Working with Autistic Children: Focus on Strengths, Not Deficits

By Temple Grandin and Debra Moore

This week, K-12Talk presents an excerpt from Temple Grandin and Debra Moore’s new book, Navigating Autism: 9 Mindsets For Helping Kids on the Spectrum. In this excerpt, the authors discuss the importance of a strengths-based mindset when working with children on the autism spectrum.

A note from co-author Debra Moore:

As students shift from remote learning to returning to their physical classrooms, it’s more important than ever for parents and educators to see the whole child. While some kids will transition easily, many will have difficulty.

Children on the spectrum, or those who experience anxiety, sensory sensitivity, or any emotional regulation challenges, may have a hard time settling back into classroom routines. These struggles can be lessened if teachers and parents see beyond labels, focus on strengths, and appreciate the unique needs of each child.


From Chapter 7:

One of the nine mindsets required for helping autistic children reach their fullest potential is to focus on their strengths rather than their deficits. The diagnosis of a spectrum disorder highlights challenges and the ways in which those who meet diagnostic criteria are different from the norm. While we need diagnostic criteria, effective professionals remember their primary purpose is to help us identify those who require resources. The design of interventions can naturally spring from needs related to these deficits, but the design and implementation of those interventions should be based on the child’s strengths, not the deficits.

            The most effective educators and clinicians don’t think in terms of what they see wrong. They don’t focus on fixing a child. Instead, they focus on seeing the whole child and appreciating their unique qualities. This is a necessary and natural foundation for the mindset we are elaborating on in this chapter. Building on and incorporating strengths in all interventions reflects both an acceptance of each child’s interests and gifts and a respect for the individuality of each person’s life.

            Strength-based professionals also tend to use different language than those who are deficit-based. Clinicians and teachers who think of children in terms of potential are more likely to forego terms like symptoms or deficits and instead use words like characteristics, features, and differences. They also avoid labeling children or their behaviors as normal or abnormal. They realize that these are relative terms based on what is statistically most common in a population. They recognize that a child does not fit the cultural or biological norm, but they perceive that child as atypical rather than abnormal. Likewise, when a child does fit the norm, they refer to that child as typical, not normal. When speaking specifically of neurological functioning, they may use the terms neurotypical, typically developing, or non-autistic to refer to a child developing and functioning in sync with most children.

            Using these terms is not a question of being polite or politically correct. Their use reflects a perspective that our judgments about a child’s behaviors, characteristics, and ways of processing information are based on what we are accustomed to and what occurs most often. Using these terms also shows a respect for the value of each child. The terminology used in front of children and families makes a difference. Parents, especially of newly diagnosed children, often struggle as they adjust to the new labels their child has received. While their child has not changed because of a diagnosis—they are the same child they were the day before receiving a label— it can be easy to begin viewing their child differently. They may begin to consciously or unconsciously look at their child as defective. Professionals who use deficit-based language reinforce this perspective. In contrast, those who use strength-based language provide a model of acceptance, affirmation, and hope.

            For example, suppose we have Lena, a 9-year-old girl who has social skill challenges that are causing problems for both her and others. At school, she has no awareness of appropriate social distance, does not know how to take turns, and gives orders to her classmates. An unskilled teacher would focus on these problems: perhaps taking away privileges when they occur, calling Lena out in front of the other children, or talking about her using labels like bossy. Over time, Lena may or may not decrease her problematic behaviors. Unfortunately, the best-case scenario—one in which she does in fact exhibit them less frequently—will also be one in which Lena suffers negative consequences. While unintended by her teacher, Lena has now been singled out. This has probably put even more distance between her and her classmates. Secondly, Lena now thinks of herself as someone who gets in trouble: someone who is bossy and bad. She was probably low in confidence to start. Reprimands, public embarrassment, and labeling most likely further eroded her self-esteem. Even if the specific deficits targeted by the teacher lessened, Lena is likely to channel her frustration and unhappiness into other areas. Perhaps she will boss her peers less, but she may, for example, start to passive-aggressively refuse to turn in her homework on time. When we primarily focus on deficits, we neglect a child’s primary need. That need is to build skills. Eliminating a problem without replacing it with newly learned productive behavior does not advance a child. If no replacement behavior is taught, that child will be left with a void. They will fill that void with another behavior of their choice. You do not want to let a child choose a replacement behavior! That is the job of an adult who can base the choice on what will be most useful to the child’s growth.

            Children—whether on the spectrum or not—naturally want to grow. They always prefer mastery to helplessness. They want to feel confident, not inept. If educators, professionals, and parents believe this, they will come naturally to harnessing these positive desires. Children want attention, and they want to please. When children seek negative attention, it’s either because they do not possess the skills to do better, or they have internalized a self-image that tells them they are unworthy of approval or praise. In addition to targeting deficits associated with autism, the best therapists and teachers give equal time to building up a child’s sense of worth and mastery. They do this by searching for and building on the child’s strengths. These may not be readily apparent, but they are always present.

Reframing Deficits: Finding Their Unintended Positive Consequences

            A strength-based mindset ensures we can appreciate all facets of a child. Educators and professionals who follow this approach reject rigid definitions of “good” and “bad” characteristics. Instead, they recognize nuance, subtleties, and neutral or positive aspects of all behaviors.

            Earlier we used an example of Lena, a 9-year-old who struggles socially. We described her problematic behaviors: not knowing how to take turns, intruding into the personal space of her peers, and tending to order her classmates around. These behaviors warrant attention because they’re likely to interfere in the quality of Lena’s life. They also deserve to be examined with other goals in mind besides their elimination. If her teacher or therapist or parent wants to more fully understand Lena, several questions can be posed. Why, and when, does Lena engage in these behaviors? What goals might she have in acting these ways? Do these patterns reflect other qualities in Lena that may be positive and serve her well if they are redirected?

            There is a common ingredient in these three behaviors, and depending on one’s perspective, that variable can be viewed as wholly “good,” “neutral,” or “bad.” How we define a characteristic often depends on the persons doing the observing (what their values and goals are) and the context in which the behaviors appear. For example, if an overloaded classroom teacher with an already rowdy group of students is viewing Lena, the teacher’s goal of reducing classroom conflict may override all other intentions. If a parent is embarrassed by school reports that mention these behaviors, they may be too stuck in their shame or anxiety about their child to see beyond the report. If an applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapist was taught that their only goal is to eliminate behaviors that are labeled diagnostic deficits, she may only focus on interventions aimed to quash these behaviors.

            A teacher, parent, or therapist who has a whole child and strength-based mindset will notice the common ingredient in these behaviors could be thought of—in another context—as assertiveness, determination, or single-mindedness. It’s possible to hold both viewpoints in mind. Lena can still be helped to learn the skills of turn taking, to understand the concept of personal space, and to balance her own wants with the desires of others. Those assisting her can also genuinely appreciate that this young girl can energize herself to get her needs met. They can see that Lena cares enough to go after what she wants. They can see the potential advantage in a child wanting to play or participate enough that she can’t wait her turn. They can appreciate long-term value in her desire to be close to other children. They can even envision times when Lena’s ordering others around might serve her to effect change or make things happen.

            Keeping these potential upsides of Lena’s actions in mind will help those working with her do more than simply extinguish them. Appreciating the positive sides of Lena’s behaviors will even help them go beyond learning replacement behaviors. Teachers and others who interact with Lena will view her personality in a more positive light overall. Children pick up on how we view them. Lena will sense their shift in perspective.

            It’s even more powerful if the adults in Lena’s life explicitly explain to her that while she must learn to wait her turn, must not invade other’s personal space, and must not order others about, not only are there better alternatives, but the drives behind these behaviors can be a good thing. Adults don’t need to use words like “drives” of course, but Lena can learn that her feelings of excitement, impatience, and desire for results are acceptable and under the right circumstances even useful. Many children can tell you what the “good” things are about things that get them in trouble!

            This is the essence of seeing the whole child and appreciating more than a label. A mindset of uncovering, legitimizing, and channeling strengths brings out a child’s full potential. It also honors their unique motivators, yearnings, and traits. It captures the innate complexity of everyone.

Dr. Temple Grandin is one of the world’s most respected experts in the fields of autism and animal behavior and livestock handling. As a toddler, she had speech delays as well as other signs of severe autism. Many hours of speech therapy and intensive training ultimately enabled Temple to speak. Mentoring by a high school science teacher and exposure to her aunt’s ranch in Arizona motivated her to pursue a career as a scientist and livestock equipment designer. She is a prolific speaker, internationally best-selling author, and Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. In 2020 she was honored as a Top Ten College Professor in America. In 2010, Time 100, an annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world, named her in the “Heroes” category. She was also the subject of the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning semi-biographical film Temple Grandin.

Dr. Debra Moore is a psychologist who has worked extensively with children, teens, and adults on the autism spectrum. She believes in therapy approaches that focus on strengths and interests, recognize the individual differences of each client, and foster confidence and potential. She was the Founder and Director of Fall Creek Counseling Associates, a practice that served the greater Sacramento area and was an approved teaching site for psychologists in training. Now retired from active practice, she devotes her time to volunteering and writing. She contributed to The Nine Degrees of Autism (2015) and authored “Internet and Gaming Addiction in Youth on the Autism Spectrum: A Particularly Vulnerable Population” in Internet Addiction in Children and Adolescents (2017). This is her second project with Dr. Temple Grandin, coauthoring The Loving Push: How Parents and Professionals Can Help Spectrum Kids Become Successful Adults in 2016. She resides in Rappahannock County, Virginia.

NAVIGATING AUTISM: 9 Mindsets for Helping Kids on the Spectrum by Temple Grandin and Debra Moore is available wherever books are sold on Tuesday, September 21. 

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