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Strengths-Based Approaches to Support Marginalized Individuals

What is a Strengths-Based Approach?

At its core, a strengths-based approach is focusing on an individual's strengths, skills, and interests.

The strength-based approach has its foundation in social work and builds upon the client’s strengths, specifically seeing the client as resourceful and resilient when they are in adverse conditions (StrengthsBased Models in Social Work; McCashen, Wayne [2005]). It is client-led and is centered on outcomes using an individual’s strengths.

According to a recent article by D. Silverman, et al. published in early 2023, researchers have delineated three different types of strengths-based approaches:

  • Universal Strengths Approach- recognizes that all people, regardless of whether they hold a systemically marginalized identity, have inherent strengths that are in part determined by their life experiences.

  • Difference As Strengths Approach- recognizes that the differences between the cultures, perspectives, and ways of being between people from systemically marginalized and privileged backgrounds can serve as assets for both society and systemically marginalized individuals themselves.

  • Identity-Specific Strengths Approach- recognizes people’s systemically marginalized identities and associated lived experiences as a direct source of strengths that can help them succeed and contribute to their societies, regardless of how these identities and experiences differ from those of privileged individuals.

What is preventing strengths-based approaches from being used more?

A key barrier to inclusive practices in healthcare and education is the reliance on using deficit-based approaches like the medical model with marginalized populations. A marginalized population is a group of people who because of personal attributes such as a diagnosis, socioeconomic status, age, race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexual or gender orientation- have been excluded by society from typical community participation. (Gutman, 2021). The medical model historically aspires to normalization, symptom reduction, and elimination of conditions identified based on deficits that cause functional impairment in major life activities. Such a deficit-based perspective limits psychological science by overlooking the broader experiences, values, perspectives, and strengths that individuals who face systemic marginalization often bring to their societies (Silverman, 2023).

What are the marginalized individuals saying about the use of strengths-based approaches?

Many marginalized populations, including LGBTQ+, autistic and neuro-diverse and at-risk youth & adults are sharing their own lived experiences and telling researchers that strengths-based approaches that are focusing on leveraging their strengths are beneficial. They are asking professionals to utilize strengths-based approaches. It is important for service providers and educators to include the subjective nature of autonomy, self-determination, and personal fulfillment during assessments and elicit from the youth what they believe will generate happiness, satisfaction, and a sense of general well-being in their adult lives.

What can professionals, like OTs, counselors, etc. do to help?

An expert panel participated in a round table conversation regarding the shifts that are being made specifically around supporting autism. In this panel the following summaries were made:

  • In order to understand strengths and weaknesses we must first consider societal and environmental barriers rather than the dichotomy between strengths and weaknesses

  • We should not only be thinking about strength-based approaches within autism but with other populations and marginalized individuals.

  • There is a danger in overlooking challenges. Strengths-based approaches should highlight strengths, but not do so in a way to misses addressing challenges that individuals may have.

  • With different populations like autism, we need to avoid stereotypes. Stereotypes can be harmful and detrimental.

  • Strengths-based approaches go along well with participatory approaches. It is critical to include marginalized populations, like autistic adults within the research, practice, and policy.

  • Strengths-based approaches have a real impact on people's lives in concrete ways like increasing practical skills, and employment, but also empowering autistic and other marginalized populations and changing society's perspectives.

  • Strengths-based approaches may even help by changing autistic's or marginalized populations' perceptions of themselves building self-confidence and allowing them to express their strengths, skills, and interests more.

The strength-based approach allows individuals to see themselves at their best in order to see their own value. Moving forward often with the support of professionals, like occupational therapists, social workers, psychologists, etc. they can capitalize on their strengths rather than focus on their negative characteristics.


Gutman, S. A. (2021). Working with marginalized populations. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 75(6).

McCashen, W. (2005). The strengths approach: A strengths-based resource for sharing power and creating change. BT Press.

Silverman, D. M., Rosario, R. J., Hernandez, I. A., & Destin, M. (2023). The ongoing development of strength-based approaches to people who hold systemically marginalized identities. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 108886832211452.

Urbanowicz, A., Nicolaidis, C., Houting, J. den, Shore, S. M., Gaudion, K., Girdler, S., & Savarese, R. J. (2019). An expert discussion on strengths-based approaches in autism. Autism in Adulthood, 1(2), 82–89.


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