Motivating Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

April 12, 2011

By Dan Coulter

How do you motivate a child with Asperger Syndrome or autism?  
   One of the most successful ways parents and teachers have found is using children’s interests as incentives.  Psychologist Jed Baker suggests, for example, giving a child who loves astronomy math questions about the distances between planets to motivate him in class.  Using some ingenuity, you can come up with ways to incorporate a child’s interests into less straightforward situations.
   In researching a video about employment, I found one of the keys to workplace success for people with Asperger Syndrome was finding a job where they could use a special interest or skill. 
   But what about children with seemingly unproductive motivations?
   Some parents tell me, "My son is only interested in video games and that’s what he’s good at."
   That’s understandable.  If your son or daughter finds social interactions unpredictable and difficult, the structure of a video game may be a refuge.  Gamers can succeed and get rewards.  And, in a sense, they can feel like part of a group because they know other children play the same games.  
   Few children who play video games, however, will have the aptitude or opportunity to design games or find other ways to parlay their gaming skills into a job.  From that perspective, things can look bleak.
   But what if you say, "My child is only interested in video games, so far."  What could you do to spark his or her interest in other things?  If the power of your words hasn’t worked, you may need to try something more dramatic.  
   Road trip!  Consider taking younger kids to a science museum, puppet show, or zoo.  Anything to spark their imaginations.  When they’re a bit older, canvas friends and relatives for opportunities to take your children to workplaces.  You could go behind the scenes at a restaurant, veterinary clinic, or television studio.  If you can’t detect even a general interest to guide you, pick the most diverse jobs and workplaces you can access.  
   Children with autism spectrum disorders have different ways of thinking.  We often can’t tell in advance what’s going to catch their interest. Giving them a wide range of experiences is like creating radar that continually scans for something that can motivate them.
   This approach is most likely to be effective into the early teen years.  When teenagers get older, suggestions from parents can meet serious resistance.   That’s when it’s particularly important to network through support groups and other means and discover what other parents are doing.     Some other mom or dad or grandparent or teacher may have come up a strategy that will work for your child, or you may find success by using their ingredients to create your own formula.
   James Burke, a former BBC science reporter, makes the point that many brilliant ideas and inventions actually came from taking existing ideas and putting them together in a new way.  He created a landmark TV series called, "Connections" that chronicles the phenomenon throughout history.  (Actually, showing your children this series is a great way to expose them to a range of ideas and areas that could spark an interest. You can access it free on YouTube.)
   Motivating your child may involve a lot of attempts that fall short, but what are the odds that a child fixated on gaming is going to turn off the game, turn on the light and find other motivations on his own?
   "Help me Obi Wan Kanobe. You’re my only hope."
   Ironically, that’s a quote many gamers would recognize and relate to.
   The employees with Asperger Syndrome I mentioned earlier are succeeding using their interests in accounting, animals, researching, and filing and organizing with extraordinary attention to detail.
   When should you give up?  I like Thomas Edison’s example.  He tried about 10,000 materials to create a reliable electric light bulb before he succeeded. Edison reportedly said of the process, "I haven’t failed. I’m not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward."  While looking up the Edison information, I ran across a quote from Robert Allen, "There is no failure, only feedback." 
   Every attempt may tell you a bit more about your child.  And you never know when success may be one more attempt away.
    ABOUT THE AUTHOR -- Dan Coulter is the producer of the DVD "Asperger Syndrome at Work: Success Strategies for Employees and Employers."  You can find more articles on his website: coultervideo.com.
                   Copyright 2011 Dan Coulter        All Rights Reserved.          Used by Permission.

 

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