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Tony Atwood’s theory of ‘discovering’ the strengths of Asperger’s, instead of diagnosing traits and disorders

by | May 10, 2018 | News & Views | 8 comments

We recently came across an article by Tony Atwood, a psychologist well known for sharing his knowledge of Asperger’s Syndrome. (He has an Honours degree in Psychology from the University of Hull, a Masters degree in Clinical Psychology from the University of Surrey, and a PhD from the University of London. He is currently adjunct Associate Professor at Griffith University in Queensland. Professor Atwood’s son has Asperger’s, and Professor Atwwood now speaks very honestly about the family’s issues – we recently showcased two videos on autism / Asperger’s from Professor Atwood, which you can see by clicking HERE.)

Anyway, back to the recently-discovered article (for readers’ background / information, ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’ is no longer specified as a stand-alone condition within the DSM IV manual – Professor Atwood’s article was published before the change was made). You can read his article in full HERE.

Framing Asperger’s in a positive light

To summarise, Professor Atwood aims to frame Asperger’s in a positive light. “Making any diagnosis requires attention to weaknesses; the observation and interpretation of signs and symptoms that vary from typical development or health. The DSM IV (American Psychiatric Association diagnostic manual) assists in the identification of a variety of disorders. It is used by psychiatrists and other mental health professionals to match observed weaknesses, symptoms and behaviours to text. Asperger’s Syndrome is identified by specific diagnostic criteria, a constellation of observed social and communication delays and/or deviations,” Professor Atwood writes.

In the article, Professor Atwood ponders what would happen if we used, instead of the term diagnosis, the term DISCOVERY, in terms of autism diagnosis.

“Unlike diagnosis, the term discovery often refers to the identification of a person’s strengths or talents. Actors are discovered. Artists and musicians are discovered. A great friend is discovered. These people are identified by an informal combination of evaluation and awe that ultimately concludes that this person possesses admirable qualities, abilities, and/or talents,” Professor Atwwood continues.

If Asperger’s Syndrome was identified by observation of strengths and talents, it would not be referred to as a syndrome! After all, a reference to someone with special strengths or talents does not use terms with negative connotations. “It’s ‘artist’ and ‘poet’, not ‘Artistically Arrogant’ or ‘Poetically Preoccupied’,” Professor Atwood notes.

Aspies rule

Nor would the term ‘Discovery’ over diagnosis attach someone’s proper name to the word ‘syndrome’ (for example, it’s vocalist or soloist, not Sinatra’s Syndrome), Professor Atwood explains. Focusing on autistic strengths requires shedding the former diagnostic term, Asperger’s Syndrome, for a new term. Professor Atwwood feels that ‘Aspie’ (used by many autists in self-reference, including Liane Holliday Wiley in her book, Pretending to be Normal, 1999), is a term that seems right at home among it’s talent-based counterparts: soloist, genius, aspie, dancer.

Professor Atwood urges everyone to take advantage of the contribution of aspies to culture and knowledge. He suggests many criteria for the term ‘Discovery’ (instead of diagnosis), including the below – so, to clarify, these are POSITIVE ‘Aspie’ traits that we should celebrate, instead of considering their ‘flip-side’ negatives:

Positive Asperger’s traits:

An advantage in social interactions, in terms of absolute loyalty and impeccable dependability where peer relationships are concerned; the ability to regard others at ‘face value’; speaking one’s mind irrespective of social context; the ability to pursue personal theory or perspective (despite conflicting evidence); consideration of details; listening without continual judgement or assumption; preferring to avoid ‘ritualistic small talk’ and superficial conversation; a determination to seek the truth; advanced vocabulary and interest in words; an original, often unique perspective in problem solving; exceptional memory and/or recall of details often forgotten or disregarded by others; persistence of thought; a focused desire to maintain order and accuracy; a ‘social unsung hero’, with trusting optimism; an increased probability over general population of attending university, after high school; and the propensity to often take care of others, outside the range of typical development.

You can see a link to Professor Atwwood’s books below – the link is titled ‘tony attwood.’

A little disclaimer – at, we don’t claim to be experts about Autism; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences.

Visit our ‘Foundation Posts’ page for some of our favourite posts about autism.


  1. Moira

    High functioning Autism was not Aspergers in my 33years of knowledge of Autism which at the moment confuses my own daughters diagnosis. Current changes are affecting people’s views on Autism and there needs are even more not being met! I agree with noting the positive abilities are a tool on assisting the person and highlighting there abilities but I feel there needs of living “needs” may be missed in this way of diagnosis. I have to many worries for my adult daughter being seen as more able by this where she is clearly more vulnerable and can be seen as less needing with everyday support.

    • admin

      Hi there
      Yes, ‘Asperger’s’ to ‘high functioning autism’ is a fairly recent change to the diagnostic process; (described here for ref, for anyone who is unaware). It happened in 2013, but it’s taken a while to take effect in different territories. Now, in DSM-5 at least, anyone with what’s described as ‘autistic disorder’, ‘Asperger’s disorder’, or ‘pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified’, are allocated the broad term: ‘autism spectrum disorder’ (ASD). For anyone presenting with what we’d term Asperger’s, a clinician following the DSM-5 is NOW likely to write down simply ‘autism’, or maybe ‘high functioning autism’, in a report. (Verbally they may well have a discussion about the term Asperger’s. Many clinicians still seemingly want to use it!)

      But yes, your points are really valuable Moira, thank you! The method of using lists of strengths do suit/work more for the autistic individuals with less trouble/challenges meeting basic living needs. It is a good point that the more we focus on the strengths of Aspies, the more some individuals will feel a division. It’s something we have touched on here before, in the context of a person who was stating that she didn’t feel ‘as autistic’ as a low functioning autist, being Aspie herself.
      Essentially we need understanding and acceptance for all autists, don’t we! It is a shame that people like your daughter could be made to feel (or assumed to feel) MORE able with a term like high functioning, when in fact they’re struggling. The author of this blog always maintains in any case that the term ‘high functioning’ is a label generally used by NON autists to assess how the autistic person seems to be adapting in the NT world. When in reality, what’s in the autistic person’s heart, soul and brain, the message they want to communicate, isn’t necessarily what the outside world sees.
      Thanks for adding to the discussion!

  2. Em

    I agree, whilst I absolutely love the spirit of this article, the problem is that because historically this is not how Autism has been embraced by the NT world, too many people with high functioning Autism are now also laden with the difficult traits too. My son, now 24, wasn’t diagnosed until last year. As a small boy he was brilliant and full of potential, but years of bullying and confusion have left him with panic disorder and chronic OCD, as well as poor physical health. My heart bleeds for him and I have no idea how to make things better. Currently struggling to get him the benefits he now needs to help him survive financially (he’s completely isolated and cannot work) too much emphasis on the fantastic traits that go with Aspergers do him no favours now.
    But, let’s push it for our next generation and make sure their experience is different – I do think we’re living in more enlightened and tolerant times now.

    • admin

      Thanks for commenting Em. This viewpoint has definitely also been shared elsewhere e.g. on social media, that emphasising aspie strengths can lead to downplaying challenges. It’s a tricky one isn’t it, and a hard balance, e.g. generally helping autist youngsters with self esteem etc, while supporting those in need of support.

  3. John Counsel

    In Australia, the whole issue has been clouded and confused by political games surrounding the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme — introduced by a lame-duck socialist government as a ‘last hurrah’ before losing office, followed by a conservative government that didn’t want it, but lacked the numbers in the house needed to get rid of it.

    Learn more at

    • admin

      Thanks John, and we will check out the link.

  4. susan smith

    When my 46 yr old son was young ,there was NO Aspie diagnosis . To me he was my quirky kid . Most of us had one ,esp if there was more than 2 kiddies in the family . He liked routine –not a prob for me — simple explanations, was sensitive –red hair and very tall helped that . And I knew he struggled with lots of things ,but , there aas no diagnosis was there . He has multiple health probs ,but he battles on ,daily . At 40 ,when his daughter was exhibiting certain traits ,she was checked for Asphergers . As they did the tests ,it was clear that he had many similar traits ,so specialist tested him too . And ,yes , that was what my “quirky kid ” aas diagnosed with . It has been good but difficult for him though as there is not much help for adult diagnosed Aspies . Have to say though ,he is still my “quirky kid “!

    • admin

      That’s such a common tale Susan isn’t it – and being quirky is great, eh? Also, they’re lucky to have such a supportive mum! Yes not to belittle his struggles, as the (adult) support is minimal – but we bet he feels relief at his diagnosis. Thanks for reading/posting! x


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