Children with autism may struggle in some areas but they can have some great strengths and amazing abilities, as well. Every child with autism - and every child without autism - is unique. Every child has their own needs, their own strengths, and their own personality and way of being. In this article, we’ll be sharing with you some of the strengths and abilities that can be found in many children with autism.
We will primarily focus on what autism spectrum disorder is from a diagnostic standpoint. We’ll explore how the diagnostic characteristics of ASD can be a strength or an ability for kids with autism. Of course, this isn’t to discount or minimize the challenges that these children might experience; our efforts are to point out how children with autism often have strengths and abilities that people might overlook and that can benefit them throughout their lives, as well.
DSM-5 Criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is the primary diagnosing resource for mental and behavioral disorders including diagnoses such as autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, anxiety, and depression.
According to the DSM-5 criteria, individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), must experience persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by the following, currently or by history (DSM-5):
1. Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity
Kids with autism experience “deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions (DSM-5).”
Social-emotional strengths and abilities in kids with autism
Although many children with autism struggle with their social interactions and relationships, they can have strengths in this area, as well. Kids with autism may have a unique perspective on the world and on relationships. They may be capable of talking about their special interests extensively. They may be very logical and capable of seeing things without processing everything through emotions as many other people might. They may be good at focusing on certain activities. They may not crave social attention or social reinforcement like other children do. These are all amazing strengths that kids with autism might experience.
2. Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors
Kids with autism experience “deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures; to a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication (DSM-5).”
Nonverbal communication-related strengths in kids with autism
Although difficulties with using and understanding nonverbal communication can be challenging, some strengths in this area that kids with ASD might experience include being able to communicate with others without needing to use nonverbal cues, such as gestures, being able to listen and comprehend others without having to maintain eye contact, and not having to “fake” happiness by smiling and having “friendly” facial expressions.
3. Deficits in relationships
Kids with autism experience “deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, ranging, for example, from difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends; to the absence of interest in peers (DSM-5).”
Strengths related to relationships (or lack of relationships) in kids with autism
Kids with autism can have genuine relationships in which they are able to truly be themselves. They might find a few close friends or family members with whom they share their special interests. This can be very rewarding as opposed to having many relationships that are more “surface level” and don’t have a depth of care and compassion to the relationship. Kids with autism can experience being with others without having to fit the mold of typical relationships. For instance, they can hang out with another person or maintain a relationship without having to maintain small talk. Instead, they might engage in a mutually enjoyable activity, such as arts and crafts, reading the same book, or playing video games. Additionally, if the child doesn’t have an interest in having friends or close relationships, they can pursue a life of more independence that they might feel happy and feel satisfied with.
4. Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities
Kids with autism display “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or by history (DSM-5)”
- Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (echolalia) (e.g., simple motor stereotypies, lining up toys, flipping objects, echolalia, or idiosyncratic phrases)
READ: Understanding Echolalia in Children with Autism
- Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior (e.g., extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns, greeting rituals, need to take the same route or eat the same food every day)
- Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g., strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interests)
- Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment (e.g., apparent indifference to pain/temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fascination with lights or movement)
Strengths related to restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities
Although there are people who assume that these types of behaviors are weaknesses or that they interfere with a person’s functioning, there can be some strength to be found when an individual has restricted or repetitive behaviors, interests, or activities.
For instance, having certain repetitive motor movements, such as lining up objects or spinning wheels on a toy car, could indicate that the child can attend to details in his environment which can be a good thing in many situations.
Some children can repeat things they’ve heard which could suggest that they have a great memory. When a child strongly prefers sameness or routines, this suggests that the child is good at following routines and schedules which is a great skill that not everyone develops.
Many children with autism have highly fixated interests or special interests. This means they often have a lot of knowledge and/or skill in a particular area, which is an amazing strength to have.
Children who are hypersensitive (being overreactive) to sensory input can experience things more deeply. They can notice details that other people might overlook. Children who are hyposensitive (being under reactive) to sensory input can tolerate sensory input that others might find uncomfortable or unpleasant.
More Strengths and Abilities Common in Children with ASD
We’ll mention a few more strengths and abilities that can be seen in some children with autism. Although it’s important to note that this doesn’t mean that ALL children with ASD will experience these things. Remember, every child has their own unique strengths and abilities.
Some children with autism are great at academics, such as being above average in reading or math skills compared to peers their age.
Some children with ASD have a great memory and can remember things extremely well.
Many children with autism are visual learners.
Some children with autism are detail-oriented and have a need to do things in particular ways.
Many children with ASD are very open and honest in the way they communicate.
Many children with autism see things differently than most other people do. This gives them an advantage in many ways - from being good at problem-solving to having a sense of curiosity and much more.
Applying Strengths of Kids with ASD in ABA Therapy
ABA Therapy doesn’t only focus on things that aren’t going well or the things that might be seen as weaknesses in children with autism. They also consider the strengths and abilities of these children. Let’s consider some ways that ABA therapists might incorporate your child’s strengths and abilities in ABA therapy.
- ABA therapists will accept your child for who he or she is as a unique human being.
- ABA therapists will incorporate your child's special interests in intervention programs. For instance, if your child likes trains, the ABA therapist will likely allow your child to play with and talk about trains. They might even use trains within the context of activities focused on accomplishing treatment goals, such as when working on social or communication skills.
- ABA therapists will likely support your child’s way of seeing their experiences and the world. For instance, if your child tends to think about things very logically, the therapist will communicate in ways that support this perspective. One way of doing this is telling children clear cause and effect explanations for why they should do certain things. An example is you should brush your teeth, so you don’t get cavities and toothaches.
READ: How to Maintain Good Oral Health for Kids with Autism
- ABA therapists can give your child opportunities to focus on the activities they are interested in and can support your child’s skills in particular areas.
- ABA therapists can approach your child’s social skills in ways that support your child’s best interests. They shouldn’t just try to get your child to “be like everyone else.” For instance, if it doesn’t seem that your child would benefit from being the center of attention or frequently speaking in a group setting, your child doesn’t need to be put into situations that encourage those things. Instead, your child might benefit from speaking to others in a one-on-one setting or only speaking up in groups when it matters for them.
- ABA therapists can offer structure and routine which is often something that children with autism do well with.
- ABA therapists can incorporate your child’s sensory preferences in their services.
READ: Types of Sensory Issues in Autism: Examples and Treatment Options
- ABA therapists often use visual supports as many children with autism are visual learners and often respond better to visual cues as compared to verbal cues.
Children with autism have many strengths and abilities. Each child is unique. It's important to consider not only what children with autism should work on to improve their quality of life but also what their strengths and abilities are and then incorporate these into their therapy services as well as in their daily life.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596