Being unfairly criticized is one of the most frustrating things in life. This happens when we as individuals are misunderstood, and our intentions are misinterpreted. This also happens to misunderstood and misinterpreted ideas.
I want to disentangle the idea of a strength-based approach to autism, and specifically autism employment, from misconceptions and misunderstandings.
Humans and social systems are complex and intricately connected. Autism employment and, more broadly, neurodiversity employment are examples of such complexities; they do not lend themselves to simplistic interpretations.
However, media coverage of autism in the workplace is often oversimplified or sensationalized. Sometimes, such coverage claims to represent the strengths-based perspective but doesn’t do it justice. Examples include “autistic genius” reports that lack a balanced representation of both strengths and struggles, along with articles promoting “utilizing autistic talent” that focus on benefits to businesses but fail to consider the well-being and the very humanity of autistic individuals.
Oversimplifications and misinterpretations resulted in the criticism of the overall strengths-based perspective on autism. Such criticism comes as heated objections from individuals in the general community, and as calls for caution in academic literature. Often, however, the perceived flaws of the strengths-based perspective are flaws of reductionist or erroneous application, rather than issues inherent in the perspective itself.
The WHY of strengths.
The emphasis on strengths started as a response to shortcomings of the medical model. Historically, the framing of autism informed by the medical model of disability has focused on researching and correcting autistic “deficits”- real or perceived. The deficit approach has been denounced from the perspective of autism culture and the larger neurodiversity movement, which stress the need to focus on autistic strengths, talents, and abilities as a foundation for learning, development, and participation in society.
The strengths-based approach is centered on the ideas that:
1) The medical model overlooks or even pathologizes the strengths of autistic individuals, focusing instead on correcting deficits. It also ignores the often-contextual nature of difficulties experienced by autistic people.
2) For all people, developing strengths is a more effective path toward personal and professional development than trying to remedy deficits.
Foundational to the strength-based approach is the philosophy of the inherent human uniqueness and value of each individual. That value is not contingent on diagnosis, strengths, talents, or the lack of thereof. When this underlying appreciation of human uniqueness and value is missing from applications, stereotyping and commodification are the likely results.
Misunderstandings and misuses of the strengths-based approach.
Commodification and dehumanization. In the larger culture, the focus on autistic strengths has been misused to promote ableist and dehumanizing stereotypes of autistic employees as extremely talented, but extremely difficult “misfit toys.” They are “talented, nerdy, difficult, smelly, oppositional, disruptive at meetings” and might drive other employees away. Such stereotypes and the lack of valuing neurominority contributors as individuals make it easy to justify creating “islands of misfit toys” in the workplace – hiring for autistic talents but keeping the “misfits” segregated from other employees, with the goal of “protecting” the other employees. Such stereotype-based practices can be mistaken for best practices, which serves to normalize prejudice while commodifying autistic talent.
Such harmful to the autism community stereotypes and related practices do not accurately reflect the strength-based approach. Rather, they reflect a narrow interpretation. This interpretation serves the utilitarian goal: to take advantage of the talent without placing the value on the whole person, who could be dehumanized and segregated.
Stereotyping as misuse of statistics. Another problem with the popular emphasis on autistic strengths in specific areas is stereotyping all autistic people as “tech geeks” or savants. This, in turn, may put undue pressure to perform on all autistic people, regardless of their individual pattern of abilities. However, stereotyping is not a problem inherent in the strengths-based approach. Instead, it reflects the general human tendency to generalize and the lack of understanding of how to use group-level statistics.
For example, research demonstrates that autistic people, on average, tend to outperform non-autistic individuals on visual processing, search, and integration tasks even if the information is presented very rapidly. Moreover, contrary to stereotypes that they simply process “everything,” autistic participants tend to be better able to detect information defined as “critical.” The heightened perceptual and integration ability of autistic individuals is the reason they are specifically recruited by the special unit of Israel’s army, where analysts examine complex images delivered in real-time from military satellites to detect potential threats. However, this does not mean that all autistic people have such abilities or that any autistic individual would outperform any non-autistic individual.
It is never appropriate to apply group-level statistical averages to individuals. Each person’s abilities should be accurately assessed and developed in a way that is tailored to their needs and respects their value and uniqueness.
Remedying the tendency to stereotype and to misuse group-level findings certainly requires much education. However, appropriately used, the focus on identifying and developing strengths in individuals of all neurotypes provides a valuable perspective that may help enhance a variety of life outcomes, such as educational and workplace achievement, as well as the overarching well-being.
The threat of denial of difficulties. Some in the autism community also worry that the focus on strengths and abilities will be used to justify taking away or never providing the necessary supports and services for all autistic people “because they are so talented and good at things.” This worry is partially grounded in the reality that humans tend to perceive outgroups as homogeneous – in this case, autistic individuals can be seen as “they are all the same.” It is also grounded in misconceptions about autism as a single continuum rather than patterns of “spiky” profiles unique to each individual.
A more nuanced understanding of strengths is that the same individual can have notable talents in one area, such as exceptional memory, and notable difficulty in another, such as extreme sensory sensitivities. Moreover, needs and struggles may also change due to life-stage, stress levels, and other contextual influences. This more comprehensive approach helps clarify that strengths do not nullify difficulties, which can be considerable even in the presence of significant strengths, and that both the denial of ability and the denial of difficulty as manifestations of human uniqueness are problematic.
Confusion of within-individual and between-individual strengths. Another general criticism of strengths-based approaches is that in some applications, the within-individual pattern of strengths can be mistaken for between-individual strengths. For example, an individual whose creativity is developed better than their organizational skills may have a relative strength in creativity. However, when compared to the general population, that individual’s creativity might be on the lower side of average and their organizational skills significantly below average. This could potentially mean that their desire to pursue creative career may (but does not have to) result in disappointment. Similarly to other concerns, this criticism is based on misinterpretation rather than an inherent flaw in the strengths-focused model. A proper application would consider both within-individual and between-individual patterns of strengths as a manifestation of our uniqueness, and remember that human value is not contingent on strengths.
Table 1 summarizes key points of the strengths-based approach and popular misconceptions and misinterpretations. As can be seen, most misuses and misconceptions are missing the emphasis on human value, human uniqueness, or both.
Addressing misuses and misinterpretation of the strengths-based approach is critical both from the intellectual and applied perspective. It may help to
- counteract harmful stereotypes, and
- curb the promotion of biased organizational practices as “best” practices.
The balanced view on autistic and neurodivergent strengths is essential for developing inclusive and supportive employment systems. It also helps counteract interventions informed by the deficit model and based on pathologizing autistic characteristics which may in fact be strengths. Remembering the foundational principles of human value and human uniqueness and ensuring that applications and interventions reflect these may help prevent the misuse of strengths-based philosophy.
About the author: Ludmila N. Praslova, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP uses her extensive experience with global, cultural, demographic, ability, and neurodiversity to help create inclusive and equitable workplaces. She is a Professor of Psychology and the founding Director of Graduate Programs in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at Vanguard University of Southern California. Prior to her academic career, she built and led successful intercultural relations programs in global organizations. Her current consulting is focused on supporting organizations in creating systemic inclusion informed by an understanding of neurodiversity. Her other areas of expertise include organizational culture assessment and change, workplace justice and civility, and training and training evaluation. She is the editor of the upcoming book “Evidence-Based Organizational Practices for Diversity, Inclusion, Belonging and Equity” (Cambridge Scholars).