In what has been an Australian-first study, Queensland's Griffith University researchers have explored what children with autism consider their strengths in a bid to help shift the focus away from the difficulties they face.
Eighty-three children on the autism spectrum responded to the questions: ‘What do you like most about yourself?’, ‘What are you absolutely best at?’ and ‘What do you enjoy the most?’
Many of the children identified strengths in being a good person or friend and having skills in specific areas like cartwheels, video games, and drawing.
It was important for researchers to focus on the positives as most research has a history of focusing on negatives, explains Deputy Director of the Autism Centre of Excellence, Associate Professor Dawn Adams.
“You only need to read the first few lines of most research papers on autism to see that most research describes autism in terms of “deficits” and “difficulties”. However, to describe individuals in terms of what they cannot do does not acknowledge or pay credit to the things they can do and overshadows any positive attributes or strengths that each person may have.
“Research tells us that children on the autism spectrum’s awareness of their own difficulties contributes to their risk of mental health difficulties (anxiety and depression). We’re hoping to counteract that by opening up the conversation about strengths and encouraging everyone else to have those conversations too.”
The answers shared by the children reiterated the need to focus on the unique experiences of the child and their skills and strengths, says Associate Professor Adams.
“Whilst some answers, such as those within the maths/science/engineering topic were expected, we were interested to see that almost a quarter of children thought they were best at physical activity and sport and more than one in ten children thought they were best at creative activities or socialising with others.
“This counteracts many people’s beliefs about what children on the spectrum enjoy and tells us that it is really important to get to know each child on the spectrum individually and find out where they see their skills and strengths.
“It also tells us that just because a child may do something (like socialising) a bit differently, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s wrong, bad or not a good experience for them.
“Another really interesting finding was that almost one in ten children told us that the thing they liked most about themselves was that they were unique, saying things such as “I am different and a geek” and “I am different from others".
“[Which] highlights the importance of asking these sorts of questions and listening to the answers to inform the support we put in place.”
The research also showed that awareness and acceptance played an important role in the success of the children when it came to overcoming barriers.
Associate Professor Adams says, “Parents play a really critical role for identifying times and places that children will be able to show their strengths.
“In fact, when asked about what helped their child to show or use their strengths, parents identiﬁed the importance of their role (as a parent) as well as that of the broader family (i.e., siblings and grandparents).
“However, it’s not all down to the parents - Community awareness and acceptance was frequently reported by parents as either an enabler or barrier which impacts upon their child’s ability to use or show their strengths.
“This highlights the importance of us all working together to create the most helpful and inclusive environments for all individuals, as this is when their strengths can shine through the most.”
Read more about the experience of raising children with autism.