Why SLPs Should Focus Less on External Rewards and More on Intrinsic Motivation

You know that fight you get into every week with your husband? The one that goes something like this:


You: You didn’t wash the dishes.


Husband: You didn’t ask me to wash them.


You: I shouldn’t have to ask you. You should want to wash them.


Husband: I’m sorry - why would I want to wash them?


You: You should want to wash them because it will make me happy.


Husband: Look, I will wash them to make you happy but I’ll never actually want to wash them…


We’ve all been there. And the problem is, that we can’t make someone want to do something. We can ask them to do something, or tell them they need to do something, but we can’t make them want to do something.



What is intrinsic motivation? Intrinsic motivation is behavior that is driven by internal rewards.


So what is intrinsic motivation to communicate? A child who is intrinsically motivated to communicate interacts with you because he wants to interact with you. Isn’t that what we want for our kids on the spectrum?


So why, all too often, are we doing this:


Child: “I want the toy.”


Therapist: “Oh! Use your eyes and look at me.”


Child: [With eye contact] “I want the toy”.


Therapist: “Good looking!”


This is a reinforcement system based on external rewards. In this situation, we are reinforcing the child with verbal praise. In other words, we are hoping the child is motivated to use eye contact because we are praising them for doing so.


Instead of having the child look at you because he will be praised, wouldn’t you rather have the child look at you because…

- He wants to...

- He enjoys interacting with you...

- He thinks you’re fun...

- He thinks you’re funny...

- He feels connected to you...

- He is intrinsically motivated by the interaction...??


When I work with young kids on the spectrum, I have two goals in mind: to help the child to 1) CONNECT and 2) COMMUNICATE.


Without connecting, the child will be lost in a rote language world. The child will end up with some functional phrases, but won’t grow into an engaged, flexible, independent thinker.


So before you start your next therapy session, think about it. How can you get this child to want to be there with you? How can you improve this child’s intrinsic motivation to communicate? Once you figure that out, I promise you - a lot will change…your perspective, your sessions, and the child.


If you are struggling to find a child’s motivation to interact with you, try using sensory activities in your sessions. Not only will sensory activities help to regulate the child, but they can be so much fun - they can make the child want to be there with you. To receive a free downloadable handout of my Top 5 Songs with Sensory Activities to Match, click here!


Jessie Ginsburg, M.S., CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist, autism expert, and founder of Pediatric Therapy Playhouse, a multidisciplinary clinic in Los Angeles.

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© 2020 Jessie Ginsburg, M.S., CCC-SLP