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How to do strengths-based support for autistic people

Use these research reviews and resources on neurodivergent-affirming therapy practices to build on the strengths of your autistic clients.

February 7, 2023

We’ve talked a lot about the reasons to embrace a strengths-based perspective during therapy with our autistic clients: increased comfort in social situations, more authentic relationships, better self-awareness, and higher life satisfaction, just to name a few.


A new study from Cooper et al. adds reduced social anxiety and improved psychological well-being to the list. They found autistic teens and young adults who reported more autism satisfaction and felt more solidarity with the autistic community experienced better psychological well-being. Young adults with more autism satisfaction (positive feelings about their autism identity) experienced less social anxiety, too.

The authors suggest we support a balanced sense of autism identity to increase autism satisfaction. Part of that is acknowledging and supporting challenges, which we’re all pretty good at thanks to the long reign of the deficit-based medical model of disability (all hail the king…not.) Thankfully the social model of disability is gaining traction. This perspective teaches us to not place the onus of change entirely on the disabled person.


Instead, we as SLPs need to continue to advocate for autism acceptance. Here’s how:

We’ve talked about educating nonautistic people through anti-stigma training and picture book activities before. We’ve got another resource to add to our toolbox thanks to a new study from Lovell et al. They found watching these very short videos from the National Autistic Society helped caregivers of autistic children better understand and empathize with their child. The videos, which are available for free, might be helpful in increasing empathy and understanding in other groups, too.

Helping our autistic clients focus on strengths and self-awareness


While being understood by others is very important, autistic people also need to understand themselves. A common theme in survey responses analyzed by Bertilsdotter Rosqvist et al. was that a neurodiversity-affirming approach to increasing self-awareness was crucial for young autistic adults to understand and accept themselves. Along with a strengths-based approach, they recommend helping autistic people reflect on and learn from previous experiences, like communication breakdowns in the workplace or conflicts with friends or partners, to support self-awareness.

Another part of developing a positive sense of autistic identity includes recognizing strengths. While strengths-based approaches often consider special interests or talents, a new study from Mirenda et al. suggests that identifying and cultivating character strengths, like kindness, bravery, and humor, can increase motivation, participation, and learning for autistic students. It can improve student-teacher relationships and classroom climate, too. First help students identify their strengths and then create opportunities to develop those traits. There are many resources available to identify character strengths, like this free survey from the VIA Institute on Character. To build upon autistic students’ strengths, ask them to journal about times they demonstrated a character trait, like a time when they showed gratitude or humility. Or, assign a specific trait, like perseverance, and challenge students to try to exemplify the trait at least once each day. Think of all the language skills you can target, too—vocabulary, grammar, syntax, oh my!


To support autism solidarity, help autistic people connect with other autistic people.


If you’re interested in forming an autistic peer support group, check out this research review for a how-to guide and overview of the many benefits, like increased self-awareness, better relationships, and improved well-being. You can also encourage autistic people to find a community using resources we’ve talked about before, like, the Autism Society of America, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, and Self Advocates Becoming Empowered. Finally, the internet can be a supportive and informative resource, though it comes with its own set of challenges. Clients and caregivers may need support sifting through all that's out there to find quality information.


We can use a strengths-based model from the beginning by adjusting our evaluation and goal writing process.


In a recent editorial, Bolte reminds us that the World Health Organization’s ICF framework lends itself easily to autistic-affirming care (and provides tools to assist in the evaluation process). The framework follows the biopsychosocial model, acknowledging that a person’s body, activities, participation in society, and environmental factors all contribute to how we experience life. We can also use the Conversation Questionnaire (CQ), which is available for free by clicking the link at the end of this review. The CQ was created with input from autistic adults, has solid psychometric properties, and can identify strengths, needs, and preferences in conversation skills. For younger clients, check out the ASCF—a free tool for classifying social communication in children ages 2–19 that focuses on ability. You can read more about the ASCF here.


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Bertilsdotter Rosqvist, H., Hultman, L., & Hallqvist, J. (2022). Knowing and accepting oneself: Exploring possibilities of self-awareness among working autistic young adults. Autism: the international journal of research and practice. [open access]


Bölte, S. (2022). A more holistic approach to autism using the International Classification of Functioning: The why, what, and how of functioning. Autism. [open access]


Cooper, K., Russell, A. J., Lei, J., & Smith, L. G. E. (2022). The impact of a positive autism identity and autistic community solidarity on social anxiety and mental health in autistic young people. Autism. [open access]


Lovell, B., Newman, A., & Wetherell, M. A. (2023). Seeing it my way: A perspective taking intervention alleviates psychological distress in caregivers of autistic children. Research in Developmental Disabilities. [open access]


Mirenda, P., Zaidman-Zait, A., Cost, K. T., Smith, I. M., Zwaigenbaum, L., Duku, E., Kerns, C., Georgiades, S., Vaillancourt, T., Elsabbagh, M., Bennett, T., & Szatmari, P. (2022). Educators describe the “best things” about students with autism at school. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. [open access]


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