Helping Young Adults with ASD Find Their Source of Motivation

by Trina Muncy

Many parents with children on the spectrum have found themselves in a similar situation: watching their child fixate on a task for hours, only to find that she has neglected her chores, dismissed doing her homework, and retreated indoors to avoid social interaction. Frustrating as this scenario can be for parents, such bad habits can turn more problematic as their child moves into adulthood. While edging closer to adult life can be an exhilarating transition for most teens, those on the spectrum find it particularly difficult because they lack the emotional maturity to embrace change and tackle challenges as they arise.


Task avoidance for individuals with ASD does not signal laziness but, rather, a self-perpetuated mechanism to give them a sense of equilibrium and control. In other words, shirking responsibilities gives them the feeling of empowerment, that their immediate surroundings will remain the same, unaffected by the unfamiliar. Parents can inspire motivation by finding what sparks their child’s interest, and use that information as a launch pad for self-directed goals. For instance, if your child is an adult who loves to play video games, encourage him to interact with other gamers online. This may seem counterproductive at first, but it helps develop your child’s social skills in a safe, familiar environment, which can also lead to an interest in trying new things.

Just as important as finding your child’s area(s) of interest is looking for the incentives that prompt his or her repetitive behavior. That is, what type of reinforcement is your child getting from participating in a given task over and over again. Finding the source of motivation is key for parents who want to jumpstart their child’s task initiation. It doesn’t take any hard-core sleuthing or involve grilling your child with questions; it takes only love and patience, listening and observing. Point out how proud you are that your child is dedicated to a hobby, and watch how she responds. After your child completes a goal for the week, reward her efforts with something she loves. If neither affirmation nor rewards motivate a desired behavior, then reminding your child of the consequences at hand may give her a better understanding of how the real world works.

Everyone has dreams—some have a clearer vision of what that end destination looks like more than others—and as a parent, you can instill hope and confidence in helping your child achieve those dreams. A powerful tool can be prompting your child through a series of questions to create a compelling vision of what success looks like, one that is unique to him or her. Does the child who loves to play video games see himself as a software programmer someday? Where applauding your child’s efforts and seeing the strengths of his abilities help him to discover his hidden potential, facilitating a clear vision allows him to be self-accountable (and self-motivated) about pursuing his passions. Some of these guided questions can include

·        What is your goal?

·        What would you like to see happen in the next 3 months?

·        What would your ideal ______ look like?

·        What would you do if you couldn’t fail?

Once a concrete vision is in place, you can then find the source for its motivation by asking your child some of the following questions:

·        What excites you about this goal?

·        What are you hoping will happen if you achieve this goal?

·        How will you feel if you achieve this goal?

·        What will you regret if you don’t achieve this goal?

Note that this technique may not be for everyone, and can frustrate those who lack the focus and attention span to engage in such an activity. Whereas one person may be stimulated by external rewards and consequences—such as validation from a boss or, conversely, the threat of losing a job—another may find positive visualization to be self-affirming, creating a mental picture of what’s important and discovering reasons to make change. By alerting yourself to the singularities of your child’s motivation, the two of you will be able to devise proactive strategies to attain goals and move through obstacles as they come. Most importantly, you’re uncovering your child’s special gifts and opening a door of opportunity that otherwise might’ve remained closed.