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Identifying and Reinforcing "Islands of Competence" in Children with ASD

Moving from a focus on deficits to one on strengths.

In the beginning of our careers my colleague Dr. Sam Goldstein and I, similar to many psychologists trained in the late 1960s and 1970s, focused on fixing deficits rather than building on strengths. While identifying and reinforcing strengths in clinical work is a well-accepted practice today, especially with the emergence of "positive psychology," it was not in vogue years ago. For example, when involved in conducting an evaluation of a child we asked few, if any, questions of parents to elicit what they perceived to be the strengths of their children or what they considered to be their own assets as parents. We were more inclined to speak with parents as well as their children about their problems rather than invite them to elaborate upon their interests and strengths.

It may seem natural for psychologists and other mental health professionals to zero in on problem areas when meeting with parents. It is a reality that when parents request a consultation they do so because they have concerns about various aspects of their children's behavior and development. While it is crucial we address these problems, we have come to recognize that to place the emphasis on analyzing pathology and fixing deficits limits our ability to assist children and their parents to lead more satisfying, resilient lives. Wisely, we shifted our focus to identify and build on strengths, or what we call islands of competence.

In the most recent book that Sam and I have co-authored, Raising Resilient Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, we emphasize the shortcomings of a deficit model, even more obvious when working with or raising children with ASD. If clinicians and other caregivers spend most of their time in a reactive mode, constantly and frenetically attempting to fix the multifaceted problems these youngsters face, it leaves little time or energy to reflect upon and adopt a proactive approach that asks, "What are the strengths and interests that this child possesses, strengths than can be nurtured to bring this child a realistic sense of accomplishment and dignity?"

To apply the metaphor of islands of competence to our clinical work, we pose a series of questions for parents (as well as teachers and other professionals), including the following:

What are two or three strengths or islands of competence your child possesses?

What would your child list as his/her islands of competence?

How do you use and display your child's islands of competence?

The islands of competence of children with ASD can be varied and sometimes perplexing. For example, 11-year-old John, a child with ASD, loved cartooning. He would sit for hours drawing a cartoon series he titled: "The Screaming Babies from Planet Mercury." Though adults did not always understand his humor, he proudly displayed his cartoons to anyone who would take the time to look.

John was socially isolated in his classroom. The teacher was asked if she would consider initiating a cartooning club in the classroom, introducing children to the art of cartooning and asking John to be her assistant since he was already a "cartoonist." She was willing to do so. John assumed his new role with obvious joy. Although he had to be supervised at times as he attempted to teach or guide the other students, his interactions with peers improved. John's teacher and parents displayed his cartoons at school and home. This boosted his self-esteem and in a concrete fashion communicated to him that he had strengths that were appreciated by others and provided a means through which to relate with others.

We must never lose sight of the fact that diagnoses do not define the "whole" child and that a focus on strengths rather than deficits must be accorded more prominence in our work.