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A Strengths-Based Approach to Neurodiversity

A 4-pronged approach could help neurodiverse populations thrive.

Key points

  • Most approaches to ADHD, autism, and related conditions still operate from a medical, deficits-based model.
  • The neurodiversity movement, by contrast, favors a strengths-based model.
  • A recently proposed 4-pronged approach could help identify and nurture the strengths of neurodiverse individuals.

Our current thinking about mental health is still disproportionately influenced by what's known as the medical model, which conceptualizes cognitive differences in terms of disability or disease. Terms like autism spectrum disorder (often called simply autism or abbreviated to ASD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), for example, derive from a disability-focused view. In many ways, our current thinking still focuses primarily on deficits and those behaviors and cognitions that people with autism or ADHD cannot perform as well as individuals without such a diagnosis.

Yuliya Chsherbakova/Shutterstock
Source: Yuliya Chsherbakova/Shutterstock

The Neurodiversity Movement(s)

Contrary to this disability-focused view, neurodiversity is a concept that views differences in behaviour and brain functioning as normal variations in a population rather than disorders. Neurodiversity was first coined by self-advocate and sociologist Judy Singer in her 1998 thesis on autism. Nowadays, the definition of neurodiversity has widened and encompasses a range of cognitive differences including, but not limited to, autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and dyscalculia.

The neurodiversity movement(s) relies on a strengths-based model instead of a model of deficit. This movement argues that just because neurodivergent individuals are a minority and display cognitive and behavioral differences from the norm group, this does not imply disease of deficit. The movement shows overlaps with movements in support of demographic diversity such as the women’s rights movement (gender), the Black Lives Matter movement (race), and the LGBTQI+ movement (sexual orientation, gender).

A Strengths-Based Model of Neurodiversity

Ultimately, the end goal of the neurodiversity movement(s) is inclusion, equality, and the fulfillment of each human individual their potential. In a chapter of the book Neurodiversity, researchers Lawrence Fung and Nancy Doyle argue that to succeed at this, we need to incorporate different models—including medical, evolutionary, social, and policy—to develop a unified theory of neurodiversity.

To achieve this, they propose the strengths-based model of neurodiversity (SBMN), which draws on four recent developments in psychology and psychiatry that acknowledge the challenges inherent in neurodiversity but also emphasize its strengths. First, the SBMN draws on Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, which suggests that human abilities are more diverse and comprehensive than proposed by most current IQ tests and suggests that we take a more comprehensive approach to assessing intelligence.

Second, the SBMN draws on positive psychology, which was designed to promote well-being, contentment, and satisfaction. When we apply positive psychology to neurodiversity, we emphasize the strengths inherent in neurodiverse conditions and how these allow the attainment of personally relevant life goals and values. Positive psychology emphasizes a balanced, strengths-oriented lifestyle that increases awareness of personal strengths, belief in one’s abilities, engagement in relationships, and enhanced self-satisfaction through successful action.

Third, the SBMN draws on positive psychiatry, which focuses on positive attributes, strengths, and protective factors. Psychoeducational approaches are favored in positive psychiatry to increase well-being and personal growth. Positive psychiatry is predicted to reduce the emergence of diverse mental health difficulties.

Fourth, the SBMN draws on Chickering’s seven vectors of development which describes a series of developmental stages we all need to progress through to develop optimally. The SBMN suggests that neurodiverse individuals are provided with opportunities to work towards fulfilling their respective developmental tasks at school or work. Furthermore, it suggests that neurodiversity-friendly environments are created and that health professionals are empowered to support these processes.

Barriers to Inclusion Are Still Prominent

Research shows that neurodivergent individuals are more likely to be unable to achieve their educational potential, be unemployed, or be incarcerated. What's more, neurodivergent individuals experience an increased likelihood of anxiety and mood difficulties. As long as these barriers to inclusion are still current, the continuing development of strengths-based approaches to neurodiversity will be especially crucial.


Fung, L.K. & Doyle, N. (2021). Neurodiversity. The new diversity. In: Neurodiversity. From Phenomenology to Neurobiology and Enhancing Technologies.

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