Adopting a Strengths-Based Approach to Autism

Sarah O’Leary presents an ecological perspective on our children’s development in homes, schools and communities.

  • This article promotes an ecological approach to our children’s development.
This approach focuses on the importance of interactions, relationships and values in our daily lives.
The way we come to view ourselves is based on our interactions with those around us.
  • Less and less services are available nowadays.
Relationships with professionals are generally fragmented.
  • It is becoming harder for individuals with additional needs and their families to feel supported. With positive support networks within homes, schools and communities, we cope better and become more resilient.
Our understanding of autism and difference are central to these positive support networks.
  • A strengths-based approach to autism emphasises the social model of disability as difference.
It moves away from the traditional medical model of disability that focused on deficits.
It is key to the positive development of voice & identity for individuals on the autism spectrum.

Introducing an Ecological Approach to Our Children’s Development

In 1979 Urie Bronfenbrenner, a Russian developmental psychologist, first introduced his Ecological Theory of Child Development. This theory was heavily influenced by his own life story. His father, a neuropathologist, had moved to New York in 1923 to take up a post in a state-of-the-art hospital for individuals with an intellectual disability. Within a few years this hospital became overcrowded and consequently under-resourced. The residents suffered gravely as a result. Urie, who would often accompany his father to work, took note of the importance of the environment on human development and subsequently began to interpret developmental issues through the lens of the individual’s social context(s). He saw development as continuous, interactive and varying, countering the universal acceptance of linear developmental milestones. Within this approach to development and difference Bronfenbrenner never stated that a child could not do something, instead, he suggested that they could not do it… yet.

Importance of Interactions, Relationships and Values

Central to his Ecological Theory are the interactions, relationships and values experienced by children directly in their immediate environment (microsystem). The interactions, relationships and values of other social contexts (mesosystem) and wider society (macrosystem) also clearly impact the child’s development. While my research with parents of young children on the autism spectrum is in its early stages, the significance of interactions, relationships and values was highlighted by all involved. The parents spoke about the importance of relationships built on mutual respect, understanding and trust and described positive relationships in their lives where these elements were present. They also discussed negative relationships that lacked respect, understanding and trust. For the most part, these negative experiences related to relationships with professionals. Parents acknowledged the positive impact that individual social workers, home tutors and preschool educators had had on their family in the beginning of their autism journey. However, they were generally apprehensive of their ability to maintain relationships with relevant professionals going forward as there is such a scarcity of services and an absence of continuity within these.

Strengthening Support 

Research has shown that families that feel supported can actively cope with their life circumstances and generally develop an increased level of resilience. We often equate support with services, and when we are then faced with the reality of an overstretched public service, we feel unsupported and may question our ability to cope. This is completely understandable and may reflect many people’s experiences. However, an intrinsic aspect of support is the recognition of our strengths. Adopting a strengths-based approach within the family has been found to assist in the development of positive coping strategies and increased resilience levels. A strengths-based approach to autism encourages us to look for, recognise and appreciate the strengths that we have as individual people, the strengths of our immediate and wider family, the strengths of educators and schools, the strengths of communities, and most importantly, the strengths of children and adults on the autism spectrum.

Changing Perspectives on Autism

image 2The recognition of the strengths of autism has become a contested issue within certain communities of support. Some would argue that a strengths-based approach to autism fails to represent families’ experiences across the entire autism spectrum and, instead, presents the views and experiences of those that fit within what is often described as the ‘high functioning’ category of autism. It is important to note, however, that adopting a strengths-based approach to autism does not mean that you are dismissing or ignoring the possible challenges and struggles associated. Instead, it directs our attention to the good days, the achievements; no matter how small, the things that make us smile. Recognising these strengths can make us stronger, but more importantly, they can make our children stronger. This approach reflects the values of a social model of autism that embraces difference and moves away from the traditional medical model of autism that emphasises deficits. A strengths-based approach declares that we accept all individuals on the autism spectrum, irrespective of the level of support they may require. Promoting this concept in our homes, schools and communities could have a very real impact on the discourse surrounding autism in wider society. This, in turn, could enable our children to develop a voice and identity of which they, and we, can be proud.


  • Bayat, M. 2007 Evidence of resilience in families of children with autism. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research 51 (9), 702-714.
  • Broderick, A. A. and Ne’eman, A. 2008 Autism as metaphor: narrative and counter‐narrative. International Journal of Inclusive Education 12 (5-6), 459-476.
  • Bronfenbrenner, U. 1979 The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Gardiner, E. and Iarocci, G. (2012) Unhappy (and happy) in their own way: A developmental psychopathology perspective on quality of life for families living with developmental disability with and without autism. Research in Developmental Disabilities 33 (6), 2177-2192.
  • Kahana, E., Lee, J., Kahana, J., Goler, T., Kahana, B., Shick, S., Burk, E. and Barnes, K. 2015 Childhood autism and proactive family coping: Intergenerational perspectives. Journal of Intergenerational Relationships 13 (2), 150-166.
  • Silberman, S. 2015 Neurotribes: The legacy of autism and how to think smarter about people who think differently. London: Allen and Unwin.
  • Snyder, C. R. 1999 Coping: The Psychology of What Works? Oxford: Oxford University Press

Sarah O’Leary is currently completing her PhD in Education at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, under the supervision of Dr. Mary Moloney. Her research explores parents’ experiences of navigating the Irish Early Years’ Education system for their young child on the autism spectrum. Sarah has worked as a primary school teacher for 15 years and received her Masters in Education in 2011. Sarah’s son is on the autism spectrum and communicates non-verbally. Sarah is founder of E.V.E.R.Y Ability in Autism (Embracing, Valuing, Empowering, Recognising Your Ability in Autism) and works with families, schools and communities to develop strengths-based approaches to autism.