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Please Don't Use Autistic Self-Regulation Activities as Rewards


My eldest autistic son lives with daily and debilitating levels of anxiety, most probably on account of engaging with an intolerable and inflexible neurotypical world which bombards him endlessly with noise and communication that is not easy for him to decipher.

Leaving his immediate cocoon of safety requires immense acts of bravery upon his part. Some days he is frozen with fear and can only feel secure by immersing himself in television or reading. He knows that in order to break this cycle and to ensure he doesn’t slip into a more depressed, unmotivated place, he must raise his “vibrations” and “lift” himself.

In lieu of any successful therapeutic input from the Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), my adaptable and creative superstar has invented his own personal toolkit of mood lifting activities. They are  simple and require very little assistance from anyone else. He enjoys watching insects in the garden — focusing on the details of life that so often go unnoticed. He watches ants enact their social hierarchy; he notes the patterns and shapes of leaves. Quite often he narrates to himself while doing so and becomes so genuinely engrossed that any interruption jolts him abruptly awake.

As an observer it is clear to me that he has entered into his own unique meditative state, a flow state. The autistic mind is often highly skilled at this — academics and professionals use the term monotropism to describe this function. It appears to me that monotropic focus is an innate part of my son’s neurology, and utilizing this skill allows my son to find peace and tranquility, which in turn allows for some resilience against the chaotic outside world.

So then why would anyone suggest that this specific activity be used as a reward for engaging in tasks that are less desirable for my son? Especially when the less-than-desirable tasks are only undesirable because they are so anxiety-provoking. Using therapeutic and self-regulating activities as incentives and rewards for task completion only seems to occur for people who have invisible conditions such as autism or anxiety.

It shocks me that there are specialist professionals who do not recognize the cruelty inherent in withholding necessary self-regulation activities and treating them as rewards. Autistic people require others to understand that particular activities and actions are needs based and provide relief from external experiences and environmental factors that are potentially debilitating for an autistic mind.

Getty photo by Visual Intermezzo.