By Kortney West, MD
Dr. West is a board-certified pediatrician who has spent the last decade diagnosing and treating children with autism.
There’s no question: having your child diagnosed with autism can be scary and overwhelming. Part of the reason for that is that the diagnostic process tends to focus on deficits – how a child who meets the criteria for autism spectrum disorder is behind his or her peers when it comes to developmental milestones for communication and social skills.
But it is good to flip this notion on its head. There is more to autism than a list of symptoms or weaknesses. And there is more than one way to respond to the differences that a child with autism may exhibit. Yes, people with autism experience the world differently, but it’s possible to see these differences not as problems to be fixed, but as a unique set of gifts.
What is a strengths-based approach to autism therapy?
A strengths-based approach begins with a recognition that many people with autism are capable of immense levels of focus, attention, concentration. Many children with autism are very intelligent. Their way of interacting with the world may not be typical, but it’s also not “wrong.”
As a therapeutic approach, strengths-based therapy begins with the assumption that a person with autism has strengths that can, and should, be nurtured and encouraged. For example, if a child with autism is highly interested in Lego bricks, a therapist can use that interest to engage with the child on his or her own terms. By forging a legitimate and authentic connection with the child, the therapist can gain insight into how to build on the child’s strengths and expand their communication or social skills.
Parents can adopt a strengths-based mindset, too. It can be a relief to stop thinking about how to force your child to act as a typically developing child might act – and start thinking of your child as a unique individual with his or her own way of experiencing the world. Using your child’s strengths as a starting point, and using them to engage with your child’s areas of interest and enthusiasm, can help you find ways to expand on those strengths.
All people develop on their own timeline.
I encourage you as a parent to remember that your child is unique – and thus their development and growth is too. Just as we look at growth charts, developing and attaining skills can be thought of in the same way. Some children are taller or shorter, and some children learn how to walk or talk later than others. As pediatricians we want to identify when a child is developing differently, so that we can understand if there’s a way to support their growth, and help them flourish.
You are not alone in this journey. Your child has exceptional abilities. Learn more about the importance of understanding early intervention and how to navigate a comfortable next step for you and your family with As You Are.