Individualizing Motivation

Individualizing Motivation

Sometimes, what motivates children with special needs is different from what would typically motivate their peers.

For neurotypical children, often internal motivators are effective, such as the need to fit in with peer groups, share experiences, or receive recognition from others, i.e., the teacher, However children with ASD and those with ADHD may not find these internal motivators meaningful to them.

Some kids with ASD may not find external rewards (or reinforcers) motivating either. In fact, students with ASD might not be able to understand or tolerate (due to sensory concerns) many things a typically developing child would find rewarding, such as:

  • physical contact (for example, a light pat or a hug)
  • non-verbal signals (wink or head nod)
  • verbal praise
  • extra time for social contact
  • reinforcers, such as checkmarks, to be exchanged for money or privileges

This post is part of a 13 part series. Each post in the series will explain an evidence-based strategy used by professionals for managing behavior with children on the autism spectrum. Each part of this series will contain a table of contents so you can easily navigate to the different strategies.

Table of Contents:

  1. Introduction 
  2. Strategy 1: Build a Relationship
  3. Strategy 2: Individualize Motivation
  4. Strategy 3: Observe, Listen, then Join
  5. Strategy 4: Optimize Language
  6. Strategy 5: The Premack Principal
  7. Strategy 6: Basic Redirect
  8. Strategy 7: Breaks
  9. Strategy 8: Picture Rehearsal
  10. Strategy 9: Add Structure at Home
  11. Strategy 10: Teach Independence with Prompting
  12. Strategy 11: Transactional Supports
  13. Strategy 12: Add Structure to the Learning Environment 

Tips for Keeping Your Child Motivated - #ADHDKids #Autism #ASD #PositiveReinforcement #PositiveParenting #BehaviorManagement #AdviceForMoms

Individualizing Motivation

Building onto strategy one – The better you know your child, the better you can individualize the way you motivate them. Children with autism are usually most motivated by their special interests.+

Keep in mind your child is an individual and you should respect their wishes and choices. Motivators are a great tool for enticing exploration of new activities and demands.

Keep motivators on hand at all times.

The Importance of Motivation

Getting and keeping your child motivated is so important because:

  • Individuals with ASD are often not intrinsically motivated to learn or participate in social groups (especially if it’s not their area of special interest)
  • They usually need to learn about the social world and learn social skills – a strong motivator will encourage them to participate in this learning.
  • They need to learn skills to adapt, to engage, and to communicate – but with no motivation there is often no learning.

Use Reinforcers

Reinforcers – Something that motivates your child to be socially engaged with you/others.

Reinforcement should be immediate (within 3 seconds of the expected behavior). As your child progresses you can begin to delay the reinforcer.

It should always be contingent upon the behavior – don’t give the reinforcement if your child didn’t do what was expected. If an object is used as a reinforcer, don’t use it at any other time (like to get your child to calm down)

Use variable intensity. In other words, if the expectation or demand is bigger, offer a bigger reward.

Types of Reinforcement

There are many types of reinforcement and you can use any/all of them. This depends on your child and what motivates them. It can be:

  • Verbal like telling them good work
  • Visual reinforcement like a checkmark on a chart – this works best when the chart is individualized to your child’s special interests.
  • Physical reinforcement like a candy or sticker 
  • Time to participate in an activity of their choice (favorite toy, special privilege, etc.)

The most important thing is to find out what works for your child and use it. It’s also likely that you’ll need to frequently change the type of reinforcement you’re using because the same item doesn’t usually stay motivating to a child over time. 


Using positive reinforcement actually changes the way the brain functions and alters the chemical makeup of neurotransmitters in the brain. This is related to neuroplasticity and effective use of motivation is a great way to teach new skills..

You can read a bit more about how positive reinforcement affects the brain here.


Continue to Strategy 3: Observe, Listen, Join

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