Family-tested solutions
for Special Needs

Toddler and mother playing together

Family-tested solutions
for Special Needs

Toddler and mother playing together

Power Up Your Child’s IEP with “Functional Strengths”


Since he was 3, my son David has been obsessed with dinosaurs (a remarkably common interest of children with autism). He loves dinosaur movies, dinosaur theories, children’s picture books about dinosaurs, and hundreds upon hundreds of plastic figures that crowd nearly every flat surface in his living space. Believe me, after 25 years of hearing about dinosaurs, we are so, so over it! Yet when people in his school and personal life (including his parents) considered that interest as a functional strength, it has proved to be a valuable resource for helping him grow.

Raw Ingredients for Solutions

When families start looking for help, they hear a lot about what’s wrong. At an IEP table, the discussion path often looks something like this: Problems->goals and objectives->services and supports. What gets missed is the opportunity to build creative solutions through a careful inventory of functional strengths in the child or youth and family. Functional strengths are the raw ingredients of creative solutions. A more effective path is: Functional strengths->Priority concerns->goals and objectives->services and supports.

From Problems to Services

Doing a functional strengths inventory is not the same as the usual two minutes spent filling in a few lines at the top of an IEP document. Examining functional strengths is more like packing for the journey from problems to solutions. Before you set out, it’s a good idea to check your pockets/purse/backpack or the trunk of your car for any items that might come in handy down the road.

An inventory of functional strengths can often help creative people on your child’s education team think of ways to motivate learning, manage problems, or celebrate success. Functional strengths drill down beyond the top level (“she’s a loving person”) to the raw material for solutions. To begin, think about five different kinds of functional strengths in your child or youth, your family, and yourself:

Five Kinds of Functional Strengths

1. Qualities—Personal traits such as persistence and loyalty to friends, or the capacity to stay calm in a crisis. This is what people most often mention when asked about strengths.

2. Abilities—What a person can do. Abilities might include a learned skill or talent, such as baking great cookies, or playing an instrument.

3. Interests—What a motivates a person or makes that person feel curious and engaged. Examples might include a passion for super-hero movies, sports scores, or a favorite type of music.

4. Assets—Things you own or can use, such as a car, a monthly bus pass, a savings account, insurance, or safe housing. Even discount coupons for a movie theater can be assets!

5. Resources—People and organizations that can help if you need it. These might include a drop-in center for youth, a church that provides food assistance, or a neighbor who can give members of the family a place to stay in a crisis.

Our Pre-Historic Road Trip

In Dino David’s life, a creative teacher turned hated math word problems into attractive “dinosaur mysteries.” One of our family assets–a bunch of Frequent Flyer Miles–led to a nine-month plan for motivating weekly school behavior with the lure of visiting a natural history museum. He called this our “Prehistoric Road Trip.” The PRT has become an annual birthday ritual that requires David to create a travel budget and save his money for 12 months. He never got the hang of multiplication or division, but he mastered electronic banking in order to monitor his savings for those trips.

A Rich Inner Landscape

Even more awesome: His favorite dinosaur movies have now become a rich landscape in which a young man with autism can explore remarkably subtle themes about his own emotional development. Trust me, the final Jurassic World battle between Indomitus Rex and Tyrannosaurus Rex is all about the inner battle between the blind, uncontrollable rage of David’s early years and the fierce assertion of a young adult’s right to choose his own groceries. David would be happy to tell you everything about it.

If you find using “Functional Strengths” to guide and enhance your IEP meetings has helped, please share— I would love to hear how it’s made a difference and share with our readers!

Wendy Lowe Besmann

Wendy Besmann, Founder and Content Director of Get There Project, is the mother of a son with autism and bipolar disorder. She is the author of Family Road Map: A Step-By-Step Guide to Navigating Health, Education, and Insurance Systems for Families with Special Needs, Team Up for Your Child: A Step-By-Step Guide to Working Smarter with Doctors, Schools, Insurers and Agencies, and (with Kimberly Douglass, PhD) Young Adult Road Map: A Step-By-Step Guide to Wellness, Independent Living, and Transition Services for People in Their Teens and Twenties. She founded Get There Project’s primary partner Team Up for Families, an advocacy and training organization for families living with behavioral, developmental, and other special health needs.

1 Comment

  1. wendy luckenbill on September 4, 2019 at 10:52 pm

    wow I love this. the idea is so helpful. Talking about strengths that have no relation to building a child’s future is so frequent. I will pass this along for sure.

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