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These Strategies Can Help Motivate Children on the Autism Spectrum

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As an autistic advocate who has raised a son on the spectrum and works as an autism consultant, I get asked lots of questions about motivation — specifically how to motivate a child or teen on the autism spectrum. This lack of apparent motivation relates to almost anything that isn’t a preferred activity, such as self-care, homework, social activities or trying anything new. Here’s what I can share: children and teens on the spectrum often have a really difficult time doing anything that isn’t an area of interest, seems pointless to them or causes anxiety. They may shut down, have an anxiety attack, refuse, cry or sometimes become verbally or physical aggressive as we ask, cajole, reason, beg or insist they do their work or give something a try.

The best approach to solving this problem is to figure out what is causing it in the first place. A good place to start is with this assumption: if a child won’t do something, there’s a reason. If they won’t, it’s because  they can’t — but figuring out “why not” takes some detective work.

As you start, please ask yourself if your expectations are meeting your child at their developmental age. While the lack of motivation issue has nothing to do with intelligence: the social-emotional age of our bright, verbal autistic children can fall well behind their biological age by about one-third. There’s not enough research to give exact stats, but this lag is a common experience among individuals and is widely reported by parents. They may also just move much slower as they cycle through their tasks — this rule of thumb is that they may do half the work in twice the time. It may look as if they aren’t motivated to do a task, but it is critical to understand what slower processing speed means before jumping to conclusions about intent.

With that in the back of your mind, let’s take a look at some of the factors that may contribute to what looks like lack of motivation. If you can address the underlying issues, you may be able to help your child to peel himself away from Fortnite, put down the graphic novels, or stop watching unboxing videos and focus on important chores, responsibilities and opportunities as well. Autism is just another way of being human, so the reasons can vary widely, but here are some common autism-related issues that can impact motivation.

Our children are wired differently

Brain-based skills called executive functions allow us to achieve any goal-oriented tasks, and autistic children — regardless of how bright they or verbal they are — often have problems with executive functions. This can affect their ability to:

• Start anything

• Plan, sequence steps, and manage time

• Be flexible in our thinking

• Transition from one task or step to the next

• Remember what they were just asked to do

• Manage our emotions or control our responses

• Organize anything — desks, backpacks, notebooks, rooms, wallet

• Maintain focus and attention

The majority of people with ASD do have significant executive functioning challenges, and one of the most common issues is difficulty initiating tasks. This means even when your son or daughter knows how to do their work, they may not know how to start. Thus, when autistic children refuse to do a seemingly reasonable task, consider that they might be communicating, “I don’t know how to start this.” If we understand this, we can find some strategies that may help the child get started and get through what we are asking them to do.

Just as importantly, maybe we can get teachers to stop editorializing the behavior (lazy, difficult, weird, zoned out, inattentive, won’t focus, rude, oppositional). Perhaps we can also get them to stop suggesting solutions or posing questions that are both offensive and outside of their areas of expertise (“You should be more consistent at home. Can you take him to the doctor to get medication for attention? What’s going on in your home?”)

Fortunately, challenges in executive functioning can be addressed in your child’s Individual Education Plan. Once you know what you’re dealing with, the school can help you identify strategies that may help your child to find ways to be successful. The book Smart But Scattered is fantastic.

Children and teens with autism often seem to have performance anxiety. Since autism is a pervasive developmental disorder, they may develop skills differently than a typical person in every area of functioning across a lifespan. Our child’s communication skills, social skills, life skills, as well as how they experience the physical world, may not develop or be learned in the same way as your typical child acquires the knowledge — or at the same pace.

The way a person with ASD learns things isn’t “wrong,” but it is outside of what we commonly see. There’s not a lot of patience for “different” in our society. We “talk the talk” but don’t uniformly “walk the walk.”

What does this mean for your child? Often, it means that he is corrected in every area of functioning, in every setting, by everyone, from the time he is old enough to understand language. Over time, our children can shut down and stop trying. Why bother trying to make friends when you get embarrassed, humiliated and scolded each time? Why bother trying a new life skill or homework problem or sport? Same outcome — the reprimand and the shame.

It happens at school a lot. Our children are expected to learn the same curriculum as their typical peers and do the same volume of work. Our visual learners are expected to learn by lecture; our auditory learners who cannot hear and write at the same time are expected to take notes; our kinesthetic, hands-on learners are expected to make sense of text and words instead of experiencing something for themselves.

When they try to do the work, it is done incorrectly, too slowly, they missed the point of the question or it’s illegible. Over time, our children learn not to trust their instinct and ability. They don’t want to try, because if they do, it’ll just be another opportunity for an adult to tell them they’re wrong or that they need to do something over again. They may develop chronic performance anxiety. Who would want to try if they knew they’d experience that same loss of dignity every time? Not me. Not you. Not them.

Performance anxiety is just one kind of anxiety that can impact our children and affect motivation. Children who are teased or bullied may have a difficult time feeling motivated enough to even get out of bed, let alone study or get through a major project. In fact, children with ASD who are bullied can show symptoms of anxiety that resemble post-traumatic stress disorder: they keep reliving the incident(s) and it plays over and over in their mind, even years later. They cannot seem to shut off the memory of these social injuries. Anxiety is a major concern for our children that cannot be overstated. It impacts not only motivation, sleep and learning, but a child’s ability to experience happiness, joy and well-being.

The more engaged they are, the more likely they will be to do or to try what is expected of them. Children with AS often have narrow interests, but they can become quite the experts in those areas. It can be frustrating for parents to try and expand those areas. Often, our children want to do nothing but eat, sleep and game, or eat, sleep and talk about horses.

Experts in the field of AS know these intense interests and the challenges in getting our children to participate in anything else is part of the package; it can go hand in hand with being an autistic learner.

Think of the level of engagement as a light switch. When a child with autism is interested in something, their energy levels, body language, posture, voice and facial expression are all turned to the ON position. They are really interested in what they are sharing with you, or what you are sharing with them. Their “light” can stay on all day and they’ll be a happy camper! But if presented with a topic of no interest, that has not been made relevant or seems like an overwhelming task, watch the light switch: the voice, the posture, the attention, the energy— pffffft….zaaappppp. OFF.

In order to improve motivation, we need to make the work meaningful to the child. We have to connect it to a future goal or to an area of special interest.

Sensory processing and motor challenges can be a significant factor in motivation (or lack thereof). We know that up to 90 percent of those with autism have sensory and motor issues that are the cause of, or contribute to, emotional or behavioral responses. We have to know how our children are experiencing their physical and sensory world before we try to figure out why we can’t get them to do anything except their special interest.

Since fine motor challenges can make all life skills and homework onerous, tiring and even painful, and sensory overload can leave children in a state of heightened anxiety, it is critical to know how your children are impacted as you figure out the best way to teach and support them. Executive dysfunction, engagement, anxiety and sensory and motor issues are just some of the factors that can contribute to lack of motivation. These barriers to motivation can seem daunting, but once you put on your autism goggles and view them through those lenses, the path becomes clearer. Here are some suggestions.

• Start with a couple of assessments if you don’t already have them. Get a thorough occupational therapy assessment, including a sensory assessment. This document should be completed by an OT with additional university courses completed in sensory processing. Also, get a complete psycho-educational assessment including an evaluation of executive functioning skills. Results from this report, along with the sensory processing information, can let you know if a child’s difficulty with motivation may stem from learning, environmental or sensory differences. Use the documentation to improve your child’s supports within the IEP.

• Keep the child focused on the future. Your child is 12 years old and wants to be a game designer. They are academically capable, but you can’t get them to do language-based work. They ‘re telling you that writing an essay is useless and pointless, projects are boring and hard to do, and besides, they can never think of anything to write about. How can you make this homework have value to the child? How can you make it relevant so that they understand how this skill ties in to their future?

Show them. Make the future real. School can be such a challenging place for our kids that the end of high school seems so far away and insurmountable. We have the power to keep them focused on a future that is built on their strengths and has them surrounded with those who share their interests. Some creative ideas that have worked for others include:

Read course descriptions from post-secondary programs; take the virtual tours to show them the dorms, the cafeteria, the gaming lab. Call the university or college they might attend one day and see if you can get a professor to meet with you and your child. Pay for lunch and let the prof get your child excited about the future. Let the professor praise him for his high marks in computer tech and math, and also tell him he’ll have to raise his English marks to get into this kind of program. In this case, the right messenger can make all the difference when you are trying to motivate your kid.

• Your child’s elementary or high school may be able to help improve motivation. Can you encourage teachers to use the child’s special interest to get them more engaged in school work? For example, instead of having them write a short story, let them write a game story and plot. Include famous game developers in the options when the class has to write a biography. For art class, let them create the video game cover art. There is no end to the creative ways to teach the relevance of the work we require them to do if we can hook it to areas of interest.

• Parents and teachers can use strategies that will help the child be successful with the task. Do they need a visual to supplement or support whatever you told them verbally? This could be a list of the steps of a chore or project, or maybe just putting the expectation onto a calendar. Poor working memory may mean they don’t remember what you just asked them to do: use visuals. Most children on the spectrum are strong visual learners.

• Expectations should match the child’s ability and skills. We often expect our autistic children to learn things just because we’ve shown them a few times, or because they are old enough, so we feel they should be doing it. Keep in mind that anxiety can make it impossible to remember what we know. When we are anxious, our thinking brain goes offline and our emotional brain kicks in.

• When children with autism are allowed to learn in an environment that does not assault their senses, this can help them to manage and regulate their behaviors and emotions in the school setting and at home. This means one less barrier to doing what is expected of them.

• Make sure they understand the value and relevance of what you are asking them to do. No one likes doing things that are unpleasant or hard. If we understand why we are doing it, it can make it easier to get through, or even to get started.

• Try to address anything that is causing or contributing to anxiety He’s being bullied or teased? It is critical that schools find a way to make that stop. He is afraid to try for fear of being incorrect? Teach tolerance of making mistakes by “living your life out loud.” That means you let him see and hear you make mistakes and calmly try again. Let his teacher do the same. Reinforce him for making a mistake and sticking with it to try again. If he is less fearful of making a mistake, he may be more motivated to try.

• Encourage your school to teach your child to self-calm to reduce anxiety in the school setting. Again, this can be part of your child’s Individual Education Plan if it is a documented need. Some school boards have mental health nurses or social workers that can work directly with your child to teach these things. Others may have staff that are knowledgeable and experienced implementing programs for sensory and self-regulation, like the Zones of Regulation or the Incredible 5-Point Scale.

Don’t forget to praise or reinforce your child for effort, not just for achievement. I’m not saying we bribe our children, I am saying that when they find a way to initiate something we may say, “Thanks, hon. Appreciate it.” Other children may be motivated by seeing boxes checked off on a list of steps or chores. You know your child best. Recognize their efforts and achievements in ways they respond to.

One caution. Be genuine in your response, and careful not to overdo it. Some of our children are very uncomfortable with praise or attention, and find this kind of reinforcement patronizing and uncomfortable. For those children, you are the true expert. It’s still necessary to recognize when they’ve had to extend effort to do something you know has been difficult for them. For those children, your response might be much more low-key. It might be something like, “I appreciate that you did that.”

A final note. We do not grow out of being on the autism spectrum. If we need visuals to support our memory, our learning and our executive functioning needs, then we may always need them in one form or another, even as an adult. I’m sure many of you use visuals every day for yourself. I know I would be lost without my two cell phones. I have two separate calendars, one on my Android and one on my iPhone. Without them, I’d be more lost than I already am. Just make the supports that you provide for your child age-appropriate and appealing, and that will help to motivate the buy in.

On a personal note, carving out a strength-based life where you feel valued and that your work is meaningful can go a long way toward tamping down  difficulties with initiating tasks. I can tell you that for sure. The feedback from parents who recognize their child’s struggles in the articles I write has me planning and drafting for the next one each time.

Getty image by kwanchaichaiudom.

Originally published: March 13, 2019
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