Practical Praise, Motivation, and Self-Control

By Dan Coulter

Many of us would shout “Eureka!” if we found a magic key that would unlock ways to motivate our children with Asperger Syndrome or similar autism spectrum disorders (ASDs).

The next best thing may be as complicated as learning to use a safe-cracking kit, but it could offer some pretty impressive results. Let me explain.

One of the challenges of motivating children with autism spectrum disorders is tied to the way their brains work. Often they have a low tolerance for mistakes and an unreasoning fear of failure.

I recently heard Asperger expert Dr. Tony Attwood being interviewed by Australian autism consultant Sue Larkey about how this makes these children gravitate toward things they’re good at, and resist dealing with things that they can’t master easily and quickly. Dr. Attwood described how, for many, making even a small mistake confuses and scares them. Because they can’t regulate their emotions, they panic and later resist getting into situations that make them feel that way. Making mistakes kills their motivation, because if they feel awful when they fail, they don’t try.

So how do we motivate children to master important life skills when they resist the learning process as a painful exercise?

Dr. Attwood recommends helping them change the way they think about mistakes. Like seeing mistakes not as disasters, but as information they can use to improve. He suggests comparing intellectual strength to physical strength: something you build by exercising your mind. In this model, making mistakes and learning from them is like doing physical exercises. Mistakes are the way we learn.

Inventor Thomas Edison is reputed to have championed this approach in describing the many experiments he had to make for every success, “ I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

Many of us have found that it’s difficult to get a child to change his behavior if we don’t first get him to change his perspective. And before we can do that, we have to speak the same language. Too often, we and our kids each know the definitions of the words we’re using, but those words don’t have the same meaning or importance to us.

How do we bridge this communication gap?

To help, Dr. Attwood and some colleagues developed a tool called the CAT Kit, for Cognitive Affective Training. The kit is designed to help children understand how their thoughts, feelings and actions all interact. This helps them communicate with others and gives them tools to develop self-control.

I haven’t used the product, but it sounds right on target. And it ties in nicely to a concept I read about in a New York Times article by neuroscience experts Dr. Sandra Aamodt and Dr. Sam Wang. They’ve published a book titled, “Welcome to your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College.”

Their article, “Building Self Control, the American Way,” describes the importance of children learning self-control, and some of the ways parents can teach it. They point out that successfully developing self- control predicts success in education, career, and marriage – and that childhood self-control is twice as important as intelligence in predicting academic achievement.

They discuss Chinese and French child-raising philosophies described in recent books and offer a “good old USA” approach that doesn’t involve external pressure. They advocate building self-control through practice with progressively increasing challenges tied to a child’s special interests, “When children develop self-control through their own pursuit of happiness, no parental hovering is required.”

To me, this sounded right on target for kids with Asperger Syndrome, many of whom tend to be intelligent and have intense special interests, but whom also can easily fly off the handle.

It was interesting that Doctors Attwood, Asmodt and Wang all talked about motivating children through praise. Dr. Attwood makes the point that children with Asperger Syndrome respond better when you praise their intellectual abilities. So it’s not “Good boy,” it’s, “That shows me how smart you are.” Our two neuroscientists have a similar idea about all children. They advocate sending a clear message that rewards and suggests what to do next time, such as, “Wow, you kept working on that math problem until you got it right!”

Think of this as practical praise. It may not give you instant results. But if it turns out to be one of the tools that unlocks ways to motivate your child through patience and persistence, it might become one of the best things after all.

You know, if that magic key thing doesn’t work out.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the author of ten DVDs about Asperger Syndrome and autism, including “Manners for the Real World: Basic Social Skills." You can find more articles on his website at:

© Dan Coulter 2012 Used by Permission All Rights Reserved

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