Motivation and Autism: part 2 of the "triad of impairments"
Motivation and autism: little beautiful female child with blond hair choosing dessert holding unhealthy but tasty red candy licorice and apple fruit in healthy versus unhealthy die nutrition isolated on white background

How Can You Use Motivation To Help Autistic Individuals?

Note: This is the third part of a three part series on a more positive version of the classic “triad of impairments” in autism. If you missed it, you can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Every human being needs to be motivated in order to put effort into something. Most of us would probably prefer watching a favourite movie rather than doing the dishes, yet those menial tasks still have to be done. In order to motivate ourselves, some of us may do the less preferred tasks first then reward ourselves with the things we enjoy. Parents use this tactic all the time with children to get them to do tasks they might not like: homework or chores, by motivating with tasks that a child does enjoy like computer time or a special food treat. Motivation is a key factor when working with individuals on the spectrum, and the key to what motivates can often be found in a person’s interests and hobbies.

How do you find the key to motivate someone on the spectrum?

Like most of us, many people on the autism spectrum have an interest, but an aspect of that interest, or the interest itself may be unusual and hard to spot. Some children like movie credits, floor polishers, ceiling fans, flags, serial numbers on buses, transportation schedules, dinosaurs and the list could go on. If you do not know the person well, and are unsure of what their interests are, try to find out by asking the parents or those that are close to them. You could also do some self-discovery exercises with higher functioning individuals that are found in the book  Autism…What Does It Mean To Me? I also like the book Just Give Him the Whale for educators which is about using a person’s strengths and fascinations to motivate and teach a variety of concepts.

Motivation is a positive way to engage those on the spectrum

Incorporating interests and hobbies when working with individuals on the spectrum can motivate, engage, sustain interest, and become a meaningful way to relate to them. Too often, educators are bound by a set curriculum, a teaching method, professional and personal goals, and a personal experience of what is meaningful in learning – interests are ignored or discouraged. The interests/hobbies of the person with ASD are not incorporated, dismissed, or used as a reward.

There can be a fear or concern that interests may take over in a teaching situation or impede the learning process. Some people confuse an interest with a diagnosis of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). The difference here is OCD is anxiety based and the compulsions are there to neutralize the obsessions. An obsession/compulsion does not give pleasure, but a special interest does.

When creating schedules, make sure some time for interests/hobbies is allotted. This can be a motivator for doing less preferred tasks beforehand. For the older individual, let them know what working at a job can do for them. For example, John Simpson loves to watch football games but has to work to pay for the satellite television to watch the games. Don’t all of us work to afford the things we want?

Whatever you plan to do with an autistic individual, make sure it is meaningful to them. Keeping tasks meaningful will keep the motivation high and your time with that individual less of a struggle.

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