Motivation for those on the Autism Spectrum
By, Jaclyn Hunt MA, CAS
A question that I get asked on a daily basis from potential clients goes a little something like this: “How do I make [Person’s Name] who has Autism/Asperger’s/PDD/ASD to do [a], [b], and [c].” The simple answer is: “You can’t.” Unless a person is motivated and willing to change, there is nothing in the universe that will make them change. That being said, there are ways to encourage the desire and motivation to change as well as create an environment that is safe and conducive to the desired changes. My job is to show families how to create that environment in the home and at school as well as spark the desire for change in each and every family member. When conditions are right, the person on the autism spectrum has a clear choice whether or not they want to participate in the progress of the rest of the family, or fall behind and miss out on the fun. In my experience, when there is an obvious choice between two options with a clear and desirable outcome, most people on the spectrum take the next step and choose one of those possibilities.
So let’s take our example question and apply it to a real life circumstance. A mother calls me and is desperate to get her teenaged son diagnosed with Asperger’s to sit down at the dinner table and eat dinner with the entire family. Every single day she prepares all of the foods he enjoys and caters to his every demand and wish, but still he does not sit at the table and eat with the family. She has tried begging him, yelling at him, crying and breaking down in front of him out of frustration, and tried her best to not even care at all. Still, she has this strong desire to have her son sit at the dinner table with the family because that’s what “successful” families do. “How do I make Jason, diagnosed with Asperger’s, sit at the dinner table and eat dinner with the entire family?” The short answer is still: “You can’t.” However, there are things you can begin to change today that will increase the likelihood that Jason will sit at the table with the family for dinner sometime in the future.
Initially, the first thing that needs to be done is to eliminate all expectations. Many parents have a difficult time doing this. No matter how many times the desired behavior did not occur, the parents still expect it to happen. This unrealistic expectation is going to lead to disappointment and frustration not just for the parent but also for the entire family. Soon the tension in the air is so thick that even if Jason succeeds at sitting at the dinner table for a few moments and decides to leave out of discomfort or uncertainty, an explosion on the part of the parent will follow. This will cause Jason to never attempt to sit at the dinner table again because his fear of doing it wrong or failing will overpower his desire to be with the family and to make the family happy. If all expectations are eliminated, the parent begins to shift the focus away from Jason and onto the dinner experience. A husband and wife can have dinner together, the other siblings can participate, and the parental focus should be on the here and now with the people who are present. Even if you are the sole participant of the dinner, you must learn to appreciate and enjoy the experience.
Now, once all the expectations of Jason are eliminated and all participants actively enjoy dinner, the mood of the dinner will have changed dramatically. Dinner is no longer a time of stress, anxiety, and frustration. Instead, dinner becomes a pleasurable experience where there is an air of safety, fun, and excitement. Soon Jason may wander in to see what he is missing out on. He may even sit at the dinner table for a few moments. If he is criticized in any way at this point he will retreat and never come back. If he is praised and told that it is nice to have him join the family, he is more likely to stay. Chances are he will leave immediately, but if he leaves on a positive note of appreciation, rather than a negative response to his presence, he is more likely to return the next night. So the second change on the part of the parent is to keep the criticisms to a minimum and increase the praise and positives as much as possible. Jason needs a safe environment to engage in a socially difficult situation such as a family dinner. If he is scared off or feels like a failure from the beginning, he will decide to avoid that particular situation in the future. On the other hand, if he sees the potential that it could be a positive and desirable experience, he will be back the next day to explore the possibility further.
Additionally, the third change that the family or parent must make is to have a never-ending supply of patience while waiting for Jason to make his decision. Those on the autism spectrum frequently examine every possible scenario, even those unrelated to the situation, at length before they are able to come to a decision. Jason may not process everything that happened at the first dinner until he experiences the consistency of it a few times over. He may then stay for a longer period of time and be stuck in that pattern for quite a while. If the parent loses patience at this point they will undo all of the hard work everyone has currently put into getting Jason to sit with them at dinner. It may seem like tiny little steps to the family, but for Jason they are tremendous strides that will eventually translate into every decision he makes in his entire life. As he learns to make decisions he will get quicker, more efficient, and more confident in his choices. Believe it or not, it all starts right here at the dinner table.
Finally, the family must be able to accept the fact that dining together may not be something Jason can handle. Acceptance is key because if the family can accept Jason’s discomfort he will be more likely to continue trying for the future rather than shutting that door forever. Furthermore, Jason will generalize these decision-making skills to other aspects of his life. Perhaps he will come to a compromise such as sitting on the couch facing away from the family rather than holed up alone in his room. When the parent and entire family accept the limitations of the person on the autism spectrum, they allow that person to truly explore the world and figure out his or her place in the world. When there is tension, frustration, and anxiety there is isolation, fear, and lack of progress in the autistic individual and the family unit as a whole. The goal to promote change in any person is accomplished by changing everything else around that person and allow them to have a safe place to assess the situation, figure out what they want from that situation, and to be trusted enough to make the right choice. All choices are personal, and we all have the right to choose works for us. That is the very long answer to how you get someone with an ASD to change.
Jaclyn Hunt is a Certified Autism Specialist (CAS) and Life Coach who specializes in the Autism and Special Needs Population. She works with adults on the spectrum, parents of autistic children and adults, spouses of adults on the spectrum, and anyone affected by autism or other related special needs. Visit her website to learn more: