The Triad of Strengths: A Strengths-Based Approach for Designing with Autistic Adults with Additional Learning Disabilities

  • Katie GaudionEmail author
  • Liz Pellicano
Conference paper
Part of the Lecture Notes in Computer Science book series (LNCS, volume 9746)


Autism is a condition that is often defined in terms of difficulties in social interaction, social communication, social understanding and imagination. Much existing research in autism and design is still framed around these so-called Triad of Impairments [1] the goal of which is to improve a person’s deficits; for example, developing technologies and environments to enhance communication and social interaction. This paper supports and builds upon existing autism research that views autism through a person’s strengths and abilities. This project aims to broaden this discussion into the field of design and turn the deficit-based framework on its head, through the development of a less generalized and more personalised design approach termed the Triad of Strengths, that views autism through a positive and enabling light. The paper describes how a strengths-based approach can support tangible design outcomes to create a positive impact on everyday life for autistic adults.


Autism Design Strengths Environment Participation Interests Sensory preferences Action capabilities 


  1. 1.
    Wing, L., Gould, J.: Severe impairments of social interaction and associated abnormalities in children: epidemiology and classification. J. Autism Dev. Disord. 9(1), 11–29 (1979)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Sinclair, J.: Why I dislike ‘‘person first’’ language (1999). Accessed 24 September 2012
  3. 3.
    Sinclair, J.: A note about language and abbreviations used on this site. Jim Sinclair’s website (1998). Accessed June 2012
  4. 4.
    Gray, C., Attwood, T.: The discovery of aspie criteria. Morning News 11(3), 18–28 (1999)Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Ford, I.: A Field Guide to Earthlings, p. 16. Ian Ford Software Corporation, Albuquerque (2010)Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Human 19. Understanding neurotypicality. (2012). Accessed 12 January 2013. American Psychiatric Association, 2013
  7. 7.
    American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM 5 development (2013). Accessed 5 February 2014
  8. 8.
    Baird, G., Simonoff, E., Pickles, A., Chandler, S., Loucas, T., Meldrum, D., Charman, T.: Prevalence of disorders of the autism spectrum in a population cohort of children in South Thames: the special needs and autism project (SNAP). Lancet 368(9531), 210–215 (2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 9.
    Brugha, T., McManus, S., Meltzer, H., Smith, J., Scott, F.J., Purdon, S., Harris, J., Bankart, J.: Autism spectrum disorders in adults living in households throughout England: report from the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2007. Leeds: The NHS Information Centre for Health and Social Care (2009)Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    The Department of Health: Valuing People: A New Strategy for Learning Disability for the 21st Century; a white paper, p. 14 (2001)Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A.M., Frith, U.: Does the autistic child have a ‘theory of mind’? Cognition 21, 37–46 (1985)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 12.
    Pennington, B.F., Ozonoff, S.: Executive functions and developmental psychopathology. J. Child. Psychol. Psychiatry 37, 51–87 (1996)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 13.
    Ozonoff, S., Bruce, F., Pennington, F., Rogers, S.J.: Executive function deficits in high-functioning autistic individuals: relationship to theory of mind. J. Child. Psychol. Psychiatry 32, 1081–1105 (1991)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 14.
    Frith, U.: Autism: Explaining the Enigma. Blackwell, Oxford (1989)Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Kanner, L.: Autistic disturbances of affective contact. Nerv. Child 2, 217–250 (1943). p x/238/236/243Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Shah, A., Frith, U.: An islet of ability in autistic children: a research note. J. Child Psychol. 24(4), 613–620 (1983)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 17.
    Karp, S.A., Konstadt, N.L.: The children’s embedded figures test (CEFT). In: Witkin, H.A., Oltman, P.K., Raskin, E., Karp, S.A. (eds.) A Manual for Embedded Figures Test, pp. 21–26. Consulting Psychologist Press, Palo Alto (1971)Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Tammet, D.: Embracing the Wide Sky, p. 177. Hodder and Stoughton, New York (2009)Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Mottron, L., Burack, J.: Enhanced perceptual functioning in the development of autism. In: Burack, J.A., Charman, T., Yirmiya, N., Zelazo, P.R. (eds.) The Development of Autism: Perspectives from Theory and Research, pp. 131–148. L. Erlbaum Press, Mahwah (2001)Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Baron-Cohen, S.: Autism, hypersystemizing, and truth. Q. J. Exp. Psychol. 61(1), 64–75 (2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 21.
    Howlin, P., Goode, S., Hutton, J., Rutter, M.: Savant skills in autism: psychometric approaches an parental reports. Philos. Trans. 364(1522), 1359–1367 (2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 22.
    Hermelin, B.: Bright Splinters of the Mind: A Personal Story of Research with Autistic Savants. Jessican Kingsley, London (2002)Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Shah, A., Frith, U.: Why do autistic individuals show superior performance on the block test design test? J. Child Psychol. 34, 1351–1364 (1993)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 24.
    Jolliffe, T., Baron-Cohen, S.: A test of central coherence theory: can adults with high-functioning autism or Asperger Syndrome integrate fragments of an object? Cogn. Neuropsychiatry 6, 193–216 (2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 25.
    O’Riordan, M., Plaisted, K., Driver, J., Baron-Cohen, S.: Superior visual search on autism. J. Exp. Psychol. Hum. Percept. Perform. 27(3), 719–730 (2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 26.
    Mottron, L., Burack, J.A., Larocci, G., Belleville, S., Enns, J.T.: Locally orientated perception with intact global processing amond adolescents with high functioning autism: evidence from multiple paradigms. J. Child Psychol. 44, 904–913 (2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 27.
    Best, C., Arora, S., Porter, F., Doherty, M.: The relationship between subthreshold autistic traits, ambiguous figure perception and divergent thinking. J. Autism Dev. Disord. 45(12), 4064–4073 (2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. 28.
    Kanner, L.: Follow-up study of eleven autistic children. J. Autism Child. Schizophr. 1(2), 119–142 (1971). p 143/CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 29.
    Asperger, H.: Autistic psychopathy in childhood. In: Frith, U. (ed.) Autism and Asperger syndrome, pp. 37–92. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (1991). p. 45 (1944)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. 30.
    Donvan, J., Zucker, C.: Autism’s first child. The Atlantic, article no. 308227 (2010). Accessed November 2012
  31. 31.
    Kerbeshian, J., Burd, L.: Asperger’s syndrome and Tourette syndrome: the case of the pinball wizard. Br. J. Psychiatry 148, 731–736 (1986)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 32.
    Welton, J.: Can I Tell You about Asperger’s Syndrome? A Guide for Friends and Family. Jessica Kingsley, London (2003)Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Grandin, T.: My experiences as an autistic child. J. Orthomolecular Psychiatry 13, 144–174 (1984)Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Grandin, T.: The Way I See it: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger’s. Future Horizons, Texas (2008)Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Trehin, G.: Urville. Jessica Kingsley, London (2006)Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Fling, F.R.: Eating an Artichoke: A Mother’s Perspective on Asperger Syndrome. Jessica Kingsley, London (2000)Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    Charlop-Christy, M.H., Haymes, L.K.: Using obsessions as reinforcers with and without mild reductive procedures to decrease inappropriate behaviours of children with autism. J. Autism Dev. Disord. 26(5), 527–546 (1996)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. 38.
    Charlop-Christy, M., Haymes, L.: Using objects of obsession as token reinforcers for children with autism. J. Autism Dev. Disord. 28(3), 189–198 (1998)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. 39.
    Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S.: ‘Obsessions’ in children with autism or Asperger syndrome: a content analysis in terms of core domains of cognition. Br. J. Psychiatry 175, 484–490 (1999)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. 40.
    Baker, M.J.: Incorporating the thematic ritualistic behaviours of children with autism into games. J. Positive Behav. Interv. 2, 66–84 (2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. 41.
    Attwood, T.: Understanding and managing circumscribed interests. In: Prior, M. (ed.) Learning and Behavior Problems in Asperger’s Syndrome, pp. 126–147. Guilford Press, New York (2003)Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    Boyd, B.A., Conroy, M.A., Mancil, G.R., Nakao, T., Alter, P.J.: Effects of circumscribed interests on the social behaviours of children with autism spectrum disorders. J. Autism Dev. Disord. 27, 1550–1561 (2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. 43.
    Dunst, C.J., Trivette, C.M., Masiello, T.: Influence of the interests of children with autism on everyday learning opportunities. Psychol. Rep. 107(1), 281–288 (2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. 44.
    Vacca, J.J.: Incorporating interests and structure to improve participation of a child with autism in a standardized assessment: a case study analysis. Focus Autism Other Dev. Disabil. 22, 51–59 (2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. 45.
    Vismara, L.A., Lyons, G.L.: Using preservative interests to elicit joint attention behaviours in young children with autism. J. Positive Behav. Interv. 9, 214–228 (2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. 46.
    Winter-Messiers, M.A., Herr, C.M., Wood, C.E., Brooks, A.P., Gates, M.A.M., Houston, T.L., Tingstad, K.I.: How far can Brian ride the daylight 4449 express? a strength-based model of Asperger syndrome based on special interest areas. Focus Autism Other Dev. Disabil. 22(2), 67–79 (2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. 47.
    Winter-Messiers, M.A.: Dinosaurs 24/7: understanding the special interests of children with Asperger’s, 2 April 2007. Accessed 10 April 2012
  48. 48.
    Gagnon, E.: Power cards: using special interests to motivate children and youth with Asperger syndrome and autism. Autism Asperger Publishing Company, Shawnee Mission (2001)Google Scholar
  49. 49.
    Kluth, P., Schwarz, P.: Just give him the whale: 20 ways to use fascinations, areas of expertise, and strengths to support students with autism. Jessica Kingsley, London (2009)Google Scholar
  50. 50.
    Kluth, P., Schwarz, P.: Pedro’s Whale. Jessica Kingsley, London (2010)Google Scholar
  51. 51.
    Kavan, S., Kavan, B.: Trainman: gaining acceptance and friends through special interests. AAPC Publishing, Kansas (2011)Google Scholar
  52. 52.
    Kirchner, J.C., Dziobek, I.: Toward the successful employment of adults with autism: a first analysis of special interests and factors deemed important for vocational performance. Scand. J. Child Adolesc. Psychiatry Psychol. 2(2), 77–85 (2014)Google Scholar
  53. 53.
    Richer, J.M., Nicoll, L.: A playroom for autistic children, and its companion therapy project. Br. J. Mental Subnormality 17, 132–143 (1971)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. 54.
    Hulsegge, J., Verheul, A.: Snoezelen: Another World. Rompa, Chesterfield (1987)Google Scholar
  55. 55.
    Beaver, C.: Breaking the mold. Communication 37(3), 40 (2003). 485Google Scholar
  56. 56.
    Beaver, C.: Designing environments for children and adults on the autism spectrum. Good Autism Pract. 12(1), 7–11 (2011)MathSciNetGoogle Scholar
  57. 57.
    Khare, R., Mullick, A.: Educational spaces for children with autism: design development process. In: Proceedings of CIB W 084: Building Comfortable and Liveable Environments for All, Atlanta, GA, 15–16 May 2008, pp. 66–75 (2008). Accessed 31 March 2015
  58. 58.
    Khare, R., Mullick, A.: Incorporating the behavioural dimension in designing inclusive learning environment for autism. Int. J. Architectural Res. 3(3), 45–64 (2009)Google Scholar
  59. 59.
    Mostafa, M.: An architecture for autism: concepts of design intervention for the autistic user. Int. J. Architectural Res. 2(1), 189–211 (2008)Google Scholar
  60. 60.
    Scott, I.: Designing learning spaces for children on the autism spectrum. Good Autism Pract. 10(1), 36–51 (2009)Google Scholar
  61. 61.
    Tufvesson, C., Tufvesson, J.: The building process as a tool towards an all-inclusive school: a Swedish example focusing on children with defined concentration difficulties such as ADHD, autism and Down’s syndrome. J. Hous. Built Environ. 24(1), 47–66 (2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. 62.
    Vogel, C.L.: Classroom design for living and learning with autism. Autism Asperger’s Digest 7 (2008)Google Scholar
  63. 63.
    Gumtau, S., Newland, P., Creed, C., Kunath, S.: MEDIATE: a responsive environment designed for children with autism. In: Accessible Design in the Digital World Conference, 23–25 August 2005, Dundee (2005). Accessed 21 September 2013
  64. 64.
    Ahrentzen, S., Steele, K.: Advancing full spectrum housing: designing for adults with autism spectrum disorders: a technical report. Tempe, Arizona: The Herberger Institute School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture and the Stardust Center for Affordable Homes and the Family (2009)Google Scholar
  65. 65.
    Brand, A.: Living in the Community: Housing Design for Adults with Autism. Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, Royal College of Art, London (2010)Google Scholar
  66. 66.
    Lopez, K., Gaines, K.: Environment and behavior: residential designs for autism. In: Proceedings of the 43rd Annual Conference of the Environmental Design Research Association, Seattle, OR, 30 May – 2 June 2012, pp. 265–266 (2012). Accessed 11 October 2013
  67. 67.
    Woodcock, A., Georgiou, D., Jackson, J., Woolner, A.: Designing a tailorable environment for children with autism spectrum disorders. In: Proceedings of the Triannual Conference of the International Ergonomics Association, ‘TEC’, Maastricht, 10–14 July 2006 (2013). Accessed 11 October 2013. The Design Institute, Coventry
  68. 68.
    Herbert, B.: Design guidelines of a therapeutic garden for autistic children. Ph.D. thesis, Louisiana State University (2003)Google Scholar
  69. 69.
    Hussein, H.: Using the sensory garden as a tool to enhance the educational development and social interaction of children with special needs. Support Learn. 25(1), 25–31 (2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. 70.
    Linehan, J.: Landscapes for autism: guidelines and design of outdoor spaces for children with autism spectrum disorder. Ph.D. thesis, University of California (2008)Google Scholar
  71. 71.
    Menear, K.S., Smith, S.C., Lanier, S.: A multipurpose fitness playground for individuals with autism: ideas for design and use. J. Phys. Educ. Recreation Dance 77(9), 20–25 (2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. 72.
    Sachs, N., Vincenta, T.: Outdoor environments for children with autism and special needs. Implications 9(10), 1–7 (2011)Google Scholar
  73. 73.
    Yuill, N., Strieth, S., Roake, C., Aspden, R., Todd, B.: Brief report: designing a playground for children autistic spectrum disorder: effects on playful peer interactions. J. Autism Dev. Disord. 37(6), 1192–1196 (2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. 74.
    Decker, E.: A city for Marc: an inclusive design approach to planning for adults with autism. Master’s thesis, Kansas State University (2014)Google Scholar
  75. 75.
    Francis, P., Balbo, S., Frith, L.: Towards co-design with users who have autism spectrum disorders. Univ. Access Inf. Soc. 8(3), 123–135 (2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. 76.
    Khare, R., Mullick, A.: Universally beneficial educational space design for children with autism. In: Designing for Children, IDC, IIT, Mumbai, India, 2–6 February 2010. Accessed 2 April 2015
  77. 77.
    Humphreys, S.: Autism and architecture. Autism Lond. Bull. 494, 7–8 (2005). Jenkins, H.S.: Gibson’s ‘affordances’: evolution of a pivotal concept. J. Sci. Psychol. 12, 34–45 (2008)Google Scholar
  78. 78.
    Oliver, M.: A new model of the social work role in relation to disability. In: Campling, J. (ed.) The Handicapped Person: A New Perspective for Social Workers?. RADAR, London (1981)Google Scholar
  79. 79.
    Oliver, M.: The Politics of Disablement. Macmillan, Basingstoke (1990)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. 80.
    Lawton, M.P., Brody, E.M.: Assessment of older people: self-maintaining and instrumental activities of daily living. Gerontologist 9, 179–186 (1969)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. 81.
    Brand, A., Gaudion, K.: Exploring Sensory Preferences, living environments for adults for autism. The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, Royal College of Art (2012)Google Scholar
  82. 82.
    Brown, C., Dunn, W.: Adult/Adolescent Sensory Profile: User’s Manual. Psychological Corporation, San Antonio (2002)Google Scholar
  83. 83.
    Gaudion, K.: A designer’s approach: Exploring how autistic adults with additional learning disabilites experience their home environment. Ph.D. thesis, Royal College of Art, London (2015)Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, Royal College of ArtLondonUK
  2. 2.Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE), UCL Institute of EducationUniversity College LondonLondonUK

Personalised recommendations