Motivation and Autism

by Maxine and Daniel

If I received a dollar every time that a parent asked me how to motivate their autistic child, I’d have the cost of my lunch covered every day. This has got to be one of the least understood and poorly addressed issues in this field.

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 problems with doing anything besides playing Minecraft


Our children are wired differently. Many have purkinje cells (those brain cells in the frontal lobe that control executive functions) that are different from a typical person’s. Executive functions control 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.


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.


  • He’s two years old. He wants to give and get some affection from you. He toddles over and kicks the cat out of the way as he makes a bee-line for your arms. His instinct to initiate social contact is reprimanded. ‘Johnny…don’t do that!’ we say in a loud voice as we cuddle and console the cat.
  • She wants to play with another child in the play group. She goes over and takes the doll out of the other child’s hand. That child starts crying. Your child is scolded. Instead of celebrating her desire to have social contact and teaching her how to be successful next time, we reprimand. We embarrass.

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?

Same goes with school work. Our children are expected to learn the same curriculums 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.

  • Get a thorough occupational therapy assessment INCLUDING a sensory assessment. This document should be completed by an OT with additional university courses completed sensory processing. They should also have many years of experience working with high functioning individuals on the spectrum. Don’t settle for anything less. Schools do not generally provide this kind of assessment.
  • Get a complete psycho-education 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. They can then allow you to develop strategies that may peel away the barriers to success.

He’s 12-years-old and wants to be a game designer. He’s academically capable, but you can’t get him to do his work. He’s telling you that writing an essay is useless and pointless, projects are boring and hard to do independently, and he can never think of anything to write about.

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:

  • Read course descriptions from post-secondary programs; take the virtual tours to show him the dorms, the cafeteria, the gaming lab.
  • Call the university or college he 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.
  • Tell the Student Services department you want to hire a student from the gaming program to mentor your child. Often, your child may embrace and take advice and guidance from this person above all others. If distance is an issue, consider Skype.
  • Learn about his special interest so you can initiate conversation.
  • Show teachers how to use his special interest to get him more engaged in his school work. To wit: instead of having him write a short story, let him write a game story and plot. Include famous game developers in the options when the class has to write a biography. For art, let him create the box cover-art. There is no end to the creative ways to teach the relevance of the work we require them to do if we hook it to areas of interest.

So…motivation. If your child could use some help in this area, you may find success when:

  • He is taught in consideration of his learning style
  • Executive functioning differences are addressed.
  • He is allowed to learn in an environment that does not assault his senses
  • He received a sensory diet to help him manage and regulate in the school setting and at home
  • School
  • Attention is given to those issues that are causing 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.’ Let him see 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.
  • Help the school to develop a more strength-based curriculum to the extent that you can.
  • 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.