How to Motivate an Autistic Teen

The title of this post is one of the more common search phrases people use to find this website. And since it’s a topic that I deal with on a daily basis, I decided to describe my approach.

Motivation is either extrinsic (“coming from without”) or intrinsic (“coming from within”).  Both involve what the person in question perceives as rewards, either tangible (extrinsic motivation) or intangible (intrinsic motivation). Depending on your child’s emotional age, they will start off with extrinsic motivation and, as they mature, they will start responding to intrinsic motivation. It’s just been in the past year or two that I’ve been able to cultivate Nigel’s intrinsic motivation, but he still relies heavily on extrinsic.

*Extrinsic Motivation (Tangible Rewards):

A. Time doing what they love:

  • Watching movies/videos
  • Playing video games
  • Computer time
  • Going to a favorite museum or other place of interest
  • Bike-riding, hiking, or other physical activity they enjoy
  • Go-karting, bowling, or other activity
  •  Going to the library
  • Inviting a friend for a sleepover

B. Things they can earn:

  • Allowance
  • Buying a new book, toy, or model to put together
  • Renting a video game or DVD

C. Consequences (the other side of the reward coin):

If they don’t do what they need to be motivated to do, **they lose time allotted for doing what they enjoy, and/or they lose the privilege of earning things that they want.

Intrinsic Motivation (Intangible Rewards):

A. Personal Achievement:

  • Finding things that were lost (e.g. during room cleaning – this is also an extrinsic reward)
  • Contributing to the family/household

B. Helping People:

  • Habitat for Humanity Walk
  • Scouting for Food

Nigel is learning the rewards of intrinsic motivation by being involved in the aforementioned causes. I also use one of his regular chores, cleaning out the cat litter, as an intrinsic motivator: he is helping someone who can’t do something themselves and in doing so, gains their love and loyalty. He is also contributing to the family and household by helping out, and he is learning that a sense of community is its own reward.

**Example of losing time allotted for doing what they enjoy:

Nigel has a hard time getting up in the morning. I offer him the extrinsic motivation of warmth, either through a warm blanket (fresh out of the dryer) to wrap himself in, or a warm breakfast or drink. If that is not motivating enough, for every 5 minutes that he continues to stay in bed, I deduct 10 minutes off of his computer time for the day. As far as intrinsic motivation, I could tell him that getting out of bed on time would yield the satisfaction of a productive day. But he’s definitely not there yet on that one.

*Remember: The only way that extrinsic motivation will work is to follow through with both rewards and consequences. Consistency is key!

Note: When Nigel was younger and non-verbal, I used a system of visual cues to help schedule and motivate him. Holly at Fearless Females has written a post outlining the visual system she uses with her non-verbal autistic daughter that helps to motivate her to do things. It’s a great “companion” post to this one.

8 thoughts on “How to Motivate an Autistic Teen

  1. M

    you are absolutely blowing me away with that nano wrimo word count.

    are you sleeping at all?!

    i’ve heard of those hats that have cup holders on the side that people drink beer out of. the image in my mind is of you wearing one of those, with a 20oz. coffee in each holder, drinking and typing furiously.


  2. Fearless Females


    I agree with everything that you have mentioned. My daughter is non-verbal and profoundly autistic and does not always understand what we ask of her, so (with her schools help) we use a visual star system on her communication folder–when she does what she’s asked, then she earns a star–once she has earned a certain amount of stars (start off with a few) then she “earns” a movie or tv time. It doesn’t always work for her because she is also very stubborn, but works most of the time and she understands the concept. Earning money and buying items still doesn’t work for either one of my kids–much harder concept.

  3. Bonnie Sayers (autismfamily)

    I posted this on twitter last nite and never got around to leaving a comment. I also did Fearless females blog post too, funny that I read yours and went to hers without even knowing she mentioned yours.

    I am doing an autism twitter day Dec 16, prizes will be awarded. You should sign up soon for membership and let me know what your ID is, hope you get teenautism, mine is autismfamily.

    Another post I need to print out. Good work. Nick now cleans out litter box too.

  4. Eirene

    none of this reward and punishment stuff works with my autistic son. it is the same old thing, the same type if behaviouist stuff that people have done with all kids for thousands if years. nothing new. my son doesn’t understand the connection between an action and the consequence, so therefore doesn’t understand that what he is receiving is a reward ir a pinishment. it makes no sense to him.

  5. Tanya Savko Post author

    Dear Eirene,

    Thank you for stopping by, and for your comment. Your frustration is understandable. Many of the suggestions in the post were based on my online research and did not work for my son either, but I listed them as ideas for other parents to try depending on what they feel might work for their child. I suppose it also depends if your child responds to a type of reward system such as what’s used in ABA therapy, which my son received for three years (he was nonverbal for most of that time). I think perhaps because he was exposed to that is the reason why he responded to some of the motivational tactics I wrote in the post. I’m not saying that’s a better way to do it or anything like that, just saying I think that’s why he responds to some types of rewards. In any case, I appreciate your input and hope that you’re able to find another resource that will work for you.

    Best wishes,
    Tanya Savko

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