Focusing on Assets, Building on Strengths

A few months ago, I watched a lecture by Sam Goldstein about resilience. At the start of his talk he mentioned how in Utah, teachers used to begin IEPs with a discussion of a child’s strengths. They’ve moved away from this in recent years because, as he put it, many teachers felt that listing what a child can already do well is a cursory exercise–in other words, a form of busy work that was taking up time they could be using to list all the things the child can’t do.

Now imagine that child moving through school, trailing this long list of things he can’t do behind him. That’s twelve-plus years of people emphasizing what he’s bad at and what he needs to fix. If he’s lucky, he has at least one cheerleader in his corner, telling him what he’s good at. Because when he sits down to fill out his college applications or goes for his first job interview, no one is going to ask him what his worst subject is or what he can’t do.

Transitioning into adult life requires knowing your assets. Universities and employers are looking for people who know how to put their strengths to work for them. Assets, Goldstein says, insulate us from risk and make us resilient to adversity.

The tension between building on assets versus fixing deficits is at the core of what we face as autistic people living in a neurotypical world. Much of what is framed as interventions and skill building and self-improvement is about being more normal, about “passing” better. But that feels like a Sisyphean task. 

My social skills are never going to pass for neurotypical. I can roll that boulder uphill all day but I won’t get to the top. I’ll improve, yes, but I’m no more likely to become a charming conversationalist than I am to become the lead violinist with the London Philharmonic.

Building on assets feels more doable, and ultimately better for my self-esteem. If I’m working from strength, I’m more confident, more likely to succeed. I have a foundation, no matter how small, to build myself up from.

In my adult life, knowing my assets has helped me understand what kind of work I’m likely to succeed at, what parenting style suits me and how best to divide up family responsibilities. Knowing my assets and structuring my life to take advantage of them has made me resilient in ways I hadn’t considered pre-diagnosis.

As I thought about how this concept could be applied to other areas of my life, I realized that it goes beyond assets and deficits. It’s also about working with what I have, working from a place of comfort and compassion toward myself.

For example, tactile defensiveness impacts my daily life in a variety of ways. I could look at my tactile sensitivities as a problem to be fixed. I could embark on a program of desensitization with a goal of wearing any type of clothing, eating any type of food and being receptive to light touch. Being able to do the things that “normal” people do would make my life so much easier, wouldn’t it?

Well, yes, if I could magically transform myself into someone who didn’t have tactile sensitivities, I guess it would. But that’s not reality. The reality is that if desensitization were possible for me–and I’m not convinced it is–the cost would be high.

The alternative to seeing my tactile sensitivities as a deficit to be fixed is to look at what works for me and build on that. I can find clothing I like in fabrics and styles that don’t trigger my sensitivities. I can plan a well-balanced diet made up of foods that I enjoy eating. I can tell my partner what type of touch I like and ask for more of that.

Building on what works for me is a lower cost option. It feels more natural. It says, this is how I function and here’s how I can turn that into a positive. This goes back the social versus medical models of disability. Are our bodies machines in need of fixing or do we need to discover the right approach to accommodating how we’re made?

Of course, there is the question of how broadly this theory can be applied. What about when something really does need to be fixed? When what I’m doing is hurtful or harming others? Where is my asset or strength in that scenario?

More and more, I’m finding that when I’m doing something hurtful, it’s because I’m hurting. I’m working from a position of weakness. When that happens, I need to look at what I can build on to get to a place of strength. Reducing my need for control means building up my capacity for self-reliance. Stepping out of my comfort zone means relying on the people in my life who love and support me.

Sometimes we spend so much time focusing on the deficits, on what we’re bad at and what we need to improve and what makes life hard, that we forget how powerful our assets can be. We also forget that life is for living. There’s no medal for most improved at the end of it.

I don’t want to can be a perfectly valid reason for not doing something. The same goes for I have better ways to use my time and energy. Choosing which deficits to fix and how is up to each individual. Do the benefits justify the cost? Sometimes. I have a long list of things I’ve changed in my life since getting diagnosed, things that were worth the effort. The list of things I don’t feel the need to fix is equally long. My energy is an important resource. It’s not unlimited.

Slowly, surely, I’m learning to think about making changes in terms of what I want instead of what I think I should want, and what I truly want is to feel strong and capable and whole.

50 thoughts on “Focusing on Assets, Building on Strengths”

  1. Again, you’ve managed to hit the nail right on the head.

    I’m no more likely to become a charming conversationalist than I am to become the lead violinist with the London Philharmonic.

    Cue the legions of well-meaning people saying “but you could do it if you really put in an effort!”

    Well-meaning people, that comment does not help one single bit. My ex accused me of giving up too easily the other day, of running away when I encounter problems at work or in relationships. Maybe he’s right. Or maybe I’m just choosing to fight the battles that make the best use of my energy and have the highest reward. (Maybe staying in a relationship with him wasn’t that rewarding. HA!)

    1. Choosing your battles is important. We can’t fight them all and sometimes we can’t even fight most of them. The older I get, the less attractive things like “putting in more effort” become, I suppose . . .

  2. Very true. Reading this, I realise that my diagnosis has lead me to look mostly at what I have difficulty with and trying to deal with that. I have been trying to just cope with the bad things all my life. Still in the process of learning what the good things even are.

  3. THIS THIS THIS THIS THIS THIS THIS!!!

    I love the tactile defensiveness example. This could be seen as a problem in the sense that it’s affecting your life to the point that you want to do something about it, but that something isn’t “magically make it disappear” because that’s not possible. Too many NTs (especially parents) think the solution is “abuse it out of them” and that, as well as being abusive and dangerous and horrible, also doesn’t work.

    The solution? Work with what you’ve got. There are many foods and clothes that you *can* enjoy, so you can adapt clothing and eating choices accordingly.

    And if people won’t accommodate that, they’re the problem, not us.

    1. There’s a real danger in trying to fix some things, I think, especially when the way to fix it is stuff like exposure therapy or involves punishment. I see a lot of people going to great lengths to fix stuff that could easily be worked around or built upon. It’s interesting to read parenting groups because there will be parents who are like “whatever” or have some brilliant little work around and there will be parents who have 25-point therapy plan, all in response to the same issue.

      1. Great post and important insight. (This is important for negative-focused NTs as well).

        I am slowly learning to put this to use. When I have a performance evaluation at work, I now ask to know what they think I am doing well and should keep doing/do even more and what my strengths are (after suggesting and asking for ways to improve the negatives) if they don’t tell me this with the negatives. In the past I have sorely paid the price when I had a very manipulative boss for years (and believed him and didn’t realize he was putting me down to benefit him). I am really glad to have learned and to be acting/thinking differently nowadays, but my default is still to focus on the negatives. It’s a lifelong learning curve, I guess.

        On sensorial issues: it’s way easier to choose to adapt the environment to ourselves instead of the opposite (when possible) if you are an adult. (and even more if you actually have a medical word you can use, like “photophobia” or “skin disorder” (both of which I do have, so it’s actually truth at my service)). Speaking of skin disorders, I learned I can either use strong medicine, try to do what others do and still not have my skin behave well, or listen to what my skin tells me and have my skin much better (still with problems, but much, much better). I do push the limits a bit on some things if I feel I am attentive enough no to go too far (exposing myself to light when it is slightly uncomfortable, which did help me to tolerate light a bit better) but this does not magically make the issues go away (I have been in a situation where I had no escape but to be exposed to strong light in a very uncomfortable environment for more than 1 hour and it affected my behaviour so much that I had a coworker ask me what was going on because I was unusually very aggressive).

        1. Proactively asking about your strengths and what to do more of is a terrific strategy, not only for finding out how to do your job better but to keep your strengths uppermost in your supervisor’s/employer’s mind. Plus, who doesn’t like hearing about they’re doing well. 🙂

          I bet if we could see our sensory sensitivities the way you can see a skin disorder, we’d be less likely to push ourselves beyond the breaking point. Even better would be one of those radiation exposure meters they have on Battlestar Galactica that we could wear to see how much more sensory exposure we can tolerate before we’re endangered.

  4. I think everyone knows their weak spots. Sometimes we don’t recognize our own strengths and talents because those things come easily and we assume that they come easily to everyone. As we build strengths, we can gain the confidence necessary to tackle our weaknesses. If all we are doing is fighting weaknesses, we may just feel like failures.

    1. I don’t know about being aware of weak spots. It took my partner pointing out to me, for me to realise I’d been basically living in my bedroom for the past week. I do know what I’m really good at, though. Far more than my weak spots.

    2. I think one of the things that has brought my strengths into focus has been living with two people who have radically different strengths. I suppose that’s also helped me see my weaknesses better.

      You hit on a really important point, which is one of the themes of the lecture – focusing on our weaknesses can make us feel like failures and for kids especially this can be really harmful to their long-term prospects.

  5. Great article, as always. For myself personally, accepting deficits and choosing to build on strengths instead has actually (ironically?) helped the deficits — probably because I wasn’t so stressed out about them anymore. I’ve also designed spaces at home and work that help me stay maximally comfortable (read: minimal sensory overload) so I get more done and feel much less anxious, which improves my overall self-esteem. Thank you for hitting the nail on the head, as someone else said. I hope many find inspiration and encouragement through this article!

    1. This sounds like a great approach. Good self-esteem can go a long way toward compensating for small deficits just by making us more willing to try things (because we’re more confident). It’s really easy for your self-esteem to take a beating when everything is constantly about fixing stuff.

  6. “…More and more, I’m finding that when I’m doing something hurtful, it’s because I’m hurting.”
    This is what I ponder quite frequently. Today (predictably) I insulted someone unintentionally, though I caught it right away and apologized.
    I think I said what I said not out of hurting, but simply as the most logical, expedient way to explain something that was being discussed. And, in doing so , completely missed that I’d be making a faux-pas.
    I guess I’m not sure what you would make of this – was I hurting and somehow purposely said something insulting without realizing?
    How (rhetorical question) does one build on a strength when one constantly tears down social structure by comments which normal people find at best incredibly weird and at worst stupid and insensitive?

    1. Good point. There’s the hurtful because oops I was being overly honest stuff and there’s the hurtful because I’m hurting and this is the easiest way to make it stop stuff.

      Maybe in the example you’re talking about, the strength is in being able to recognize your social error and repairing it? Many people don’t/can’t do that. We all make mistakes but not everyone notices their mistakes or cares enough to apologize for hurting others when it happens accidentally.

  7. Strengths is something I need to focus on/find out now.
    I had my diagnosis confirmed last week and was discussing how I tell my son. As he has just gone to University (a whole other area of emotional turmoil) I have until December to work it out. I have been given a standard list of things we don’t do well (seems people are very good at telling us those) and it was suggested I come up with another list of good things to balance it. Any help you can offer or direction you can point me in gratefully received.
    I really enjoy reading your blogs as I find a lot I can relate to.

    1. Congratulations on getting your diagnosis confirmed. 🙂

      This article puts a positive spin on ASD characteristics: http://www.tonyattwood.com.au/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=79%3Athe-discovery-of-aspie-criteria

      Maybe that will help you get started in the direction of finding your strengths. It’s kind of annoying that you got handed a list of weaknesses and were told to think up the strengths on your own. The psychologist who diagnosed me actually put a big emphasis on my strengths during the follow-up appointment, which I appreciated. (His written report was well balanced, listing both strengths and weaknesses.)

      Good luck with telling you son. You might be surprised at how well he takes it. My daughter, who was just out of college when I told her, has been hugely supportive.

  8. That change in perspective from “can’t” to “can” is a big help for your self-belief. Instead of remaining focused on your boundaries, your limitations — a view from the outside looking in — you instead center on yourself and start looking outwards: see how far you can go!

    Rather than seeing a restrictive fence circumscribing your abilities, you begin to see that paths lead out in all directions. Some are only short, some are overgrown, but some extend as far as the eye can see. You can still choose to take any path, but now the longer, wider ones — your strengths — stand out.

    Well, that’s my $0.02. Make of it what you will.

  9. Awesome. I just posted about school parent issues for setting the tone at school. The IEP reference is so important. I am doing all this advocating so my son doesn’t go through school like I did and so that we can capitalize on his strengths! I am slowly learning it for myself as well, but I know that I would have benefited from better interventions back when I was in school. Positive interventions 😉

    1. I was blown away by one of the things the lecturer said in that video – that degree of impairment and the amount of therapy a child receives has less impact on a successful transition to adulthood than the resiliency that comes from building on strengths. So yes, lots of positive interventions!

  10. Speaking from experience: There are certain weaknesses of mine that I will never be able to overcome. I know this because I spent years trying to overcome them and was not able to. There comes a point when you have to accept that the current strategy is not working and it’s time to adopt a new one.

    So, I’m starting to try to build myself from a strengths-based perspective. Because both me and the world would benefit a lot more from me at the best of what I can achieve in my strengths than me at the best of what I can achieve in my worst areas.

  11. Thanks for this. My son is in 1st grade so we’ve only been doing the IEP thing for just over a year. He’s very verbal and academically strong, so he doesn’t have a big pile of “can’t” type of IEP. But I will definitely ask that we start with the strong, because you never know how we could incorporate what he does really well to help him with the stuff that needs help. Thanks!
    – Also, Linked to my blog 🙂

    1. Speaking from me: For me, at least, focusing on my weaknesses is counter-productive. Most of my weaknesses are can-not-do things. They tried for years to get me to be able to do them, and I still cannot do them. Way more productive, for me, is focusing on strengths and building workarounds to bypass weaknesses entirely.

    2. Thank you for the link! 🙂 It’s great that you’re going to advocate for your son’s strengths to be emphasized. It sounds like he has a lot to build on. And I really admire parents who are so actively involved in the IEP process because it sounds like there is a steep learning curve and a need for being fairly assertive in the case of some schools.

      1. He is lucky. I’ve heard that middle school and beyond are more challenging so I want to grab as much info as I can to prep for that. The one thing that I have mixed feelings about is the working on eye contact goals. He’s actually decent with it, but it’s not his favorite thing. He can do facial contact a bit better. If you have any thoughts on how to get some balance into this issue – I GET that it’s important to NT’s, but I also get that it is an actual physiological/concentration issue for many autistic people. I need them to understand the “derailing” potential of full eye-contact and find a good compromise… if that makes sense.

        1. I have a lot of thoughts about the eye contact thing, but I’ll spare you and share the short version. 🙂 I understand that not making eye contact makes other people uncomfortable with me and also creates issues with misinterpretation of my intent/emotional state/level of interest/etc. I have firsthand experience with how it can throw off NTs in social situations and I can fake both eye contact and general facial contact a little when I have to. It probably still looks unnatural but seems to help put people at ease.

          However, asking an autistic kid to learn to do something that makes him uncomfortable solely for the purpose of making other people comfortable is a really questionable goal. Especially if he’s having to choose between making eye contact and actually focusing on what the other person is saying, which is often the case for autistic people.

          How much latitude do you have in setting his goals? Can you drop the eye contact goal in favor of a goal related to him practicing other ways to indicate that he’s paying attention? For example, nodding or providing verbal feedback are both ways that indicate attention without the need for eye contact. I know that some people get really uptight over “autistic kids need to learn eye contact so they can [get a job, survive in the world, make friends]” and changing their minds can be tough, especially if they’re positioning themselves as experts. If you need back up material or want to read more about why eye contact is uncomfortable and counter productive for many autistic people, I can give you some good links.

          Ultimately, I’d say follow your gut. You know your son best and have his best interests at heart.

          1. Oh, please – backup material would be great. Because my team LIKES getting this info. I send a post a week from my blog reading (Diary of a mom, you, Karla’s ASD page, autism discussion page), and they are thanking me for it and welcoming it. So if there is something that’s experience based and especially if it’s research based, they WOULD appreciate it. I do want an alternate goal that works toward the same purpose, so your suggestions are great. Thanks!

            1. Here are some links that might be helpful. I owe a huge thanks to Sparrow at Unstrange Mind for locating the research papers and writing up the synopses. I hope this is helpful and not overwhelming.

              Research papers

              Elevated amygdala response to faces and gaze aversion in autism spectrum disorder Autistic people who avoid eye contact experiences more amygdala stimulation when forced to look in people’s eyes. This is the “fight or flight” stress response, and the researchers suggest that autistic reactions to faces including feeling that they are threatening. This sort of stress is not a good thing to force anyone to experience.

              Direct Gaze Elicits Atypical Activation of the Theory-of-Mind Network in Autism Spectrum Conditions Brain scans show evidence that autistic people do not interpret being looked at in the same way that non-autistic people do. Teaching eye gaze to someone who is unable to appreciate it from others is going to be more difficult because of the difficulty in explaining what the point of making eye contact is in the first place.

              Neural bases of gaze and emotion processing in children with autism spectrum disorders another study of direct versus averted gaze. Typically developing children have different brain scans with direct vs averted gaze. Autistic children show no different in brain scans. It is suggested that there is a link to communicative intent and emotional significance — that is to say, autistic children do not “read” the emotional significance of direct gaze and do not use direct gaze to tell them that someone wants to talk to them or to tell others that they want to talk to them. This could be used as an argument in favor of teaching autistic children the significance of direct gaze, but I would argue that it only supports teaching children to impersonate direct gaze because no teaching is likely to reduce the anxious amygdala response to direct eye contact.

              Affective-motivational brain responses to direct gaze in children with autism spectrum disorder “children with ASD may lack normative approach-related motivational response to eye contact.” In other words, eye contact does not give children with ASD happy-good-feelings like it does others.

              Sort of Science Based:

              This is closely related in the sense that it talks about the limited cognitive resources we have and how spending those resources on executive function oriented things like making eye contact or not stimming detracts from our resources for learning, etc.: A Cognitive Defense of Stimming (or Why “Quiet Hands” Makes Math Harder)

              First person accounts:

              Eyeballs eyeballs eyeballs

              Look at Me – particularly the comments

              Eye Contact: The Conversation within the Conversation – particularly the comments

              History of Bad Parties an interesting take on eye contact toward the middle of this one

          2. “Asking an autistic kid to learn to do something that makes him uncomfortable solely for the purpose of making other people comfortable is a really questionable goal.” <= THIS.

            I can probably do eye contact better than a lot of autistic people, because I actually LIKE making eye contact with people I am emotionally close to, even getting so close to their faces that I can focus exclusively on their eyes. But others? I thought I was doing quite well at making eye contact with them, but my diagnostic report said it looked very forced. In most social situations, that would create a negative impression as well. So, damned if I do, damned if I don't. After 37 years of trying, I don't think I will improve.

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