Strength-Based Approach For Teaching Autistic Children

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young girl playing with toy animal

When we teach autistic preschoolers, the way we do it can make a big difference in how they grow, feel about themselves, and whether they enjoy learning or not. Strength-based learning looks at what each child is good at and what their passions or interests are, instead of just what they can’t do. This is different from the old-school method that mostly points out a child’s weaknesses and missing skills. Today I’ll be chatting about strength based learning vs a deficit-based approach with a sprinkle of positive relationships on the top.  I’ll also be giving a couple of real life examples to make it easier for you to implement.

Strength Based Learning

Strength-based learning is the idea that we focus on each autistic child’s strengths vs only their deficits when teaching them. It focuses on the things they CAN do and builds from there.  It involves discovering and integrating the child’s passions and special interests into teaching, and creating predictable routines that support their learning style. Strength based learning also honors the child’s interaction style and the ways they communicate.

It doesn’t mean that we don’t teach them new skills or nudge them toward the next level.  It just means that our focus is not on the deficits alone. Traditional deficit-based methods often concentrate only on the child’s challenges.

Strength Based Approaches

The place to start when you are moving to a strength based approach is the child’s family.  They know their child best and they know what their child loves and what they dislike. You can send home my free Child Interest Survey to get more information about the things the child is passionate about. 

In Claire Hill’s book, “The Strengths-Based Guide To Supporting Autistic Children”, she quotes Hammond saying “We need to start any change process with what is important to the child and their family, not the professional. Children have more confidence and comfort to try the unknown when they are empowered to start from what they already know. Capacity building is a process and a goal. Both the journey and the destination are important. Collaboration and respect for differences is essential for a strengths-based approach.” 

The strength-based approach begins with a thorough assessment of the child’s cognitive, social, emotional, communication, motor and physical abilities to pinpoint areas of strength and interest. It values regular observation in various settings to understand the child’s preferred learning styles and interests. By integrating these interests into the curriculum, learning becomes more engaging and effective.

Taking time to observe a child is also so important. Not just once, but a few times in different settings or different times per day during the assessment process. Then, once they are in programming and receiving services, ongoing observations to look at what they are interested in is extremely helpful. During observations, we are not asking questions or going into “teacher mode”. We are watching and listening. That’s it.

boy building with blocks

Strength-Based Learning is a Philosophy

Strength-based learning is not just a method but a philosophy that sees every child as having a lot of potential.  We are presuming competence when we are using a strength-based approach. We are not ignoring their challenges, but using their strengths to connect the two and make learning less frustrating. This lens for learning is rooted in the belief that focusing on a child’s strengths rather than their challenges can lead to more meaningful and effective learning outcomes. 

Adapting the learning environment to leverage the child’s strengths makes the educational experience more relevant and motivating. It involves using the child’s relative strengths—areas where they perform better as a foundation for learning and development. Being open to changing the learning strategies as the child’s interests and strengths evolve over time is also essential.

The Autism Research Group in Australia said the following “Internationally, the way services diagnose, assess and support autistic people tends to focus exclusively on impairment and functional deficits. Most autistic people will face difficulties, but these difficulties should not define them or be the sole focus of the support available to them. Neglecting autistic strengths and abilities can inadvertently perpetuate stigma around autism and limit people’s potential.”

Examples in the Preschool Setting for Young Autistic Children

Aiden is 3 years old and loves watching things drop to the ground. He might throw objects in the air and watch them all drop down, swipe objects off of tables, toss objects over shelves so they drop to the other side or slowly push items off of tables and watch them fall to the ground.  

A traditional approach might solely focus on this as a behavior that needs to be fixed. It might conclude that we need to stop Aiden from watching objects fall to the ground.

In a strength based approach, we look at what we can do with this to create learning opportunities instead. Rather than looking at this as a “behavior” that we need to get rid of, I looked at it as a form of exploratory play

At this stage of play, children use their senses to learn about objects and the world. They may dump, throw, mouth or bang objects. When observing Aiden, it became apparent that the throwing was not always related to being upset. He just liked the way it looked to watch these toys or objects fly through the air and fall.  Now, you might be saying “that’s great….but how on earth do we look at that as a strength”?  Well, this is where we have to get creative. Have I ever shared with you the creativity and problem solving are one of my favorite things about working with autistic children? I love it!  

Brainstorm Activities

For Aiden, I started to think about what activities we could make or use that would allow him to get this dumping or falling sensory interest and start to expand his skills at the same time?  You can do this by having a 2-3 minute brainstorming session with your support staff. Write down all thoughts and ideas without saying “That won’t work”. Just brainstorm. Then, you can go through the list of ideas and start creating!

For Aiden, we started using a Tot Tube, which is a 3 piece plastic tube that I LOVE to use with so many of my students. The middle section is clear, which is great for watching objects drop.  We started putting puffballs, toy cars, figurines and pretty much anything else that fit down this tube together. The objects slid down and fell to the ground and Aiden was joyful! And guess what? We were able to use that to model “ready, set…” and then “GO” using AAC. We were also able to model animals sounds, and other symbolic sounds while the objects go sent down the tube. Things like “vroom”, “crash”, “uh-oh” and “oh no!”.

Finding What Motivates

In my elementary classroom, I had non-speaking, second-grade twins who showed no interest in typical learning materials like tracing letters and counting. Recognizing their passion for country singers, I tailored activities using singers’ images for tracing and created social stories with singers to facilitate toilet training. This approach revealed their abilities and sparked engagement, leading to breakthroughs in learning and development.

By presuming competence and tapping into their interests, we witnessed remarkable progress. The twins not only engaged in tracing activities but also demonstrated unexpected reading abilities. This experience underscored the importance of leveraging students’ strengths and interests to create an enriching learning environment for all.

Expand Learning

Another activity that one of the classroom paraprofessionals came up with was a barn toy that we already had in the classroom. She would set the animal on the flap on top of the barn and Aiden would push it in. He loved watching it go through the flap and disappear. They created a predictable routine out of this and he understood his part in it. It expanded his learning! The para also gave wait time and modeled animal sounds as she placed the farm animals on the flap. It was fun, playful and met him where he was at, incorporating his interest. Now that’s a win-win! 

You can use one skill to help develop another skill. For example, we could use another put-in activity to teach Aiden one-step play while still focusing on dropping an object in a hole.  Grab an empty shoe box and cut a hole on one end of the top. Then, use markers or construction paper to make a road across the top of the box that leads to the hole. Model pushing a car down the road and letting it fall into the hole. Once again, your student will love the falling action and will start to learn to push the car on the road, which is a one step play action. That’s yet another win-win!

Deficit-Based Approach

In contrast to a strength-based approach, the deficit-based approach often focuses narrowly on the child’s challenges, overlooking their unique strengths and talents. I think that when we we’re taught to write up evaluation reports and IEP’s, it came from this type of perspective. Yes, we were taught to toss in a few strengths in the present levels to add some positivity. But, the rest was a compilation of the child’s challenges. The areas and skills they were behind on. 

This type of approach tends to make parents feel like crap and also doesn’t usually presume competence. As educators, we do have to qualify children for services through their deficits…it’s how the system works. But, we sure can expand more on the strengths in both the evaluation report and IEP. We can go beyond listing strengths and start to thoughtfully write about how we can use those strengths and interests to enhance the child’s learning.

Building Relationships

Strong connections and positive relationships can facilitate learning. Part of a strength-based approach should have relationship building at the forefront. It acknowledges that positive change occurs through these relationships. 

Strength based learning recognizes the uniqueness of each child and the need for personalized strategies.

Implementing a Strength-Based Approach

Implementing a strength-based learning approach in preschool settings for autistic children offers a more inclusive, effective, and compassionate way to educate. It not only supports the child’s educational development but also fosters a positive self-image, resilience, and a love for learning. By focusing on strengths, adapting the learning environment, and building strong relationships, we can create a foundation for every child to reach their full potential.

Doing these things can help prevent something called “masking” as autistic children get older. Masking is a complex phenomenon common amongst autistic individuals. It is when the autistic individual masks or camouflages their true self. This is often done to avoid criticism and ridicule and/or to fit in with a social group and can be conscious or unconscious. Prolonged masking can be exhausting and is often detrimental to health and wellbeing. Accepting and celebrating who your child or student is as an individual is a proactive step towards limiting the effects of masking.

I encourage you to read the blog post titled “Nurture the Love of Learning with a Strengths-Based Approach to Autism Interventions”. It was written by Meg Ferrell at Learn Play Thrive.  She does a lot with strength-based approaches for young autistic children.

Another thing to note is that in Claire Hill’s book, she says “What we focus on becomes the reality, therefore it is important to focus on strengths and see challenges as an opportunity to grow and learn. Language matters. The language we use to describe our children and their strengths and challenges creates reality. Change is inevitable in your child’s life. Positive change occurs with strong and positive relationships; children need to know someone cares and will hold them in unconditional positive regard.”

“A strength-based approach to learning HONORS each child for exactly who they are!” – Tara Phillips, SLP

If you’d like to listen to the podcast on this topic, check out episode 59 Strength-Based Learning for Autistic Preschoolers

Check out these Podcast Episodes:

Play-based Learning For Preschool Autistic Children

3 Ways To Follow The Lead Of An Autistic Child

Activities For Children Who Dump & Throw Toys – Tips For Expanding Exploratory Play

If you use visual supports in your classroom or home, you are going to want to sign up for this free Visual Supports Starter Set ASAP! Click here to have one sent to your inbox. Also, be sure to read more about visual supports and how they can help autistic children here.

a picture with a variety of visual supports for autistic children there is an all done symbol, a wait mat, a first-then board, a visual schedule, an adapted book and a change card

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