Researchers’ Perspectives on Building Strengths and Abilities in FASD

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This year our theme for FASD Awareness Month is Building Strengths and Abilities. Historically, the research around FASD has been really focused on challenges. However, it is equally important to focus on strengths.

We’ve asked members of our Network to weigh in on this topic and we will be sharing their answers throughout the month. In this blog, researchers Katherine Flannigan, Kelly Harding, and Jacqueline Pei explain in their own words why research on strengths is essential and talk about what draws them to this field.

Why is it important to understand and support strengths and abilities?  

“When all we talk about are the difficulties associated with FASD, we can perpetuate feelings of hopelessness and stigma. On the flip side, the more we understand and talk about the strengths and abilities of people with FASD, the more we can shift this conversation. We can acknowledge and validate struggles that are real and important AND create a more balanced, optimistic understanding about FASD. This ultimately has the potential to improve wellbeing in impactful ways for people with FASD and their families”

Dr. Katherine Flannigan, CanFASD Research Network


“Celebrating strengths and abilities honours the dignity and personhood of all individuals, including those with FASD. The current lack of strengths-based research around FASD has likely contributed to the stress and stigma experienced by individuals with FASD and their families. Identifying individual strengths can help build self-confidence and promote the development of specific skills that can provide deep satisfaction in life. When we understand the strengths and diversities of individuals with FASD, we can better recognize how these individual differences contribute to our societal richness of different kinds of brains and ways of functioning”

Dr. Kelly Harding, CanFASD Research Network


“People with FASD have strengths and those strengths are just as important to who they are as their challenges. Strengths and abilities can and should be leveraged within support services and interventions. This provides pathways wherein competencies may be nurtured. When we validate and celebrate the contributions made by individuals with FASD we foster pride and purpose which helps lead towards healthy outcomes.”

Dr. Jacqueline Pei, CanFASD Research Network

How can research about the strengths of people with FASD help families?

“When researchers, policymakers, and especially service providers are intentional about understanding the strengths of people with FASD, these strengths can be more easily recognized and built upon in everyday life. This not only helps to balance the deficit-oriented narrative of FASD and reduce stigma, but it can also help caregivers and families more directly by reducing stress levels, and increasing coping, sense of competence, and resilience.

As well, a more balanced and hopeful view of FASD can help service providers to feel more confident in their ability to work with people with FASD, which has important trickle-down effects for families who then have more places to turn to for FASD-informed supports.”

Dr. Katherine Flannigan, CanFASD Research Network


“Research in this area can help shift societal perspectives on FASD, which often continue to marginalize and stigmatize individuals with FASD and their families. For a long time, the focus of research on families emphasized a deficit-based perspective. Lots of excellent research over the past several decades has evolved from a deficit-based to a strength-based perspective that emphasizes the strengths and successes of individuals with disabilities and their families. We have seen this research come about more recently in the FASD field specifically. This work is essential for further informing research, policy, and practice to meaningfully advance the field of FASD to promote positive outcomes among this population.”

Dr. Kelly Harding, CanFASD Research Network

Why are you interested in doing research in this field?

“Being a researcher in the FASD field means that I am constantly learning. FASD is so unique and complex, and often quite misunderstood by the public (and even many service providers). Trying to tease apart these complexities and figure out ways of better understanding FASD and providing more well-rounded and strengths-based supports is incredibly fulfilling for me as a psychologist. I also love this field because the FASD community is so strong, and in my position, I have the privilege of working with people – individuals and families – who have lived experience with the disability. For me, these partnerships are so important because they can bridge research to everyday life which makes me feel like I am, in my own small way, helping to make a meaningful impact.”

Dr. Katherine Flannigan, CanFASD Research Network


“I became extremely passionate about researching FASD when I first started working with caregivers raising children with FASD. The challenges they experienced and identified were intense and palpable, but caregivers also spoke to the tremendous love they had for their children and the joy their children brought to their lives. Understanding the complexity of FASD, including ways in which families adapt and leverage their strengths and resources, is an essential part of the story.”

Dr. Kelly Harding, CanFASD Research Network


“Working with individuals with FASD has been the most rewarding part of my job. I have learned so much from these folks who have been generous in sharing their perspectives, authentic in their expressions of joy (and frustration), and challenged by the barriers they experience in making meaningful contributions in their lives. As a researcher, it’s important for me to ask how we support the growth of strengths and shape external environments to create space for these strengths to emerge naturally. My interest in this field stems from a desire to build our understandings regarding strengths that contribute to interventions, promote healthy outcomes and highlight the gifts that individuals with FASD bring to us.”

Dr. Jacqueline Pei, CanFASD Research Network

Learn More

You can read about some of the research projects that Katherine, Kelly, and Jacqueline have participated in on strengths here:

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