The Power of Neurodiversity: Celebrating Autism Strengths

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Clinical Psychologist Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell, Clinical Psychologist

Autism is often seen as a disorder that requires fixing or curing, rather than a difference with its own unique strengths. However, autistic people have so many strengths that can help them thrive in everyday life.

Where a neurotypical brain may struggle with certain tasks or environments, an autistic brain may excel, offering a completely different perspective and set of skills.

In this article, I’ll explore some of the many common autism strengths and how these strengths can be harnessed to create a more inclusive and diverse society.

A smiling girl looking confident with her hands on her hips

Autism Strengths Based Approach

I lead a team of clinicians at Everlief Child Psychology and we offer both autism assessments and follow-up support.

Our philosophy is that we aim to empower autistic children to thrive by emphasizing their unique autistic strengths.

My diagnostic reports always list the child’s strengths, and I always write a separate letter to the child emphasising their own strengths.

Autistic kids often face unique challenges compared with children in the general population, because their needs are not always recognised and supported. However, it’s vital that they do not feel there is something “wrong” with them or their brain.

a diagram showing the strengths of an autistic child - Jasmine

Autism Strengths and Abilities: Why is Autism Viewed as a Disorder?

Autism is often referred to as a disorder because it is classified as a neurodevelopmental condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Its official term is “autism spectrum disorder”.

However, some people (including me!) argue that this label is not helpful and that autism should be seen as a difference rather than a disorder.

The world is generally set up for neurotypical people, meaning those who do not have autism or other neurodivergent conditions. This can mean that autistic people face difficulties as they navigate a world that may not be designed with their needs in mind.

These difficulties can range from sensory overload in loud or crowded environments to social isolation due to difficulty with communication and interpreting social cues.

The challenges of living in a world that is not tailored to their unique strengths and needs can also contribute to mental health problems for autistic adults and children alike.

Autism Strengths: Hyperfocus

Studies have shown that the brains of autistic people have more tightly connected networks and stronger neural signals in certain areas, such as the default mode network, which is responsible for internal mental processes like daydreaming and mind-wandering. This increased connectivity and neural activity may contribute to the ability to hyperfocus on specific tasks or intense interests, allowing autistic people to develop expertise and excel in their areas of special interest.

One of the benefits of hyperfocus in autistic individuals is the ability to develop expertise in their special interests.

When people hyperfocus, they can concentrate for extended periods of time on their specific interests, allowing them to gain a deep understanding of the subject matter.

Hyperfocus can lead to the development of special abilities and skills that may not be attainable by neurotypical people.

Autistic people are often drawn to specific topics and can become highly proficient in these areas, which can lead to great career opportunities and the pursuit of passions. This intense focus and dedication to their special interests can also provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment in people’s everyday lives.

A boy coding a remote control car on a laptop

Strengths of Autism: Case Study – Adam

Adam is a thirteen-year-old autistic child. He has a huge passion for computer programming.

From the moment he wrote his first lines of code at age nine, Adam discovered an outlet where he could create, manipulate, and understand a new language, all while sharpening his problem-solving skills.

At school, Adam often struggles with the standard curriculum. His social skills are still a work in progress. His sensory sensitivities make the bustling school environment overwhelming for him at times.

However, when it comes to computer programming, Adam truly shines. He effortlessly translates complex problems into coding solutions. He has even developed multiple mobile applications of his own, featuring fun, interactive games designed for children of his age group.

This hyperfocus on computer programming has been instrumental in enhancing Adam’s confidence and self-worth.

When he is programming, he feels accomplished, valuable, and intellectually challenged. It gives him a platform where he excels, and it’s also a domain where his atypical style of thinking is not only accepted but celebrated.

The logic and structure of programming mesh well with his pattern-oriented mind, allowing him to create in a way that is uniquely his own.

Autism Strengths: Attending to Detail

Over the years of working with autistic young people I have been struck by how many have a striking ability to focus on details that others may miss.

This is an advantage in fields such as science, engineering, and mathematics, where precision and accuracy are crucial. But it’s also invaluable in areas like art and drama, where little details can make the difference between a good piece or performance, and an outstanding one.

Autistic people may have a strong focus on a particular area and be more adept at processing information in small details rather than large chunks of information.

This ability often allows them to pick up on nuances that may go unnoticed by others.

Autistic Strengths Case Study – Ella

Ella is a fifteen-year-old autistic teenager with a passion for acting.

Despite struggling with day-to-day social interactions, she has a unique strength that has helped her to excel on stage.

She has a keen eye for detail. She can internalize the intricacies of her characters.

This level of detail makes her performances truly memorable. While some might see autism as a barrier, for Ella, it has turned out to be her greatest strength in her artistic pursuits.

While her peers are trying to comprehend the emotions and motivations of their characters, Ella finds joy in this process. She thrives on the predictability of the scripted dialogue and finds comfort in the structured nature of stage directions.

She appreciates the ability to get to know her characters in depth, understanding their feelings, motivations, and actions.

This brings a level of authenticity and depth that is often missing in other actors her age.

In contrast to her everyday life where social interaction can be daunting, Ella finds the environment of her drama classes liberating. There, she feels relaxed and confident.

In the theatre, she is not bound by the often confusing and unpredictable nature of human interaction.

Instead, she can focus on replicating emotions, actions, and conversations that have been scripted and rehearsed. It gives her a sense of control and mastery which boosts her self-esteem and brings her immense satisfaction.

Strengths of Autism: Repetitive Behaviours

Autistic people often engage in repetitive behaviors or routines, also known as “stimming”. These behaviors can have a range of benefits, including reducing anxiety, increasing focus and attention, and providing a sense of comfort and predictability in everyday life.

Repetitive behaviors can allow people to develop expertise and mastery in particular areas of interest or work, which can lead to unique opportunities and contributions.

For example, I seem to have several girls on my caseload who love to do gymnastics, and will often cartwheel or handstand over and over. This is regulating for their sensory systems. However, it also gives them great pleasure and helps them become skilled and confident in gymnastics.

In my experience, autistic children often have more staying power when it comes to such skills. Once they have made up their mind, they will often stick at new skills until they have mastered them.

Autism Strengths: Black and Whiteness

Black and white thinking, or a tendency to see things as either good or bad with no middle ground, can be an advantage for autistic people in certain situations.

Autistic people often have a strong sense of social justice and clear rules, and can be passionate about their views.

This can lead them to be effective advocates and to fight for justice in situations where others may not see a problem or may be willing to compromise.

Their strong views can help them make decisions quickly and confidently, which can be an asset in some settings.

a tween child writing at a desk

Autism Strengths: Honesty and Integrity

Autistic people tend to be honest and straightforward, with a strong sense of right and wrong. They often have a high degree of integrity and are very reliable. In fact, many autistic children I know simply can’t lie. The concept just doesn’t make sense to them. It’s so refreshing to know people with this quality.

As with all the strengths I cover in this article, of course, it doesn’t apply to all autistic people. Some can – and do – lie.

Autistic Strengths: Strong Visual Skills

Many autistic people are visual learners and excel in tasks that require visual and spatial reasoning, such as drawing, building, and navigating.

Research has found that autistic people tend to process sensory information differently than their neurotypical peers. For example, they may rely more heavily on their visual-perceptual skills, rather than verbal strategies, to understand and navigate their surroundings. This increased use of visual perception may contribute to particular strengths in visual learning and spatial reasoning.

In terms of brain structure, neuroimaging studies have discovered differences in the brains of autistic people, particularly in areas related to visual and spatial processing. For example, the posterior regions of the brain, including the occipital lobe and parietal lobe, which are responsible for visual processing and spatial orientation respectively, may be more active or have different connectivity patterns.

Some studies have also found autistic people have superior visual search abilities. This means they can often quickly and accurately locate specific visual information within a cluttered environment. Of course, this is a skill that helps in tasks requiring attention to detail and spatial relationships.

While research is ongoing and not all autistic individuals will exhibit these traits, the evidence so far strongly suggests that many do have an increased capacity for visual learning and spatial reasoning.

Autism Strengths: Creative Thinking

Autistic people often perceive and interpret the world in a way that’s distinct from neurotypical individuals. They often question norms that others will just accept. Think of Greta Thunberg, for example. This distinctive lens can enable autistic people to conceive ideas that might never occur to others, turning conventional thinking on its head. In the case of Thunberg and many others, it can lead to huge positive contributions to the world.

I could give you many more examples of creative thinking in autistic people. For instance, in the art world, their vivid imaginations and unique sensory experiences can fuel striking and original works. Whether it’s a painting, sculpture, or digital creation, the ability to express an unusual perspective can be a great advantage.

In the realm of design and technology, the same unique thought processes can lead to inventive solutions and advancements. Many revolutionary tech innovations have been born from minds that dared to think differently and challenge the norm.

As parents, we should foster this creativity and encourage our children to explore their unique ideas. Providing opportunities for creative expression, such as art classes or coding workshops, can help nurture this talent.

Ultimately, it’s this diversity of thought that drives human progress. Embracing it doesn’t just benefit autistic individuals, but enriches our society as a whole.

A girl thinking over a notebook and a pot of colouring pencils.

Logical Thinking as an Autism Strength

Autistic people often have a strong ability to reason logically and make connections between seemingly unrelated concepts. This logical mindset can lead to unique problem-solving skills. They might see solutions that others may miss.

For instance, in areas like mathematics or coding, this strength shines brightly. Autistic people can excel at decoding patterns in a methodical manner, often more quickly than their peers.

Science supports this. Studies show the autistic brain often processes information in detailed, systematic ways. This can enhance logical reasoning.

However, this isn’t limited to academic realms. Their logical thinking can help in everyday situations too. From organising their belongings to navigating public transport, their logical reasoning comes into play.

Of course though, every autistic individual is unique. While some people might find organizing challenging, others may thrive on creating order. Similarly, while public transport can be overwhelming for some, others might find comfort in the structured routes and schedules.

Strengths of Autism: Long Term Memory

The exact reason why some autistic people have an exceptional long-term memory is not fully understood, but there are a few theories.

One theory is that autistic individuals have a heightened ability to process and store sensory information, including visual and auditory information. This may allow them to remember details more vividly and accurately than non-autistic individuals.

Another theory suggests that autistic individuals have a different way of processing information in the brain, which may result in a more detailed and thorough encoding of memories. Specifically, some studies suggest that autistic individuals may rely more on the hippocampus, a brain structure that’s critical for long-term memory formation.

Other research suggests that because autistic people are more likely to engage in repetitive behaviors (such as obsessively collecting and categorizing information or objects) this may provide more opportunities for memory consolidation and retrieval. This leads to improved long-term memory.

Autism Strengths in Social Interaction

Although social communication is often regarded as a common difficulty in autism, I have found that many of the autistic children I work with tend to excel in one-on-one interactions.

They are often caring and attentive.

When autistic people engage with someone on an individual level, they are often able to give that person their undivided attention, which can foster a deep connection and understanding.

Once an autistic person gets to know someone, they tend to be very loyal, dedicated and committed to that person.

These qualities can be especially valuable in relationships, both personal and professional, as they can help to establish a strong foundation of trust and support.

Autistic people tend to be dependable and trustworthy, with a strong sense of responsibility. They often take their commitments very seriously and can be relied upon to follow through on their promises.

Two friends, a girl and a boy, sitting in a park and smiling at something on the girl's phone.

The Importance of Neurodiversity

Neurodiversity, the concept that neurological differences like autism are natural variations of the human brain rather than defects, is vital to our world.

It’s a wonderful reminder that every mind contributes uniquely to the rich tapestry of human experience.

Our children, whether they’re on the autism spectrum or not, have their own unique perspectives, insights, and talents to share.

Embracing neurodiversity allows us to value these differences, rather than fearing them. It encourages us to nurture each child’s individual strengths, and celebrate the diversity of thought they bring to our lives.

In a world that so often urges us to conform, the acceptance of neurodiversity inspires us all to appreciate and cherish our unique minds and the beautiful variety they bring to our shared human story.

In fact, neurodiversity is part of biodiversity, which is essential to our collective health as a species. Watch this brilliant video and you’ll see what I mean! I share it with many of the teens and parents who come to my clinic.

YouTube video

 

Summary: Autism Strengths

Autistic people possess many great strengths that are often overlooked or overshadowed by the challenges they face.

By adopting a strengths-based approach, we can recognize and build upon these amazing strengths in our children, helping to unlock their full potential.

Let’s create a more inclusive and supportive society that benefits everyone.

Great Resources

Reframing Autism

Autmazing

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Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.

Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

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