Motivating Children With Autism

Motivating Individuals Living with Autism: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Motivation can be challenging issue for most of us. Take for example the fact that a lot of us struggle to exercise or to get on a diet even though these lifestyle changes could likely make a huge difference in our health and consequently, our quality of live.  In Behavior Analysis we sometimes discuss motivation by categorizing it in two ways—intrinsic and extrinsic. Looking at motivation in this way gives rise to an interesting conceptual discussion which points back to the work behavior analysts do with children with autism. Intrinsic motivation refers to motivation that would be described as coming from within a person. That is, you do something because you like it. For example, the prima ballerina that rehearses 8 hours a day because she wants to be able to perform exceptionally. Extrinsic motivation on the other hand refers to motivation that comes from others or our environment.  For example, some employees in a manufacturing company may show up to work on time to avoid getting in trouble with the boss (a quick footnote is that our behavior is under many influences and thus there are many sources of motivation on behavior at any given moment. These are rudimentary examples to help facilitate the point of motivation).

The same intrinsic and extrinsic motivational mechanisms apply with children living with autism. Many children with ASD are not interested in doing all of the things that we would like them to do or other tasks or skills that other typically developing children do.  Some of our children on the spectrum may choose to engage in repetitive play or ignore others. It is not uncommon for children with autism to attend to things that only they find interesting. And when this free time is interrupted or when they are asked to attend to something or someone else, they may appear unmotivated to learn or disinterested. In some cases, other challenging behaviors may be occasioned if we follow-through with our demands.

Without motivation, the learning process may be significantly slowed down if not impossible; therefore, at every stage of an ABA program, every effort is made to increase a child’s motivation to learn. Ample time is spent finding out what things a child likes (e.g., reinforcer surveying or reinforcer sampling) and what things will motivate them to attend long enough to learn.

Motivation in an intensive Applied Behavior Analysis program may initially take the form of something external (extrinsic), such as being rewarded with their favorite foods, candies, or activities. Often times, verbal praise and high-fives or anything that a child may find enjoyable is used. However, it is hoped that over time, this motivation will transition from extrinsic to intrinsic such that a child will engage in learning for personal joy and accomplishment (e.g., building a block house and being happy with the completed structure) and for that reason, rewards like candy or other foods can be systematically reduced while more natural rewards take their place.

Using extrinsic rewards is a common concern that others may have when their use is considered in an early ABA program. However, as long as individuals managing ABA programs plan ahead and strive to transition from extrinsic into more intrinsic forms of reinforcers over time, the use of extrinsic forms ought to be considered in their child’s program in order to facilitate learning early-on in the service.

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