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Reshaping the Narrative About Autism

Asset framing defines autistic people by their assets, reshaping expectations.

BY Geraldine Dawson Ph.D.


  • Focusing on deficits is associated with stigma and diminishes our ability to see a person's capabilities.
  • Our words form a powerful narrative that can expand or minimize our expectations about a person’s abilities.
  • We can harness the power of asset-framing by defining autistic people by their assets before their challenges.
  • Strengths-based approaches are associated with better health and well-being, and higher self-confidence.

The first description a parent will typically hear when they learn their child is autistic is that the child has “persistent deficits in social communication and interaction across multiple contexts including deficits in reciprocity, nonverbal communication, and developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships.” This is often the first sentence of most published research articles about autism.

Autism’s definition is based on deficit-based language. Descriptions rarely include the fact that autism is associated with the ability to form strong attachments with caregivers and friends and that many children on the autism spectrum enjoy physical play and other social activities. Our diagnostic manual similarly fails to mention that autism often is associated with the ability to learn to read at an early age, memorize facts, and pay exceptional attention to detail, among other skills. If such strengths—or “assets” are mentioned—they are mentioned after the “core deficits” associated with autism are described. What is the impact of this deficit-focused narrative on our concept of autism and how autistic people are perceived and treated?

Trabian Shorters coined the term “asset-framing” as a narrative that defines people by their assets before describing their challenges and impairments. Asset framing is not meant to minimize challenges and difficulties experienced by people, but rather to change our mindset to emphasize the positive potential and aspirations of a person before considering their difficulties. Some difficulties associated with autism—such as challenges in navigating the social world—are the flip side of a strength, such as exceptional skill in understanding the physical world. Similarly, difficulties adjusting one’s behavior in response to another is the flip side of being non-manipulative, straightforward, and honest.

Focusing first or solely on deficits is associated with stigma and tends to diminish our ability to see an individual’s capabilities and positive attributes. As Shorters points out, this is because the associative mind readily seeks information that is consistent with the narrative that we have created and tends to ignore or minimize information that is inconsistent with that narrative. Once a negative narrative is formed, the associative mind automatically and unconsciously seeks out data that confirms that point of view and pays less attention to data that disconfirms it. Shorters has been applying asset-framing to help reshape the narrative that defines people of color and other stigmatized groups. He notes that nonprofit organizations often define their missions based on deficit-based language, undermining a positive message of hope and aspiration. For example, a nonprofit might strive to help “at-risk” youth. Using the frame of being “at risk” automatically creates associations with negative outcomes. Using a phrase such as “addressing obstacles to fulfilling one’s potential” creates a different set of associations, ones filled with optimism and positive expectations. Importantly, this shift in framing does not minimize challenges or suggest that help and support are not needed. Rather, it expands our imagination to anticipate broader and more positive outcomes.

We can harness the power of asset-framing by defining autistic people by their strengths and contributions before describing their challenges and impairments. This cognitive skill primes the mind to look for positive associations as well as reframes how we understand and judge the challenging behaviors displayed by an autistic person. For example, when an autistic child has a meltdown when asked to do something outside of their usual routine, a deficit model would view this behavior as confirming autism’s diagnostic definition of having “inflexible adherence to routines.” However, if we first consider that a strength of autistic people is that they thrive on order and routine, we are likely to understand that the child likely will be happier if we give advance notice of any change in routine. We might choose to communicate this by using the autistic child’s strength in visual processing and creating a picture schedule. We are also more likely to notice that the autistic child excels at following rules and is a good role model for other children in the class.

I recently talked with a colleague about their autism research on face recognition. Numerous published studies have found that autistic people often have more difficulty recognizing familiar faces than non-autistic people. Autistic people tend to focus on the individual components of the face, whereas non-autistic people tend to use a more holistic approach which facilitates face recognition. These studies often report that poorer face recognition abilities are correlated with more significant difficulties interacting with people.

Now let’s consider this area of research from an asset-framing point of view. As I mentioned, autistic people tend to focus more on individual features of the face. Interestingly, when this unique visual processing strategy is used in other contexts, such as solving visual puzzles, autistic people are superior to non-autistic people. For example, autistic people tend to score extremely high on the block design task, a visual-spatial task that is part of most IQ tests. As early as 9 months of age, infants who are later diagnosed with autism have been found to have superior visual search skills. Thus, the unique visual processing skills of autistic people are advantageous in certain contexts, and in fact, help explain why some autistic people do well in fields such as math and engineering. Once again, what is viewed as a deficit is often the flip side of a strength.

This strengths-based approach is currently being used to develop community programs designed to support autistic adolescents in developing interests and skills in science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. A recent study found a strength-based community program had a positive impact on adolescents’ health and well-being, social relationships and interactions, self-confidence and self-esteem, sense of belonging, and activities and participation.

How we describe people is important because our words form a powerful narrative that can either expand or minimize our expectations and beliefs about a person’s potential abilities, aspirations, and contributions to society. Let’s change the narrative about autism by applying asset-framing in our conversations, publications, and other settings, defining autistic people by their strengths before describing their challenges and difficulties.