By Brian R. King LCSW
This is the third of a ten part series I have decided to put together especially for you. I hope these lessons will serve as a road map of sorts on how to be on the Autism Spectrum and have a successful, happy life. So let’s get started . . .
Step 3: Acknowledge Your Strengths & Live Them Every Day
Are you ready to take a break yet? The first two lessons in this series required a lot of in-depth thinking, they really asked you to take a look at yourself and the way you think. So let’s take a break from that approach and be a little more straightforward for this lesson. This lesson is all about finding your strengths.
Now for those of us on the autism spectrum, we’re so used to being criticized and so used to having difficulty that it’s much easier to think that we have more weaknesses than we ever will have strengths. It doesn’t help that those who are looking to support us also have a tendency to emphasize our challenges instead of our strengths. They do this by emphasizing that we work diligently to overcome our weaknesses instead of living from our strengths. Now before you scream, “I DON’T DO THAT” at your computer screen, please bare with me and I will explain.
The obvious problem with emphasis on reducing or eliminating weaknesses is that you only get to develop the things that you give your time and attention to developing. So how do you learn to discover and develop your strengths with so little encouragement to do so?
What Makes Me Confident?
It is in living from our strengths that we have the greatest likelihood of experiencing a feeling of competence and success more often. It’s the experience of competence that is at the heart of our feeling of self-worth.
So by giving so much attention to our weaknesses you’re reinforcing the experience of incompetence and lack of success over and over each and every day of our lives.
We often talk about the need for balance in life, and this is critical in helping someone on the spectrum develop their self-worth while remediating areas of challenge. There must be equal if not greater opportunity for spectrumites to experience their strengths and the value of those strengths. Our strengths serve the purpose of solving the problems of our own lives as well as helping solve specific problems in the lives of others.
What Makes Something A Strength?
Words matter, so let’s be clear what is meant when I talk about a weakness, challenge, or strength. I think of a weakness as something I’m simply not good at or am unable to do. My penmanship sucks and the physical act of writing is painful to do, so how much time and effort do I put into improving it before I fire up my Dragon Dictate software (which I used to write this article by the way)? Does it make sense to work on the writing or use my gift of speaking?
A challenge can be thought of as a problem that is difficult to solve but is within your ability to solve once you determine the strategy for doing so. A strength is knowledge or skill that you use to solve a problem either for yourself or another person.
In fact, when you get down to it the simplest measure of how independent someone is lies in their ability to solve the everyday problems of their life. The way you measure someone’s contribution to society as a whole, can be measured by their ability to solve problems for others. For example, when a person is hired to do a job they are hired to solve a specific problem for their employer. I hire an accountant every year to do my taxes because my math skills are mediocre at best. Therefore, I enlist the strengths of an accountant to solve that problem for me.
Can You Read This?
If you are presently saying to yourself, “But I don’t seem to be good at anything. I don’t know what my strengths are,” then let me make one thing very clear to you. If you are able to read this then you are literate and that is a strength. One of the reasons we miss the strengths that are so abundant and right before our eyes, is that once we learn how to solve a problem such as tying our shoes, looking both ways before crossing the street, reading, or something more complicated like preparing a meal, it can become routine.
My suggestion to you, starting today, is to bring your routine strengths back into your awareness. Ask yourself, “What problems did I solve today? If you’re having a difficult time determining what problems existed today just make a list of everything you did. If you picked out something to wear then you solved the problem of, “What do I wear today?” In fact, every time you ask a question you are stating a problem and when you answer that question you are offering a solution.
The Strength In The Details?
When it comes to solving problems for others, as always those on the autism spectrum are constantly reminded of the problems they cause others instead of the solutions they provide. Which is why I make an all-out effort with my sons to emphasize how their actions solve problems in my life. When they help around the house I thank them and I thank them specifically. I don’t simply say thank you or thanks for helping. I say, “Thank you so much for helping me put the dishes in the dishwasher so quickly. That saved me so much time that now I’ll be able to play cards with you.”
I help them discover their strengths by pointing out the specific problems they solved and the specific things they did to help me solve it. The specific skill they used is their strength. Whether it be an ability to organize (not my strength by the way), an ability to stick with the project until it’s done, a tremendous eye for detail or any other specific ability. Letting them know that they had the knowledge or ability needed to solve your problem is HUGE. In doing so you emphasize how they are specifically equipt to solve a problem for another person and expressing gratitude for it.
Did I Miss Something?
How many of your day to day strengths are you becoming more aware of now? Are their strengths that you don’t give yourself credit for? The last question to ask yourself is, “How many of the questions you answered today, and the other problems you solved, were done so to solve a problem for another person?”
It is important to be aware of the solutions we provide and the contributions we make not only to the quality of our own lives but to the quality of the life of others. It is in making our contribution to society that we ultimately feel our self-worth. When we feel that our presence in the world each day solves more problems than it causes, then we feel more worthwhile, then we feel like we are important to this world. To feel the opposite is to feel worthless, to feel like a burden. That isn’t a feeling anyone deserves to have, so please be very cognizant of whether or not you are encouraging someone in your life to emphasize their challenges and the problems they cause over their strengths and the problems they solve.
Just Do It Already
I am so grateful that over the years I have developed the ability to express myself in written and spoken language. Something I am very aware that differentiates me from many of my fellow spectrumites including one of my own sons. I utilize this strength to the utmost and will continue to explore new ways to use it to its highest degree. Today alone I received two inquiries to speak to different groups on working with those on the Autism Spectrum. Not a coincidence when you live from your strengths.
My many challenges include poor memory; poor organization, poor math skills and I continue to have difficulty in social situations. Seems like a longer list, but because I focus so much on developing the one strength that solves problems for myself and others here we are. I am able to articulate my experiences in a way to help other people gain insight into theirs. By choosing to do that instead of beating myself up over the other things I’m not good at, my life and the lives of those who enjoy what I write are a little better.
There is so much I could say on this subject, but I hope what I have shared gives you enough to seriously reconsider how you view yourself in terms of what you’re good at instead of what you aren’t. Hopefully you realize you have far more to offer yourself and even more to offer this world than you’d ever considered.
We’re all in this together.
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