Autism is often talked about by its signs, symptoms, and deficits. It’s generally thought of as a disorder with significant differences than the “typical” population. It’s frequently misunderstood and many people are afraid of an Autism diagnosis either for themselves or their child. But there is a new movement, called Neurodiversity, that aims to increase not just acceptance for those who are different, but also value these differences.
That’s not to say that Autism is not a lifelong disability, because it is and there are certainly characteristics of Autism as well as difficulties that those on the spectrum face on a regular basis. But, less talked about are the strengths that may come with Autism. Autism is not a disease or something that can be cured, it’s part of who someone is, and with that comes both the good and the bad. If you talk to any adult on the spectrum, most will tell you that Autism is intertwined in their personality and in the way they think and process information. Those on the spectrum absolutely have benefits and places in our society and their work has truly changed the world for the better.
As a speech language pathologist who specializes in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), I find the best outcome to my intervention is to look for strengths in each individual child and use those to help their areas of need. This allows a child to learn in a way that is not only meaningful to them, but also in the way their brain works best. Teaching this way can be tricky because every single child on the spectrum is different and each will have their own set of strengths and weaknesses. My goal for this article is to teach parents and educators how to embrace Autism by using one’s strengths to help them improve common areas of need.
Strengths in Autism
- Excellent Memory Skills: Many people on the spectrum have amazing memory skills. Many have what they describe as a photographic memory. Young children might be able to learn passcodes for phones or tablets quickly. They might remember a hotel room number from a vacation three years ago, or be able to tell you exactly what you said last Tuesday. It’s quite common for children to learn how to read as early as two years of age (hyperlexia). Many children can learn information very young such as numbers, colors, shapes, and other pre-academic skills. This can be beneficial for a variety of abilities such as learning basic math and reading concepts, to retaining difficult information, which often helps children excel in academics. For younger children who are not yet talking, it’s helpful to think of their brains as a sponge soaking up information. These children may not be able to express their wants, feelings, or thoughts verbally, but they are often listening and understanding what is being said to them, which will have a huge benefit when they are able to express themselves (either verbally, through sign, or through an alternative means of communication). I often support language development through the use of reading skills and social scripts. I will write out a social script for greetings and have children read it until they can do it without reading. For example:
Hi Ms. Andi!
How are you today?
I’m good, how are you?
- Attention to Detail: Attention to detail really can be a positive and a negative. Often those who are focused on details will miss out on the big picture. But the benefits to attention to detail are huge. Many companies are looking to hire those on the spectrum specifically for this purpose- they can look at code and quickly find errors, they are able to design and build structures that are safe and typically require less revisions and make less mistakes than those with neurotypical minds. This skill also allows one to learn and advance in areas of interest much quicker than a person with a neurotypical mind. I often use one’s strength in attention to detail when teaching how to recognize and interpret facial expressions. “His eyebrows are down and furrowed, his eyes are squinted, his mouth is frowning, he’s stomping his feet, his hands are in tight fists, and he’s looking at the blocks all over the floor…” and use that to teach children to inference that the boy is angry because someone knocked over his block tower.
- Honest and Direct Communication: Most people know that when a woman says she’s “fine” to stand back and get ready… But for those on the spectrum, they have a tendency to just say what they think without giving ‘hints’ that keep you guessing. While this can often be viewed as ‘rude’ by the neurotypical population, it is usually not intended to be. This honestly can be helpful for a variety of reasons, but I like it because I usually do not have to brainstorm all of the possible reasons why a child does what they do- I can just ask. I also rarely have to worry that someone on the spectrum has an ulterior motive. They usually do what they say and say what they mean, which I think we all could use a little more of in our lives.
- Often Punctual and Thrive with Routine: From being to class or work on time, to Dr appointments to social meetings, punctuality is a benefit. Because of this, those with Autism are often viewed as rigid and inflexible, but this can be accommodated by providing advanced warning of changes and/or the use of a visual schedule. When children are given a visual of steps they need to complete a task, their ability to complete the task independently and in a timely manner increases significantly. For example, having a visual of steps to complete in order to get ready for school, or chores to do when they get home can be a game changer. This can be as simple of a checklist of written words to having pictures of the activities themselves. Additionally, the use of a timer or music when transitioning from one activity to the next can be beneficial for many children.
- Rule Oriented: Many people on the spectrum like rules, patterns, and the predictability that these provide. While this is not true for all on the spectrum, many thrive when given clear rules and expectations, particularly when they understand the reason behind the rule. Parents and teachers can support learning by giving rules that are clear and concise. Setting firm boundaries and limits while providing clear expectations is also helpful. An example can be safety based “We do not touch the hot stove, it will burn you”, socially based “We don’t get too close to friends, that is their personal space. It makes them feel uncomfortable when you are too close”, to behavior based, “I see that you are upset. It is okay to be upset. We don’t kick, that hurts. Next time you can say ‘I need a break’”. Also practicing these rules when kids are calm and open to learning can do wonders for when they are overwhelmed and react instinctively rather than do what is expected.
- Preferred Topics: Many children and adults on the spectrum have extensive knowledge about topics of interest and may be able to focus on these for a long period of time. This can (and has already had) a huge impact on society. Having an intense interest in an subject or item allows one to do extensive research and truly understand both simple and complex subjects and items. I enjoy talking to kids about their preferred interests, and playing with them in the way they enjoy playing. It may seem unusual to me, but I find this an excellent way to connect in a way that is meaningful to the child. I can also use these preferred interests to teach new concepts. For example, if a child is really interested in dinosaurs, he can share the names and facts about them with me, while I use them to work on language goals such as prepositions or requesting. This can also be helpful in the academic setting!
- Logical and Independent Thinking: Another common misunderstanding is that people with Autism lack emotion and empathy. While I do think it’s very likely those one the spectrum process emotions differently and most have difficulty expressing their understanding of emotions, this does not mean that they do not feel them. They do however, seem to have a greater ability to tease out logical and emotional thinking which aids in difficult decision making processes. Additionally, those on the spectrum can think “outside of the box” which allows them to provide fresh views and changes to old problems.
- Visual learners: One of the ways ASD brains are wired differently is that they tend to be visual learners. Perhaps this is due to heightened sensory perception or perhaps it’s a visual memory strength. Either way, using visuals when teaching children with Autism can make a huge difference for them. If I want a child to say “cookie” to make a request, we can make a cartoon demonstrating how to do this. Social stories are also excellent visual ways to learn difficult to understand social rules and expectations. Visual examples and visual aids can also be helpful, particularly when learning concepts that are more abstract.
This is not an exhaustive list, and just like with the characteristics or areas weaknesses, these strengths will not be true for all people with ASD. However, recognizing the strengths and positives that come with Autism will go a long way in supporting the neurodiversity movement. Other things you can do to support neurodiversity include:
- Being Open Minded- accept others differences and embrace their unique qualities.
- Be Supportive- ask what may be difficult for them and what you can do to support others.
- Be a Friend- include everyone and teach your children to do the same. Talk about how everyone is different, what is easy for some people is difficult for others.
- Be Clear- say what you mean and be honest and open.
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