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Two Ways to Increase Intrinsic Motivation in Autistic Kids

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

When I meet a parent of a child on the spectrum, or I’m training a therapist working with a child on the spectrum, one of my first questions is, “What motivates the child?” You’d be shocked by the number of times parents and therapists have told me, “Nothing seems to motivate him.” Often times, parents and therapists will either say “nothing”, or they’ll name 2, maybe 3 activities the child enjoys.

Let's switch gears for a minute.

Imagine you’re traveling across a tropical land. You’ve spent so much time preparing for your trip and now you’re there. There’s an ancient castle you’ve always wanted to hike to, and it’s finally time to go see it. You put on all of your hiking gear, you head up the mountain, you wade through water, you cut through grass that’s taller than you. You come to a clearing, and you see this beautiful, magical castle ahead. You walk towards it and you come to a cliff. The rope bridge to the castle is dangling down farther than you can see. The bridge is broken.

Do you get the point?

The broken bridge represents decreased motivation. You’ve planned a therapy session or language activity, but when you’re finally ready to begin, you see his motivation is missing. It’s going to be very difficult to work on language and social skills when there is no motivation.

We know how important it is for children to be motivated when learning. Think about how difficult it is for neurotypical kids to learn when they are not motivated. Now imagine how much more difficult it is for kids on the spectrum to learn when they are lacking motivation. Our first goal has to be to build that bridge. We have to find ways to motivate the child.

But that’s not enough.

Because not all motivation is created equal.

What we really need to focus on is improving the child’s intrinsic motivation to communicate. We can use external rewards as motivators all we want, but did you know that research has shows that external rewards have the reverse effects? Meaning, they actually decrease the child's desire to participate in the rewarded activity. That’s right, decrease.

Let me tell you about a study in the 70s. Researchers told preschool students that they could get a ribbon if they draw a picture. They did this for a couple of weeks. What they found, is that after a few weeks, these children started drawing less in their free time. This means, that rewarding the children for drawing decreased their desire to draw. Why is this?

One of the biggest factors that affects intrinsic motivation is autonomy. We want to have control over what we do and when we do it. This is not just kids. This is for all people. Think about your job. Do you prefer your boss giving you specific deadlines and micromanaging you, or would you rather know what work needs to get done and be able to do it when you want and in the order you want? Kids want this type of freedom too.

One of the ways to increase a child’s intrinsic motivation is by giving the child the chance to choose the activities and the order of activities. If you read my posts, this is not the first time you’re hearing me say this. We have to be flexible.

Another big factor that affects intrinsic motivation is mastery. You know when you go bowling and you get a lower score than the last time you went? It’s kind of depressing. We always want to feel like we’re getting better. Kids feel the same way. It’s not just us who wants them to make progress, they want things to come easier to them too.

This means, we should place demands carefully. It’s important for kids to feel successful. If we’re constantly putting high demands on our kids, learning isn’t going to be fun for them, and their motivation is going to decrease. We want to make sure that we’re challenging them, but at just the right level so that they still feel successful.

So next time you’re trying to harness a child’s motivation, remember: To truly improve intrinsic motivation, the child needs to feel a sense of autonomy and mastery.

Jessie Ginsburg, M.S., CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist, CEO of Pediatric Therapy Playhouse, and creator of ASD from the Inside Out.

If you're an SLP, click here to learn about the Inside Out Sensory Certificate for SLPs. If you're a parent of an autistic child or child with sensory needs, click here to learn about the Inside Out Sensory Communication Program for Parents.

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1 Comment

Jenna McAfee
Jenna McAfee
Mar 30, 2022

Can you give clear cut examples? I know I am supposed to be using sensory in Speech, I know I am supposed to increase intrinsic motivation, but how? I know I'm supposed to do these things, but there aren't any examples of how to do it or how to go about it.

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