Motivation as a Key Component of Teaching Students with Autism

Motivation as a Key Component of Teaching Students with Autism
The date of publication 2023 . 01 . 31 The number of views 109

Identifying ways to successfully motivate students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can greatly impact one’s well-being and prospective successes. 

However, exploring the unfamiliar or unsettling territory, as well as, initiating behavior change can feel anxiety-producing for many due to a variety of symptoms associated with ASD, such as repetitive and routine behaviors, difficulty expressing emotions, sensory dysregulation, and difficulty interpreting social cues and lack of social understanding.

Because of this, learning how to encourage and create positive associations in learning environments is crucial to challenge one’s comfort zone and achieving individualized success.

So, how can academic settings utilize motivational techniques to enhance the learning experience for students with autism?

Professionals can benefit from implementing the following approaches with students: consider the person first and implement approaches that strongly mirror one’s strengths and interests; structure a safe and compassionate environment conducive to self-growth; utilize instructional strategies that support goal achievement and develop confidence; and emphasize one’s progress—no matter the scale—rather than the setbacks.

Here, we discuss motivation as a key component of teaching students with autism.

Why Motivation and Self-Determination Matters

Self-motivation is strongly influenced by one’s learning history, style of learning, internal and external incentives for a given task, expectations of success or failure with said task, meaningfulness and purposefulness of the task from the perspective of the learner, and task-surrounding environmental variables which affect concentration and achievement.

In other words, motivation can be understood as the reason one has for acting and behaving in a certain manner. 

When it comes to the relationship between motivation and autism, there are many factors to consider. Because the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder can vary from mild to severe, where one individual may require more services than another, so can one’s motivation and self-determination. 

Through the lens of the social motivation theory, children with autism are often intrinsically less interested in social engagement than children of neurotypical development, making it difficult to self-motivate in areas that are not seen as rewarding or of interest. 

We know that decreased social interest is often an early indicator of autism among children; sharing enjoyment and collaborating with others is said to do little in producing social reward for children with autism than for their neurotypical peers. Consequently, such a reduced response to social reward is likely to reduce social motivation further. 

Although reduced social motivation is unlikely to be entirely responsible for challenging social outcomes or “deficits,” paying mind to other symptoms which may cause social situations to be difficult to navigate, a reduced response to social reward could impede the development of various life skills and mastering of daily basic tasks. 

How does motivation affect learning? 

Ample levels of self-motivation are said to impact the learning experience by increasing one’s persistence, enhancing cognitive processes, driving improved performance, and heightening creativity and curiosity—thus contributing to a more positive learning environment for all in attendance. 

This suggests a reduced response to social reward, as seen with Autism Spectrum Disorder, can impact the learning experience in more ways than one. 

Implementing uniquely tailored motivational approaches and techniques can be tremendously helpful to promote and encourage an enhanced learning experience for students with autism.

Let’s take a look at these approaches below.

Motivation as a Key Component of Teaching Kids with Autism

Professionals can benefit from implementing the following approaches with their students: 

Consider the person first and implement approaches that strongly mirror one’s strengths and interests

Understanding a student’s strengths and difficulties can help build a strong foundation for growth. Highlighting such areas that interest children with autism and support self-confidence is a great starting point to gain momentum toward the development of other skills.  Also, keep in mind which activities or lessons create stress or frustration for individuals and center learning experiences around these areas. Staying in tune with students’ physical movements and cognitive processing good indicators of how to proceed or slow down a given lesson or task.

Structure a safe and compassionate environment conducive for self-growth

Cultivating an environment that is comfortable and familiar is important when motivating students with autism who are exploring new skills and tasks. Teachers should continue to utilize regular cues to prompt and reinforce learned behaviors which increase confidence and serve as a gateway to processing new information. Given the stability of the environment, students will likely feel safe and secure when trying new tasks independently. 

Utilize instructional strategies that support goal achievement and develop confidence

Teaching students to follow task-appropriate sequences is a good building block to present an expected outcome of a lesson or task. Professionals should focus on lessons that are challenging but not over or under-stimulating; this way, learners can feel a sense of safety when exploring outside of their comfort zone. Lessons should be structured so that they can be achieved in the present rather than at a later time. Doing so helps students maintain interest and create positive associations. Once new information is learned, piggybacking off recent achievements can increase a learner’s motivation and self-determination as well. 

Some students may be more motivated to complete familiar tasks before unfamiliar ones whereas other students may respond better to alternating between familiar, confidence-boosting tasks, with those that are unfamiliar or perhaps unsettling. There are several ways professions can utilize instructional strategies that support goal achievement and develop confidence. 

Emphasize one’s progress 

Increased motivation occurs when an individual experiences a successful outcome in either social or physical environments. Such reinforcement aids individuals in strengthening their skills outside of the classroom as well, increasing flexibility and boosting self-confidence. An accumulation of positive experiences can challenge cycles of learned helplessness and victimization for individuals with autism spectrum disorders. 

Implementing motivational techniques that challenge and support individuals with autism spectrum disorders can be incredibly influential on well-being and prospective success—in and out of the classroom. Professionals should aim to utilize approaches that highlight strengths rather than weaknesses, build off of past successes, and maintain independent growth. As a result, individuals can feel more equipped and confident in navigating new experiences.