MOTIVATING STUDENTS WHO
AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDERS
Contributed by Rozella Stewart
Motivating individuals who have Autism Spectrum Disorder is an essential but often difficult challenge. It is essential
because, by definition, they have restricted repertoires of interests
and skills needed for community living and coping. Without planned,
positive experiences, these individuals often become increasingly
victimized by their autism as they age. With successful experiences,
each can become a victor who lives, works, and plays in the community.
It is difficult, at least in part, because people who have autism
are particularly vulnerable to key factors which impact motivation.
An individual's motivation is strongly influenced
by: learning history; learning styles; internal and external incentives
to engage in tasks; expectations of success or failure with a particular
task; meaningfulness and purposefulness of the task from the perspective
of the learner; and task-surrounding environmental variables which
affect attention and achievement.
In general, tasks and activities which learners
associate with past success tend to stimulate interest. Success
begets success! Challenges which trigger memories of past anxieties
and failures tend to stimulate avoidance reactions and self-preservation
responses. Although occasional failure is often seen as a challenge
by learners who are highly motivated to learn through problem solving,
repeated failure fosters feelings of futility and frustration in
fragile learners who lack self-confidence and may lack competencies
for task-related problem solving.
When diligently applied, proactive strategies
often prove successful in eventually eliciting positive, productive
responses and pride in personal accomplishment. The following are
just a few success-oriented strategies that support motivation for
individuals who have Autism Spectrum Disorder:
Know the individual.
Maintain a current list of the individual's strengths
and interests. Include preoccupations
and fascinations that may be considered "bizarre" or strange.
Use these strengths and interests as the foundation for gradually
expanding the individual's repertoire of skills and interests.
Note tasks or activities which create frustration
and heightened anxiety for the individual. Attention to these factors
can result in avoiding episodes which perpetuate insecurity, erode
confidence, foster distrust in the environment, and generally result
in avoidance behaviors.
Pay attention to processing and pacing issues
which may be linked to cognitive and/or motor difficulties inherent
to the individual's autism. Give the individual time to respond.
Vary types of cues given when movement disturbances are suspected.
Structure a supportive environment. Both the social and physical
milieu should encourage and support successful task performance.
Teach in natural environments that contain the
cues and reinforcement which prompt and maintain learned behaviors
Be sure that everyone involved encourages and
supports independent effort whenever possible. Willingness to try
to perform independently as opposed to remaining dependent on others
results when the individual attributes successful performance to
his own efforts rather than to external factors.
Plan optimally stimulating (neither too stimulating
nor too nonstimulating) tasks and activities. Plan ways to decrease
the impact of environmental distractors that interfere with task
initiation and completion.
Use instructional strategies which support successful
Assemble materials, or teach the learner to assemble
materials, in task- appropriate sequences.
Teach new tasks by providing examples or modeling
so the learner has a clear vision of task sequences and expected
Incorporate learning tasks into preferred topics
Plan tasks and activities that result in meaningful
outcomes from the perspective of the learner.
Vary tasks and activities frequently as opposed to requiring boring
repetition. Conversely, capture opportunities to expand learning
when interest is high.
Plan and present tasks and activities at an appropriate
level of difficulty for the individual involved.
Provide instructions or information visually as
opposed to verbally to decrease distraction and to make information
more user friendly for the person.
Introduce unfamiliar tasks in a secure environment
so that later learned familiarity will capture the individual's
attention in more challenging environments. For example, if science
class is going to discuss the stars during class time, parents might
observe a night sky with their son/daughter. This provides a familiar
link to subsequent school experiences. This familiarization process
is sometimes referred to as "teaching pivotal behaviors."
Learned behaviors become pivotal in motivating the individual to
attend to tasks in a variety of situations.
Assign specific models for the individual to observe
and imitate when in group activities such as circle time or group
exercises. When in more fluid group situations, assign or help the
individual to select a specific role which he or she can perform.
Teach the individual how to perform selected roles.
Plan for successful outcomes that can be achieved
"here and now" rather than at some more distant time.
Rather than pushing for a perfect response, reinforce all goal-directed
Structure motivating event sequences in which
the less familiar, less preferred activity is followed by the familiar,
preferred experience (First _____, then _____.). Structure short,
successful experiences with less preferred activities and longer,
equilibrium restoring experiences with more preferred, easier-to-tolerate
activities. This strategy works particularly well for very hesitant
learners who have extremely restricted repertoires of interests.
For learners with broader repertoires of interests
and skills, build motivational momentum by beginning with highly
preferred, success- guaranteed tasks and alternating such tasks
and activities with less preferred, more challenging tasks throughout
the day. This strategy also works for individuals who are so highly
aroused by anticipated preferred events that they can not focus
on other tasks until the highly stimulating need has been addressed.
Focus on errorless learning. Teach (perhaps by
modeling or having a peer model) the person to do the task right
the first time.
Avoid having the learner undo or disassemble products
which he or she perceives as finished. Erasing work or taking apart
finished products often makes no sense to the learner and may result
in a "Why do it?" response mode. Plan ways to correct
or repeat work that do not involve undoing what has been done.
Offer attention-getting choices which stimulate
In general, accentuate the positive; disempower
Finally, remember that failure, sarcasm, ridicule,
and apparent lack of confidence on the part of those who live and
work with people with Autism Spectrum Disorders decrease motivation
and perpetuate cycles of learned helplessness. Increased motivation
results from experiences which teach people how to interact with
both social and physical environments in ways that result in positive
outcomes. While always most secure with the familiar, resistance
to the unfamiliar decreases and inclinations to try gradually increases
as people with Autism Spectrum Disorders learn that they will be
okay and that they might even enjoy a new experience.
References and for further reading
Butera, G., & Haywood, H.C. (1995). Cognitive
education of young children with autism. In E. Schopler & G.B.
(Eds.), Learning and cognition in autism (pp. 269-292). New York,
NY: Plenum Press.
Charlop, M.H., Kurtz, P.F., & Casey, F.G.
(1990). Using abberant behaviors as reinforcers for autistic children.
Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 23, 163-181.
Dyer, K., Dunlap, G., & Winterling, V. (1990).
Effects of choice making on the serious problem behaviors of students
with severe handicaps. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 23,
Frea, W.D. (1995). Social-communication skills
in higher functioning children with autism. In R.L. Koegel &
L.K. Koegel (Eds.), Teaching children with autism: Strategies for
initiating positive interactions and improving learning opportunities
(pp. 53-66). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
Koegel, R.L., Koegel, L.K., Frea, W.D., &
Smith, A.E. (1995). Emerging interventions for children with autism:
Longitudinal and lifestyle implications. In R.L. Koegel & L.K.
Koegel (Eds.), Teaching children with autism: Strategies for initiating
positive interactions and improving learning opportunities (pp.
1- 15). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
Koegel, R.L., Koegel, L.K., & Parks, D.R.
(1995). Teach the Individual: Model of Generalization. In R.L. Koegel
& L.K. Koegel (Eds.), Teaching children with autism: Strategies
for initiating positive interactions and improving learning opportunities
(pp. 67-77). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
Moes, D. (1995). Parent education and parenting
stress. In R.L. Koegel & L.K. Koegel (Eds.), Teaching children
with autism: Strategies for initiating positive interactions and
improving learning opportunities (pp. 79-93). Baltimore, MD: Paul
H. Brookes Publishing Co.
Smith, M.D., Belcher, R.G., & Juhrs, P.D.
(1995). A guide to successful employment for individuals with autism.
Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
Stuart, R. (1996). Motivating students who have
Autism Spectrum Disorders. The Reporter, 1(3), 1-3.
Reproduction kindly allowed by
Indiana Resource Center Autism. Visit their site for more useful
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