must If I received a dollar every time a parent asked me how to motivate their autistic child, I’d have the cost of my meals covered every day. This has got to be one of the least understood and poorly addressed topics related to the autism culture--and though the answer is not a one-size-fits all, I'm going to give it a try.
Long story short?
If your child isn't 'motivated' to do something, they may have a negative association with the demand or skill. The task of the adults in the room is to make sure the gaps in skills or understanding are addressed with dignity, taught to mastery so that the child feels confident...and then we must go out of our way to match demands to the child's ability. Ta-da! In other words, often, a child 'won't' because they 'can't'--even when they have demonstrated the ability in the past. Confusing?
Let me explain.
Generally, repeated experiences create pathways in the brain connecting specific experiences or activities to specific thoughts, memories, or behaviour responses. In other words, our children build strong brain connections between the expectation placed on them, and the intense memory of how those expectations made them feel--emotionally and physically. In simple terms, all humans are motivated to do things that make us feel good about ourselves. or feel good while doing the activity--and are motivated to avoid things that make them feel not-so-good, physically or emotionally.
Children and teens on the spectrum have a really difficult time doing anything that isn’t an area of interest, seems pointless, or causes anxiety. What follows are just a few of the many factors that can contribute to your child’s reluctance or inability to do anything other than areas of high interest. Let's dig deeper to see what this might mean to you and your child.:
1. EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONS
Our children are wired differently. Executive functions mostly originate in our prefrontal cortex--our 'thinking' brain" . These brain-based skills includes things like:
Our ability to initiate our work
Manage our time
Plan our work
Know what steps to take to complete our projects
How to be flexible in our thinking
How to transition from one task or step to the next
How to use past knowledge to help us with the work at hand
How to manage our emotions or control our responses
Our ability to remember things
Our ability to organize anything—desks, backpacks, notebooks, rooms, wallet
Ability to maintain focus and attention
A quick glance at that list and many of you may recognize challenges your child has at home and school. While up to 95% of those with ADHD have Executive Dysfunction, it is not always assessed as a separate and distinct diagnosis in ASD (though I have yet to meet one person with ASD who did not demonstrate or describe serious issues in some or all of these areas).
Moreover, many of our children were first diagnosed with ADHD before AS was correctly identified. Suffice to say executive function differences are a huge issue for our children. The good news? Once identified, there are strategies we can use to help the child overcome or manage each area of concern.
One of the most common E.F. problems in our children is a difficulty initiating tasks. This means that even when your son or daughter knows how to do his work, he or she may not know how to start.
When a child refuses to do a seemingly reasonable task, consider that she might be communicating, “I don’t know how to start this.” When this is understood, we are well on our way to finding a strategy that may help.
As important…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 should come from experts in ASD instead of teachers who are not required to have specialized training (‘ be more consistent at home; have you changed his meds lately?; 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.
Also important to consider: sometimes, out children seem quite capable with some of these skills, and at others times, not so much or not at all. What's going on? While the frontal lobe contains the 'thinking brain' (executive functions), it doesn't function very well when a person is overwhelmed with emotion. Anxious, frightened, frustrated, or angry children may have great difficulty doing something today that they did so well yesterday. We have to watch what we ask of our children when the daily expectations make them so anxious from the get-go.
Consider that up to 80% of children and teems with ASD may suffer from anxiety.
2. PERFORMANCE ANXIETY
Autism is a Pervasive Development Disorder. That means a child can function differently than a typical person in every area of functioning across a lifespan. This means that 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 acquired the knowledge.
The way a person with ASD learns these 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 talk.’
What does this mean for your child? Often, it means that he is corrected in every area of functioning from the time he is old enough to understand language.
Same goes with school work. Our children are expected to learn the same curriculum as their typical peers, and to 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 that they’re wrong or that they need to do something over again. They may develop a chronic kind of 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 cannot focus on other areas of their life with any interest or joy. It’s pretty hard to be motivated to do anything if you are caught in a loop like this.
Anxiety is a major concern for our children that cannot be overstated. It impacts not only motivation, but a child’s ability to experience happiness, joy, and anticipation of a bright future.
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 that 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 Asperger’s.
Think of the level of engagement as a light switch. When a child with AS is interested in something, his energy levels, body language, his posture, his voice, and his facial expression are all turned to the ON position. He is really interested in what he is sharing with you, or what you are sharing with him. His ‘light’ can stay on all day and he’s a happy camper!
Now, presented with a topic of no interest, has not been made relevant to him, 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.
So what to do? All of these barriers to self-motivation can seem daunting, but once you put on your AS goggles and view this through those lenses, the path becomes clearer. Here are some suggestions.
How can you make him understand how this skill ties in to his future?
Show him. 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: