Poor Academic Performance in Students on the Autism Spectrum

“I am a single mom of a 12 y.o. daughter with high functioning autism. She is a very smart child, but she doesn’t work hard in the classroom or on homework. Her teacher recently said that she’s in danger of getting D’s in most subjects. She will do just enough to get by rather than trying her best. When I talk to her about how important it is to get good grades, she rolls her eyes and tells me that it’s too boring. And there have been a few times that talking to her about it leads to meltdowns. She’s more interested in playing games on her iPad. What can I do to light a fire under her?”

As a mother of a child with high-functioning autism (Asperger’s), I’m sure it’s difficult not to become highly invested in her academic life, because you know how important it is for her future. From an adult’s viewpoint, it probably makes no sense to you that your daughter would put things like electronics before her work. In all actuality, she probably is motivated, but not by what you think should motivate her. In other words, she is probably not at all lazy when it comes to things that excite her (e.g., her iPad). However, if you pressure her in order to motivate her to do better in school, it almost always makes things worse.

So, what can you do? Here are some general ideas that can help:

1. High-functioning autistic kids respond best when the answer to the question "what's in it for me?" is something they desire. These “special needs” children never really make the leap from instant gratification to internal motivation or drive (e.g., self-satisfaction in a job well done or pride in their ability to face a challenging situation). They are simply wired differently emotionally. Parents and teachers soon come to realize that motivation to complete tasks is closely linked to perceived personal gain or reward for that student. For them to achieve and keep on achieving, the possibility of personal reward must be present as a motivator. Often this reward revolves around the special interest of the student (in your daughter’s case, games on an iPad!).

2. Eliminate the word “homework” from your vocabulary. Replace it with the word “study.” Have a study time instead of a homework time. Have a study table instead of a homework table. This word change alone will go a long way towards eliminating the problem of your daughter saying, "I don't have any homework." Study time is about studying, even if you don't have any homework. It's amazing how much more homework high-functioning autistic children have when they have to study regardless of whether they have homework or not.

3. Is it really boredom – or anxiety? Children on the autism spectrum are notorious for experiencing anxiety. Some of your daughter’s “lack of motivation” or “irresponsibility” may very well be her own anxiety about schoolwork. Most kids have anxiety about doing certain things and may avoid them at all cost. Your daughter may not know that anxiety plays a role in her academics, because it’s not always on a conscious level for her.

Think of it like this: Let’s say your daughter tells you she doesn’t have homework when she actually does.  This will stir up your worry and concern. When you react to it by lecturing her about how important good grades are, your daughter will manage her anxiety by distancing from it – and from you! While a little anxiety can be a motivating force, too much will block your daughter’s ability to think and to have access to the part of the brain that helps her with motivation. Thus, try to keep your emotions in check by recognizing that it may be your daughter’s anxiety at play rather than plain laziness. Your task is to not react to her anxiety – or your own.

4. It's possible that your daughter may simply be bored with the school routine rather than the actual subject matter itself. Thus, try to spice up the educational process. For example, take her studies outdoors. Connect family outings and activities to things your daughter is learning in school. So, if she's studying American history, take a weekend and visit to a nearby battlefield. Or, if she is learning about botany, start digging in your backyard and plant a garden.

5. Disorganization is a problem for most kids on the autism spectrum. If you want your daughter to be organized, you have to invest the time to help her learn an organizational system. Your job is to teach her the system. Her job is to use it. Check occasionally to see if the system is being used. Check more often at first. Provide direction and correction where necessary. If your daughter needs help with time management, teach her time management skills. Help her learn what it means to prioritize by the importance and due date of each task. Teach her to create an agenda each time she sits down to study. And, help her experience the value of getting the important things done first.
==> How to Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

6. Sometimes books needed for homework are left at school. If this happens often, it is a sure sign that your daughter is struggling to learn and feels that the homework is too hard. Talk to your daughter's teachers and try to set up a system to remind her what books are needed.

7. Many kids on the autism spectrum become overwhelmed with schoolwork and need to focus on the smaller steps to achieving goals, rather than the big end result. Perhaps the number one reason that high-functioning autistic kids feel unmotivated is that they are overwhelmed by the enormity of homework and studying, which can make success seem so far in the future that it's unattainable. Thus, create a list of small goals that your daughter can check off as she reaches them. For example, rather than telling your daughter that she needs to spend one hour writing in order to complete her assignment, break the assignment down into (a) researching an idea (check!), (b) writing a rough draft (check!), and (c) polishing it up in a final draft (check!).

8. Doing homework takes time, time that your daughter would rather spend doing her fun thing. So, set a limit to the time she spends doing homework and stick to it. If she knows she can stop working at a certain time, she will be more motivated to do the work.

9. A “token economy” suits the needs of kids on the spectrum quite well. It is a system where your daughter can earn tokens as a reward for desired actions (in this case, completing homework). A predetermined number of tokens are then “cashed in” for an activity that she desires (e.g., “game time” on her iPad).

Some parents are stringently against giving their child money in exchange for doing homework. However, for children with high-functioning autism, it is worth trying. Token economies that use money tokens seem to be the most successful in increasing their ability to delay gratification, and lessening the risk of satiation (i.e., overuse of a reward that results in the youngster no longer viewing it as a reward). Using money in a token economy will negate the need for your daughter to decode an abstract concept, because in the “real world,” people are paid money for completing tasks by way of employment.

Autistic kids take a long time to establish trust, and for this reason, a token economy should focus on rewarding desired actions. Once the program has been established for a few months, you may then be able to introduce “response costs” where your daughter is fined for failing to follow through on her “work.” This correlates the token economy program with real-world experiences. However, the focus of the program must be on the positives, otherwise your daughter will quickly lose motivation and trust.

Be creative with the “reinforcers” offered as motivation for your daughter. Offering a “menu” of rewards to choose can be very effective. Initially, “cashed in” rewards need to be fairly instant (e.g., at the end of each day). Over time, this can be stretched to the end of each week. As your daughter matures, this delayed gratification may be able to be stretched to a month. However, small rewards and motivators should be offered consistently along the way.

10. Homework is often left to the last minute. Thus, help your daughter keep a homework agenda complete with dates for when work has to be handed in. Mark dates on a calendar and work backwards to decide when she should start the work. Then let her be responsible for getting the work done on time. Don't let your daughter allow her problem (no time left to complete homework) to become your problem.

11. Kids on the spectrum are very visually-oriented. Thus, consider a visual way for your daughter to see accomplishment on homework. For example, it may mean taking a link off of a paper chain or putting jelly beans in a container. It can be a marker board or calendar to mark off the items completed. When the completed tasks are made visible, your daughter will develop a stronger sense of accomplishment.

12. Be patient with your daughter. Some days will go smoothly when it comes to homework. Other days, it will feel like a war-zone. Maybe she is having a bad day. Tomorrow is a new day that brings another opportunity to teach study skills.

13. The amount of benefit your daughter gets from finishing a homework assignment NEVER outweighs the importance of your relationship with her. The amount of time you spend cajoling and coercing her to do the work is counterproductive. There is no way that homework should create tension in a family, and definitely not the kind that leads to meltdowns.

As a mom of a high-functioning autistic child, you have probably discovered that this disorder disrupts her academic abilities in multiple areas (e.g., a lowered tolerance for new situations or sudden transitions, lack of organizational skills, inconsistent energy levels, high distractibility, excessive interest in only one or two subjects to the exclusion of all others, etc.). All of these can present challenges when attempting to complete homework. Fortunately, the basic strategies listed above can help prevent those dreaded evening meltdowns related to homework.


•    Anonymous said…  This sounds like my daughter. I have not found anything that helps.
•    Anonymous said… (9yr old): so true when I must do homework I'd rather just play games its way better than boring school work. Trust me if you were a child in these days then you would understand. Maybe give your child enough playtime before school and after school then they more likely to do some homework, but it must sound like its part of playtime From me (mom): I completely get this, homework time is a nightmare!
•    Anonymous said… At home don't you think it's easier to manage than what they do or don't do at school?
•    Anonymous said… Does she have an IEP, we got my daughter one this year, so far they are working with us and modifying hw....its a battle every night.
•    Anonymous said… Have they tried to figure out why he won't do it? My son likes Math but he has Sensory issues so he's distracted in the classroom. He complains of the noise a lot. Also, he has problems writing. I think they need to find out why first.
•    Anonymous said… He behaves for the most part at school. He releases it all on me. I raised him as a single mom. He doesn't act this way with his every other weekend dad. I'm the one who has to make him do things he doesn't want to do. So, homework and home behaviors are tough for us.
•    Anonymous said… he doesn't do it because it's "boring and pointless" he says.  😞He's been told numerous times how math helps you in the future, but he is still resistant. I think he just needs help reading math questions to clarify what they ask, because he makes it harder than it is.
•    Anonymous said… Home school her. Let her guide her own education, since she's smart enough :)
•    Anonymous said… I am experiencing the exact same thing with my son. My fear is that video games are always going to be more interesting, addictive, and they make him feel happy. He us fairly socially isolated so all the more reason video games are attractive to him. He does well at school but does not work to his ability and only puts in enough work to get it done. There is no passion beyond video games. I talk to him all the time about it but nothing seem to change his thinking.
•    Anonymous said… I don't normally comment on anything but i will have to say i am happy with the progress of my son who is now 14 yrs old. For the fits he is on antidepressants. I was always against it till we got one that works. He can now have a rational conversation. He has the same rules as the rest of the kids which is no gaming until house work and home work is done. He is the only one of the kids who figured it out and gets his stuff done because we don't give in on the rules. Good luck it's not an easy road but doable😎
•    Anonymous said… I have a 15 yo grandson with Aspergers. Enrolled in our local Charter school. When he does not perform up to his potential, he loses all electronics.
All. At our house electronics are tied to participation and grades. Tough love. Let her meltdown.
•    Anonymous said… I'm so sorry. I think the only reason the considered it for my daughter is because she also has seizure disorder but is well controlled with the med. see if a doctor could maybe help
•    Anonymous said… It can be the way their brain works. Had trouble with my son getting him to expand on answers, finally got out of him "the teacher already knows the answer, and if they don't, they need to learn where to get the answers from, I'm not giving them my tricks to get the answer." We also found with him at times he couldn't be bothered writing the answers, or wouldn't expand when the work was too easy.He is now doing home schooling and we have seen a large improvement in his work, as it is all on the computer, and he is individually assesed and given work at his level as he is a year 7, but they are giving him year 8-9 work..
•    Anonymous said… It should not matter that he gets it. Having a iep allows special instructions. It is individualized to fit the needs of the student. You can write a letter requesting why he needs the iep. My daughter is in a mixed class. Some without iep and some without There are coteaching to Keep things on track.
•    Anonymous said… Lock up the devices. (We have to put our kiddo's in the Thule roof pod, because he's getting good at opening other locks.) Give time on the device as a reward for better school performance. Write up a contract with your kiddo that outlines the marks they need in order to obtain time on the device. Worked with our kiddo. Went from a D to an A-minus average. Of course, he still whines about us not giving him free-range access.
•    Anonymous said… Mine fakes sick and really doesn't want to go. It is so frustrating.
•    Anonymous said… My 11 yr old son is the same. I've emailed the head of year 7 and she said she'll inform the SENCO.
•    Anonymous said… My 12 year old boys are exactly the same. With us we try to vary rewards (computer time being one of them) to at least get stuff done at home. They've used a point system at school with the same reward to get stuff done. We try to base stuff on minecraft or things they like doing
•    Anonymous said… My husband is always accusing me of letting my son off the hook because of his asperger's so I find it difficult to find the balance. I want him prepared for life but also want to have empathy for his situation and the way his mind works. It's a constant battle with school work and tests etc. I spend so much of my time breaking his work down into manageable sections.
•    Anonymous said… My son is similar and all teachers in all prior grades have said he picks up quick and knows all material and they afraid he will get bored easily. Which is exactly what hapened. Try talking to the school staff and see if they can her something more challenging to find interest.
•    Anonymous said… My son is the same but he just often refuses to go to school. Yes, he is on an iep. Getting him to even go to school for a short time is a daily battle. He has a lot of anxiety.
•    Anonymous said… Pushing them harder will only make it worse, teach her differently. Sometimes there is too much stimulation in a full classroom that makes it hard to concentrate. Went threw this with my son. Or, it simply just cant hold their attention. Not all children learn the same. Like putting square peg in a circle.
•    Anonymous said… Sometimes I wonder if we make excuses for them because we don't want to deal with the rage and tantrums. I'm at a crossroads where I feel like I'm sick of always thinking about the diagnosis and making it about that. At a certain point he's going to have to deal with it and toughen up. He can be so manipulative and uses rage to get what he wants. I used a reward system at a younger age then I stopped because I think I created a need for reward for doing regular things. Now, when he has to do normal stuff it isn't worth it to him. I feel I need to let him know that no one will give him exceptions in the real world. I'm worried he will not succeed in terms of learning to be motivated to provide for himself or do basic self care if he's not held to the same standards as everyone else. I'm really burned out. Anyone else?
•    Anonymous said… Take her on experiences that show her how the subject matter that she is learning is applied. Just as an example, for Geography, get a compass and borrow an altimeter. Take her on an awesome hike with a plotted destination. Teach her to calculate the gradient and direction, look at wind flow and mountain clouds to describe adiabatic flow and orographic rain. Let her take you to where you're going to learn to orientate a map..... Once she can see application in real life during fun activities, her whole attitude to learning will change.
•    Anonymous said… The last meeting about this was Thursday. This is the second time I've asked for it. The last time we were turned down after going through the process, so they don't want to try again. We are at a brick wall. We had a stressful weekend and that added to today's meltdown. This all scares me.
•    Anonymous said… They won't give my son an iep because he gets the math, but won't do it. Just today he threw a fit in class in front of the other students!!. 6th grade and it landed him in the principles room. What the heck do I do? What am I doing wrong???
•    Anonymous said… This is my 16 year old son as well. He has a 504 but his school counselor isn't all that helpful. It's been a constant homework battle for 10 1/2 years of school. He's still getting D's in classes but his test scores are As. One thing I have observed having another kid in my neighborhood who is on the other end of the spectrum is that it's easy for people to look at a child who is visibly handicapped and be empathetic and want to help, but with these high functioning autism spectrum kids like ours they look normal so the attitude is they should just act normal.
•    Anonymous said… Use what they love as a reward and break the task down. I had to sit beside my son to do homework almost every day until he was in year 10 then fortunately he got a case manager at school who would help him to alleviate the stress at home. I found that once I accepted that his field of interest was so narrow and explained to him that he still needed to get the work done for the other classes to be able to finish school and then focus in a career in gaming it made it easier. We would do one task then set the timer and he was allowed to game until it went off - was usually an hour as it gave me time to get dinner cooked! My son is now 21 and studying online, he also "works" with a group of international people on game design which hopefully oneday he'll see a return on. Remember to look after yourselves along this journey, it is particularly exhausting for parents of ASD kids....be kind to yourselves  🌷 ❤
•    Anonymous said… We had the same problem with my son, refused to do any homework and it just became a never ending battle that no one was going to win, so I explained the situation to the school SEN coordinator and they decided to put aside a little time at school every day to do his homework so he could have his time in the evening at home (which I think they really need as when you think it must be an exhausting day for any child on the spectrum) and it worked. He's 16 now, got all B's and C's in his GCSE's and is now at college studying computer science and I.T which he loves as it's something HE is interested in, "no more boring lessons" :)
•    Anonymous said… You're doing nothing wrong! If he has a diagnosis then they have to work with you to create an IEP. If the school won't work with you, go to your school district.
 *    Beth said... I love this post. We struggled for years with the homework issue. Our son with Aspergers, now 17, did not see the value in doing homework at all and because he is quite bright, he could get decent grades and make academic benchmarks anyway. Public school was always so hard and stressful for him. Unfortunately, we did not insist that he do his HW because school was such a negative experience. For years, we just focussed on getting him there each day. Ultimately, we decided to move him to a private school where he could learn and be safe. Sadly, the HW troubles persisted because at that point, he had few independent study skills and no motivation for completing work at home. Not only had we had set a precedent that if school was hard or stressful, HW was not necessary but also, the work was getting harder and he couldn't rely on his natural smarts. We had done more harm than good by not utilizing strategies like those in your article to support him. His grades suffered and he became unhappy with his performance in school and yet, he would not do HW. We enrolled him in academic after school so that he could get his HW done while still at school each day. This helped tremendously. Doing HW at school worked for him for the first 3 years of HS. Now, in his senior year, our son finally sees some value in HW. He sees it as a means to an end - college and the opportunity to focus his studies on the things he is interested in. It took a long time and we did many things wrong but even so, it's working out. I guess that's my message. Do what you can to make it work with your daughter. Ask the teachers to give fewer problems and see about having her complete the work at school or in a neutral place like the library before coming home. Good luck!
*    NinaBDW said...I know Im pretty late, but I used to say homework was boring and useless, which I did mean, but it wasnt until I was older that I realized it was actually overwhelming for me. Now that Im in college and have failed some classes, I used my past failings as motivation to do hw. But even then, I still struggle for reasons I dont know. I just cant get motivated and just looking at homework makes me anxious.

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