Intrinsic Motivation is Possible for Autistic Individuals

It is a common myth that intrinsic motivation is not possible with autism. The great news is that Intrinsic motivation IS obtainable with autism.

The growth-limiting differences between neurotypical development and autism, the disparities that lead people to believe intrinsic motivation is not possible with autism, are no longer inevitable and inherent. Parents can stimulate the emergence of their child’s intrinsic motivation and usher in developmental capabilities by participating in a Guiding Relationship.

“In all the years I have spent developing the RDI® Model there is one thing that has stood out to me: parents are looking for a relationship with their child, a connection, and they don’t even know that it is possible with a child with autism. They are never given any hope!

RDI® is not a behavior therapy, and it is not a checklist of skills that have to be learned. RDI® is an intervention of gradually re-building the foundations of the Guiding Relationship that have been affected by ASD. We do this, not by ‘getting’ a child to do something but by teaching parents how to create customized experiences (unique for your child) over a period of years that focus on activating growth-seeking, building intrinsic motivation, and giving the child the mental & emotional abilities that we all count on to survive this dynamic world.” – Steven E. Gutstein, Ph.D. Chief Executive Officer of RDIconnect®.

Building intrinsic motivation in our children, the ability to be motivated internally without external motivation, is a goal of all parents. Without this driving force, our children will never achieve independence.

Teaching Intrinsic Motivation

How can we teach intrinsic motivation to our autistic children? There isn’t a step-by-step approach to teaching intrinsic motivation, but it does not include behavior therapy. Instead, it cultivates from a combination of Mind Guiding and helping the child develop Dynamic Intelligence and Mastery Motivation.

Avoid Behavior Therapies

Therapy that focuses on treating behavior is not an effective way to produce mental growth! Behavior is always a result of something – a response to how the child is thinking or feeling, how she is able to interact, or how she (as a person with a mind!) is able to navigate the world.

Most interventions still encourage parents not to think or focus on the child’s mind but only on behavior. The mind then becomes a mystery and the reason behind the behavior is overlooked. You must get a sense of what is behind the behavior first.

Read more: Start with the mind FIRST!

Behavior Therapies VS. Dynamic Intelligence

Rather than teaching the child to change behaviors, which means being in compliance with the therapist’s requests, or punishing the child because they can’t comply, we must help the child develop Dynamic Intelligence. This gives the autistic individual the ability to think flexibly and understand different perspectives in life, cope with change, and integrate information from multiple sources without being told to do so, and without the need for the child to do so without consent.

With a focus on development and growth-seeking, in a child’s natural environment, with real-life experiences, learning with the parent as the guide, the child develops and learns from ongoing intrinsic motivation. This is not forced, compliance-based, dangerous behavior therapy.

The shift to Dynamic Intelligence occurs after the child develops the motivation for growth-seeking (intrinsic motivation), and that happens with the Mind Guiding Relationship, with the child and the guide moving together and thinking together. Per Dr. Gutstein, the relationship with the guide becomes the child’s “primary vehicle for growth and safe growth” (i.e. the intrinsic motivation for growth).

“The mind becomes a new area of emphasis, and the children begin to understand that through their own minds, they can gain more dramatic influence in the world through using their minds, through using their own minds to make sense of what’s happening around them, especially to be able to use their prior experience to help them prepare for what they’re encountering currently, and also what they may encounter in the future.

That becomes the most powerful weapon, (and gives) the ability to learn through personal experience…aided dramatically by Mind Guides, where it becomes, in children’s minds, one of the critical ways that they have agency (i.e., power, resources, and motivation) in the world.”

Mastery Motivation

One way to help our children develop intrinsic motivation is through Mastery Motivation.

As defined by Dr. Gutstein and Robert McCall (1995), mastery motivation is: 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 we believe that the goal cannot be attained, then we will not be motivated to attain the goal or engage with the problem.

Mastery motivation is the disposition to persistently attempt to obtain competence.

Competence is what you know how to do; mastery motivation is the disposition to work to acquire what you don’t know.

To perceive oneself as competent, children must be able to experience uncertainty. Uncertainty builds motivation (because they want to continue to feel that way)!

Read more: Mastery Motivation: A Foundation of Intrinsic Motivation

Want to Learn More?

If you’re interested in learning more about how you can help activate and grow intrinsic motivation in your child, schedule a free consultation with an RDI® consultant today.

If you’d like to talk to RDI® professionals, parents, and adults on the spectrum, join our online learning community.

The community also gives you access to the latest autism research, exclusive articles and presentations on autism, Dynamic Intelligence, communication, school issues and more, as well as webinars, multimedia e-learnings, tutorials & tip sheets.


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