Motivating Students on the Autism Spectrum: Advice for Teachers

Unfortunately, there is no single magical formula for motivating Aspergers and high-functioning autistic (HFA students. Many factors affect a given student's motivation to work and to learn: interest in the subject matter, perception of its usefulness, general desire to achieve, self-confidence and self-esteem, as well as patience and persistence. And, of course, not all students on the autism spectrum are motivated by the same values, needs, desires, or wants. Some children will be motivated by the approval of others, some by overcoming challenges.

To encourage Aspergers and HFA students to become self-motivated independent learners, teachers can do the following:
  • Create an atmosphere that is open and positive.
  • Ensure opportunities for students' success by assigning tasks that are neither too easy nor too difficult.
  • Give frequent, early, positive feedback that supports students' beliefs that they can do well.
  • Help children feel that they are valued members of a learning community.
  • Help children find personal meaning and value in the material.

Most students on the spectrum respond positively to a well-organized course taught by an enthusiastic teacher who has a genuine interest in "special needs" children and what they learn. Thus, activities you undertake to promote learning will also enhance students' motivation.

Ask these students to analyze what makes their classes more or less "motivating." Sass asks his classes to recall two recent class periods, one in which they were highly motivated and one in which their motivation was low. Each student makes a list of specific aspects of the two classes that influenced his or her level of motivation, and children then meet in small groups to reach consensus on characteristics that contribute to high and low motivation. In over twenty courses, Sass reports, the same eight characteristics emerge as major contributors to student motivation:
  • Active involvement of students
  • Appropriate difficulty level of the material
  • Teacher's enthusiasm
  • Organization of the course
  • Rapport between teacher and students
  • Relevance of the material
  • Use of appropriate, concrete, and understandable examples
  • Variety

Capitalize on the students' existing needs. Children learn best when incentives for learning in a classroom satisfy their own motives for enrolling in the course. Some of the needs children may bring to the classroom are the need to learn something in order to complete a particular task or activity, the need to seek new experiences, the need to perfect skills, the need to overcome challenges, the need to become competent, the need to succeed and do well, the need to feel involved and to interact with other people. Satisfying such needs is rewarding in itself, and such rewards sustain learning more effectively than do grades. Design assignments, in-class activities, and discussion questions to address these kinds of needs.

Make Aspergers and HFA students active participants in learning. Children learn by doing, making, writing, designing, creating, solving. Passivity dampens students' motivation and curiosity. Pose questions. Don't tell children something when you can ask them. Encourage children to suggest approaches to a problem or to guess the results of an experiment. Use small group work.

Hold high but realistic expectations for Aspergers and HFA students. Research has shown that a teacher's expectations have a powerful effect on a student's performance. If you act as though you expect children to be motivated, hardworking, and interested in the course, they are more likely to be so. Set realistic expectations for children when you make assignments, give presentations, conduct discussions, and grade examinations. "Realistic" in this context means that your standards are high enough to motivate children to do their best work but not so high that students will inevitably be frustrated in trying to meet those expectations. To develop the drive to achieve, students need to believe that achievement is possible -which means that you need to provide early opportunities for success.

Avoid creating intense competition among students on the spectrum. Competition produces anxiety, which can interfere with learning. Reduce students' tendencies to compare themselves to one another. Bligh reports that children are more attentive, display better comprehension, produce more work, and are more favorable to the teaching method when they work cooperatively in groups rather than compete as individuals. Refrain from public criticisms of students' performance and from comments or activities that pit children against each other.

Be enthusiastic about your subject. A teacher's enthusiasm is a crucial factor in student motivation. If you become bored or apathetic, Aspergers and HFA students will too. Typically, a teacher's enthusiasm comes from confidence, excitement about the content and genuine pleasure in teaching. If you find yourself uninterested in the material, think back to what attracted you to the field and bring those aspects of the subject matter to life for children. Or challenge yourself to devise the most exciting way to present the material, however dull the material itself may seem to you.

Help these young people set achievable goals for themselves. Failure to attain unrealistic goals can disappoint and frustrate children. Encourage children to focus on their continued improvement, not just on their grade on any one test or assignment. Help students evaluate their progress by encouraging them to critique their own work, analyze their strengths, and work on their weaknesses. For example, consider asking children to submit self-evaluation forms with one or two assignments.

Strengthen these students' self-motivation. Avoid messages that reinforce your power as a teacher or that emphasizes extrinsic rewards. Instead of saying, "I require," "you must," or "you should," stress "I think you will find. . . " or "I will be interested in your reaction."

Tell these students what they need to do to succeed in your course. Don't let children struggle to figure out what is expected of them. Reassure students that they can do well in your course, and tell them exactly what they must do to succeed. Say something to the effect that "If you can handle the examples on these problem sheets, you can pass the exam. People who have trouble with these examples can ask me for extra help." Or instead of saying, "You're way behind," tell the student, "Here is one way you could go about learning the material. How can I help you?"

Increase the difficulty of the material as the semester progresses. Give Aspergers students opportunities to succeed at the beginning of the semester. Once children feel they can succeed, you can gradually increase the difficulty level. If assignments and exams include easier and harder questions, every student will have a chance to experience success as well as challenge.

Vary your teaching methods. Variety reawakens students' involvement in the course and their motivation. Break the routine by incorporating a variety of teaching activities and methods in your course: role playing, debates, brainstorming, discussion, demonstrations, case studies, audiovisual presentations, guest speakers, or small group work.

When possible, let Aspergers and HFA students have some say in choosing what will be studied. Give children options on term papers or other assignments (but not on tests). Let children decide between two locations for the field trip, or have them select which topics to explore in greater depth. If possible, include optional or alternative units in the course.

Work from students' strengths and interests. Find out why children are enrolled in your course, how they feel about the subject matter, and what their expectations are. Then try to devise examples, case studies, or assignments that relate the course content to students' interests and experiences. For instance, a chemistry professor might devote some lecture time to examining the contributions of chemistry to resolving environmental problems. Explain how the content and objectives of your course will help children achieve their educational, professional, or personal goals.

Avoid using grades as threats. The threat of low grades may prompt some "special needs" students to work hard, but other children may resort to academic dishonesty, excuses for late work, and other counterproductive behavior.

Design tests that encourage the kind of learning you want these students to achieve. Many children will learn whatever is necessary to get the grades they desire. If you base your tests on memorizing details, children will focus on memorizing facts. If your tests stress the synthesis and evaluation of information, students will be motivated to practice those skills when they study.

Emphasize mastery and learning rather than grades. Ames and Ames report on two secondary school math teachers. One teacher graded every homework assignment and counted homework as 30 percent of a student's final grade. The second teacher told children to spend a fixed amount of time on their homework (thirty minutes a night) and to bring questions to class about problems they could not complete. This teacher graded homework as satisfactory or unsatisfactory, gave children the opportunity to redo their assignments, and counted homework as 10 percent of the final grade. Although homework was a smaller part of the course grade, this second teacher was more successful in motivating children to turn in their homework.

In the first class, some students gave up rather than risk low evaluations of their abilities. In the second class, children were not risking their self-worth each time they did their homework but rather were attempting to learn. Mistakes were viewed as acceptable and something to learn from. Researchers recommend de-emphasizing grading by eliminating complex systems of credit points; they also advise against trying to use grades to control nonacademic behavior (for example, lowering grades for missed classes). Instead, assign ungraded written work, stress the personal satisfaction of doing assignments, and help students measure their progress.

Give Aspergers students feedback as quickly as possible. Return tests and papers promptly, and reward success publicly and immediately. Give Aspergers students some indication of how well they have done and how to improve. Rewards can be as simple as saying a student's response was good, with an indication of why it was good, or mentioning the names of contributors: "Cherry's point about pollution really synthesized the ideas we had been discussing."

Reward success. Both positive and negative comments influence motivation, but research consistently indicates that Aspergers and HFA students are more affected by positive feedback and success. Praise builds students' self-confidence, competence, and self-esteem. Recognize sincere efforts even if the product is less than stellar. If a student's performance is weak, let the student know that you believe he or she can improve and succeed over time.

Introduce Aspergers and HFA students to the good work done by their peers. Share the ideas, knowledge, and accomplishments of individual students with the class as a whole:
  • Have children write a brief critique of a classmate's paper.
  • Make available copies of the best papers and essay exams.
  • Pass out a list of research topics chosen by children so they will know whether others are writing papers of interest to them.
  • Provide class time for children to read papers or assignments submitted by classmates.
  • Schedule a brief talk by a student who has experience or who is doing a research paper on a topic relevant to your lecture.

Be specific when giving negative feedback. Negative feedback is very powerful and can lead to a negative class atmosphere. Whenever you identify a student's weakness, make it clear that your comments relate to a particular task or performance, not to the student as a person. Try to cushion negative comments with a compliment about aspects of the task in which the student succeeded.

Avoid demeaning comments. Many Aspergers and HFA students in your class may be anxious about their performance and abilities. Be sensitive to how you phrase your comments and avoid offhand remarks that might prick their feelings of inadequacy.

Avoid giving in to these students' pleas for "the answer" to homework problems. When you simply give struggling students the solution, you rob them of the chance to think for themselves. Use a more productive approach:
  • Resist answering the question "is this right?" Suggest to the children a way to check the answer for themselves.
  • Praise the children for small, independent steps.
  • Gently brush aside students’ anxiety about not getting the answer by refocusing their attention on the problem at hand.
  • Ask the children to build on what they do know about the problem.
  • Ask the children for one possible approach to the problem.

If you follow these steps, students with special needs will learn that it is all right not to have an instant answer. They will also learn to develop greater patience and to work at their own pace. And by working through the problem, children will experience a sense of achievement and confidence that will increase their motivation to learn.

Ask nonthreatening questions about the reading. Initially pose general questions that do not create tension or feelings of resistance: "Can you give me one or two items from the chapter that seems important?" "What section of the reading do you think we should review?" "What item in the reading surprised you?" "What topics in the chapter can you apply to your own experience?"

Ask these students to write a one-word journal or one-word sentence. Angelo describes the one-word journal as follows: children are asked to choose a single word that best summarizes the reading and then write a page or less explaining or justifying their word choice. This assignment can then be used as a basis for class discussion.

Assign study questions. Hand out study questions that alert these students to the key points of the reading assignment. To provide extra incentive for children, tell them you will base exam questions on the study questions.

Assign the reading at least two sessions before it will be discussed. Give Aspergers and HFA students ample time to prepare and try to pique their curiosity about the reading: "This article is one of my favorites, and I'll be interested to see what you think about it."

Give a written assignment to those students who have not done the reading. Some teachers ask at the beginning of the class who has completed the reading. Children who have not read the material are given a written assignment and dismissed. Those who have read the material stay and participate in class discussion. The written assignment is not graded but merely acknowledged. This technique should not be used more than once a term.

If your class is small, have children turn in brief notes on the day's reading that they can use during exams. At the start of each class, a professor in the physical sciences asks children to submit a 3" x 5" card with an outline, definitions, key ideas, or other material from the day's assigned reading. After class, he checks the cards and stamps them with his name. He returns the cards to children at a class session prior to the midterm. Aspergers and HFA students can then add any material they would like to the cards but cannot submit additional cards. The cards are again returned to the faculty member who distributes them to children during the test. This faculty member reports that the number of children completing the reading jumped from 10 percent to 90 percent and that students especially valued these "survival cards."

Prepare an exam question on un-discussed readings. One faculty member asks her class whether they have done the reading. If the answer is no, she says, "You'll have to read the material on your own. Expect a question on the next exam covering the reading." The next time she assigns reading, she reminds the class of what happened the last time, and the children come to class prepared.

Use class time as a reading period. If you are trying to lead a discussion and find that few Aspergers or HFA students have completed the reading assignment, consider asking children to read the material for the remainder of class time. Have them read silently or call on students to read aloud and discuss the key points. Make it clear to students that you are reluctantly taking this unusual step because they have not completed the assignment.

More resources for parents and teachers of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Highly Effective Research-Based Parenting Strategies for Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism


Do you need the advice of a professional who specializes in parenting children and teens with Autism Spectrum Disorders?  Sign-up for Online Parent Coaching today.


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- Lora

Anonymous said...

My issue is that my 12 year old step-son with AS is refusing to do school work, this is happening in class as well as at home. He sat for 7 hours yesterday and did 2 questions. This was a continuation of refusal that had started Thursday. I am sure you can imagine the build up we now have. We offered reward, if you get half of it done, you can have a coke, when you complete it all, you get the rest, he was not interested. Then his favorite show was coming on (America's Funniest Videos) that didn't produce any motivation either. Then comes the "talks" trying to put logic into why homework needs to be done, the questions of what can we do to help, still nothing, as you can imagine by 8 at night, we were at our wits end, utilizing every tool we could grasp at. I have not seen an article about this and am wondering if you can shed some light on our struggle as it seems to be getting worse, the more he feels his own will.

Ginger said...

As to the comment just posted above (about getting your AS child to do homework), we're having the same issue with my 14-year-old AS son, who is in a high school science and engineering magnet program. My first question-- does your stepson have an IEP? If not, get one! Having the IEP enables the teachers to provide alternative homework assignments or to even cancel certain types of assignments altogether. Last week, my son struggled big time with a journal assignment he was supposed to complete, but I finally got him to change topics and write reviews of the most bizarre items he found at the thinkgeek.com website. The teacher loved it! (and my son had a great time writing it). This was nothing close to the original assignment (writing about literary techniques) but it was something my son could do and do well. What I find with my son is that some assignments he can do easily, but others, especially when trying to write around abstract ideas or concepts, are like banging your head against a brick wall--he just can't think of anything. If your stepson is spending that long and getting so little done, I'm sure it's only adding to his (and your) anxiety and frustration. While it hasn't been perfect, we've had much better luck with having my son give something his best shot, and if he just goes blank, we start brainstorming for other topics that feel more like something he can handle. Because of his IEP (individualized education plan), my son's school has been very gracious about allowing this.

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