How To Develop Intrinsic Motivation In Your Autistic Child

How many times have you caught yourself saying, “But my child doesn’t want to do anything?”


Recently, I received a similar question from a webinar participant.


My son is an adult. But he’s not motivated to do anything. I have to push him to do activities. How will he ever be independent?


This is a great question consisting of 2 parts: Motivation and independence.


Let’s take a look at the first part for this article: Motivation.


The condition of experiencing moderate uncertainty about our ability to succeed is a crucial component to understanding mastery motivation.
He points out that , if we perceive no uncertainty as to whether a goal can be attained or a problem can be solved, then there is nothing to master – it has already been mastered. Similarly, if there is no uncertainty because the we believe that the goal cannot be attained, then the we will not be motivated to attain the goal or engage with the problem.


-Dr Steve Gutsein (by McCall)


This statement gives us a deep view of intrinsic motivation. The key is ‘Uncertainty.’
The trick is to create uncertain events.


The following points will help you create uncertain situations in your child’s life.


1. Engage with a new situation


In autism programs, we often repeat the same activities.
We feel that students don’t like to try new activities, so we stick to the old and familiar to not rock the boat.


The key is to come up with frameworks that are slightly different. They could have similar elements, but a new dimension could be added.


For example: one of my students is getting proficient in making chapatis for his dinner.
We can now try something slightly different. Aloo paratha or methi paratha, anyone?


A different situation which will put him on the spot of adding a different ingredient would change process (and product)


Moreover, it would give him the chance to grapple with something similar but different.



2. Encourage, don’t instruct


We can definitely encourage our students by pushing them to think rather than instructing them about what to do.


When we instruct, we’re teaching them to follow.
But when we give them a chance to think, we’re creating thinkers, who will not shy away from problems.


Imagine these 2 scenarios.


Scenario 1


You’ve asked your child to make a cup of tea.
You wrote out all instructions with measurements etc.
You’ve kept everything ready for him.


All he has to do is follow the instructions.


And you’re available to correct him immediately, if he makes a mistake or is stuck somewhere.


Scenario 2


You’ve asked your child to make a cup of tea.
The milk is in a vessel close by. The tea powder and sugar are away in the cupboard.


You have not given any instructions. But you’re close by to help if required. Also, you don’t jump in to correct him. You let him figure.


It’s obvious in which scenario, your child will put his thinking cap on, isn’t it?


Here is a video to prove what I’ve just written.



3. Give time to process, don’t prompt


In my earlier form of practice as a Behavior Analyst, I would prompt my students immediately. Yes, the zero second delay prompt.


If I gave an instruction of, ‘touch remote’, and if the student didn’t get it immediately. I would repeat the instruction and use a position prompt.


But today I say to a student. “It’s really getting hot. What do you think we should do?”


He has options. He can open a window, turn on the fan or turn on the airconditioner.
If he chooses to turn on the air conditioner, he needs to find the remote to turn it on.


The 2nd option is clearly more focussed on the child problem solving to alleviate an uncomfortable situation.


The key is to give time.


Give upto 45 seconds. Yes, you heard me right.
That’s a long time in practice.


But can you imagine the work out you just gave your child’s brain?


communication for children with autism


4. Help with skill if necessary


The skill is important.
But we spend too much time about improving skills.


This is an alternative arrangement.


Help with the skill if necessary. Because there are other elements which are more important.


The bond between you two, the problem solving element that we’ve spoken about- all these enhance motivation.


Create uncertainty, to focus on these other elements.


Don’t steal your child’s thinking ability.


5. Share your experiences by using declarative language


Dr Gutstein talks often about declarative language which is based on sharing experiences.


This takes away from the static way we speak to our children or students. The focus of declarative language is to stimulate thinking in uncertain situations.


Ask questions to share and not to ask.
When somebody feels pressured to answer questions, they may clam up.


Using declarative statements (instead of instructing) will make your child feel comfortable. They will contribute better to a conversation.


For example:

Instead of ‘Don’t do this’ say

‘You may want to try this, it’s so nice to touch.’



Instead of asking, ‘What’s your favorite color?’

Say, ‘My favorite color is blue.’

What does s/he say?


Experience sharing communication forces the child to think.
It engages the prefrontal cortex of the brain, leading to neural connectivity.


Feel free to ask for declarative language sheets.
Simply drop an email at


6. Spotlight



If you’re cooking together, comment on how delicious it looks or how smart your child is to solve a problem.
It’s important for your child to feel competent.
Here’s how you can do it.
Take a short selfie clip





Get into the habit of clicking photographs.
Let your child look at what s/he has achieved.



7. Encode



Create those memory chains that help your child remember how competent, s/he actually is.


Watch this video to learn how to do this.



If you do this on a regular basis, your child will develop personal agency. He will develop a sense of self.
This is the foundation of developing motivation.


Remember it’s about, ‘I’ want to do this.


Take time to develop the ‘I’.




When you work on creating uncertainty, you create situations in which your child has the responsibility to problem solve.


This shift in responsibility is the key.


If you take all the responsibility to think and problem solve for your child, you will be forced to used external rewards in the form of edible rewards, play with favorite toys – to complete an activity.


This is fine to begin with.
But if your child is not self motivated, this will be detrimental to his/her future.




Coming back to our opening question:
My son is an adult. But he’s not motivated to do anything. I have to push him to do activities. How will he ever be independent?


Why not build instrinsic motivation instead?


Try the techniques mentioned above. Don’t forget to let me know how it went.


If you’re interested in getting a customized plan for your child, reach out to us at-



Kamini Lakhani

Kamini Lakhani is the founder and director of SAI Connections. She has been providing services in the field of autism for more than 25 years and is the authorized director of Professional Training for RDI in India and the Middle East. She is also the mother of a young adult with autism.

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