sadly it has meant I don’t get the support I need.

  19. Stephanie says:

    I think the language and process in education and treatment modalities is currently growing and changing immensly, and as it does so, we have some “growing pains.” We swing back and forth on a pendulum of treatment language and ideals that hopefully balances itself out. I believe that we can (and hopefully will) move toward a differentiated classroom, where all students can work from their strength areas. This being said, it’s important for children of all abilities to be able to use their strengths to make their deficit areas grow. Perhaps the language and ideas need tweaking, but I wouldn’t throw out the concept of strength-based treatment.

  20. Sam Harris says:

    Apologies if someone has already mentioned this in one of the previous posts, but I am afraid I didn’t read through every reply as yet, although intend to as there is such a great discussion going on here.
    I wondered if anyone who is on favour of a remediation type approach, as apposed to focusing on strengths had considered or looked into an approach called ‘rdi – realtionship development intervention.’
    rdi is an approach that focuses on working to empower the parent to understand how to re-establish the guiding relationship that is effectively blocked by the Autism and interrupts typical development that takes place in infancy. Developmental research has begun to show us just how important this early interaction is in developing areas such as social communication and dynamic thinking – areas that are deficits for individuals with Autism. This early development is dependant on feedback from the child to the parent, so no matter how wonderful or natural a parent is, the interaction is effected by the Autism and as guiding is usually a very unconscious and natural thing that we all do, it is difficult to start to adjust and rebuild without some awareness and understanding.
    Although rdi is a remediation based approach that doesn’t stick within the realms of ‘strengths,’ it does focus on each individual person and the family/parents supporting them. An rdi consultant knows that you, the parent, are the expert when it comes to your child – we just look to help to guide you into becoming a mindful guide for someone with Autism. We also look to work on stretching an individuals ‘zone of competence’ by finding supports that will allow them to do so – thereby not being too invasive or drastic with the intervention (tis is by no means an ‘exposure therapy).
    As you may have guessed, I myself am a consultant in rdi (well, a consultant in training up until April, but still able to practice with supervision) having stumbled across the approach back in June of 2012. Having worked with Autism for 6 years, I have to say it was an utter breath of fresh air that also made so many connections and light bulb moments as I discovered more about the process. Excuse my ignorance but I am not sure where the blog is based internationally speaking – I am guessing here in the UK as at present we only have around 6 trained rdi consultants and it is not very well-known. In the U.S, Australia and many other countries around the world there are hundreds of consultants practicing rdi and that number is growing all the time.
    I am giving some introductory seminars at my place of work based in Exeter, Devon (UK) this week on Wednesday 11th and Sunday 15th from 10:30am until 12:30pm and anyone nearby or willing to travel is welcome to join us.
    This is by no means a sales pitch and I am happy to share information with anyone from anywhere or just point them in the right direction. My single goal for posting this is to raise awareness; if you haven’t heard of rdi, go investigate.
    We have been using strength based approaches for the last 30 years and unfortunately, the stats don’t lie – in a study of adults with Autism carried out by the NAS in 2010 only 6% had employment, 3% were living independently and 17% had any peer contact in an average month. It would be great if the world took us all as individuals with certain differences and strengths and weaknesses; but unfortunately the world is no so fast paced, dynamic and social that if you can’t keep up, the chances are you will be isolated. We have to do more to give people a chance at being a part of our society. It isn’t about changing someone, or removing part of who they are; rather it is about giving them the choice and the chance to be who they are whilst having the tools to make sense of the world as it is around them.

    In case my email doesn’t show under this post you can reach me at either:


    Anyway, great thread and a very worthwhile conversation to be having I feel.

  21. This is really interesting to read. I see this in multiple ways. One, I am an occupational therapist, though I am also an autism life coach. Two, I am also an aspie. Three, the Chinese and American cultures don’t really mix sometimes with autism from what I see.

    I think there needs to be a happy medium in terms of focusing on strengths and deficits. Each situation is different, depending on the child, what is the objective of what you are doing with the child, and how you (whether as a parent or professional or whoever around the child) approach the child.

    If you focus on your child’s strengths too much, I think you are overinflating his/her self-confidence, which is not good at times when he/she finds out the reality and get upset over it. On the flip side, if you focus on your child’s deficits too much, you might make your child think that he/she is not good enough, which can’t be good for his/her psyche either.

    For me, I just like people who are real with me. The strengths need to be highlighted constantly. However, if there are equally glaring weaknesses or risks present, they need to be unashamed to point them out.

    In my family, risks and weaknesses are just pointed out too often with not enough strengths or positives to balance out. As someone who needs positive encouragement/reinforcement from time to time (as I am an emotionally sensitive guy), this is why I have now turned to my true friends and professors more than my parents with my career decisions, even though I understand my family’s intent. After all, I am using my strengths to work around my weaknesses the best I can. However, if I need to use my weaknesses, than I am more than happy to work on them so that I can be respectable in the things I am motivated to do.

    If I step in with my autism life coach or occupational therapist hat, however, I will be one who likes to know all of a child’s strengths and weaknesses. Then, I will also like to know what the child’s goals are. After that, then I can think of what mix of strengths and weaknesses are relevant and go from there.

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