This article will take a look at how people on the spectrum tend to respond to the concept of rewards, as well as offering some practical advice on how autism parents can implement an effective reward system for their families.
A different reward circuitry for individuals with autism
Parents of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) may have a much tougher road to navigate when it comes to motivating their children. The reason is obvious: autistic children’s brains are wired differently compared to neurotypical kids—yet they have to comply with standards set for a neurotypical world.
Just imagine how tough it must be. Neurotypical children may be motivated to pay attention in class, because they know their ‘reward’ of recess will follow periods of concentration. For the autistic child, concentrating in class may be a struggle in itself, only to be ‘rewarded’ with recess—where children interact in a social way which the autistic brain may not see as motivating… at all!
In a study pertaining to rewards system dysfunction for individuals with ASD (Kohls et al., 2013) data supported suggestions that the brain’s reward circuitry is compromised in individuals on the spectrum. The study found evidence of general reward dysfunction for ASD which may contribute to atypical behavior with regards to motivation.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans examined in a study by Supekar (2018) provided concrete evidence that children with autism have weaker functional connections in the mesolimbic reward pathway.
This so-called reward deficit (Kohls et al., 2013) in individuals with ASD should be considered when parents want to motivate their autistic children with rewards. The child’s level of motivation and understanding, his/her special interests (more on this later), and any other relevant information should be weighed up to formulate a reward system that feels, well, rewarding to your child with autism.
So before getting creative with rewards, take time to make sure the system will work for your child and your family. Think back to when you were a child—you were probably motivated differently to your siblings or other children.
For example, as an introvert, I was not deeply motivated when my parents rewarded good grades with big birthday parties or crowdy sleepovers. They probably didn’t realize the delight of time-out types of punishment either!
Going shopping for a new dress may feel like a reward to some; for others a mall with fluorescent lights, crowds, and the pervading smell of deep fried chicken may just be the ultimate punishment. Parents of autistic children should take sensory difficulties, social deficits, and the child’s preferences into consideration before adopting a rewards system for kids—those popular printable charts are often formulated with neurotypical kids in mind.
Before looking at the practical side of constructing a reward system (tailored to your child on the spectrum) it may be necessary to look at just how the brain perceives rewards and whether the autistic brain processes the idea of reward differently.
The brain’s reward system
Despite increasing awareness of impaired reward based processes for individuals with autism, more research is needed to determine whether it’s general dysfunction or specifically linked to social stimuli. In this regard studies do seem to suggest motivation impairments are similar for social and monetary rewards, indicating a general reward processing deficit in those with ASD (Kohls et al., 2011).
Most studies investigating the potential of a reward system for children are based on the experiences of neurotypical minds. Taking into consideration the differences of reward pathways in the autistic brain, such studies may have limited use for children on the spectrum. However, as studies concerning the effectiveness of rewards for children with ASD are limited, the basics of rewards for neurotypical children may help to clarify concepts related to why reward systems are so effective.
The term reward system may need to be clarified. When parenting, a reward system may entail reward charts, monetary incentives or starry stickers for homework done well. The reward system pertaining to brain circuits and processes entails a group of structures activated by rewarding stimuli—like that shiny pink donut at the end of a brutal workout.
A hit of dopamine
When we think of the neurotransmitter dopamine, many of us have an idea of a chemical messenger of pleasure. Current studies are proving dopamine’s role may be a bit different and more complicated than believed—which may be significant in the treatment of various conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism.
Earlier studies hypothesized that, as dopamine regulates pleasure and reward, we release it when we get such rewards. Neuron, a neuroscience journal, published an article theorizing that dopamine is released before we obtain something that satisfies us. The neurotransmitter, therefore, may actually encourage us to act—to achieve something good or avoid punishment or detriment (Salamone & Correa, 2012).
It has been proposed that autistic behaviour may arise from dysfunctions in the dopaminergic system, and that autistic core traits stem from the alteration of dopamine in certain brain areas (Paval, 2017). The science is complex and more research is needed, but parents with children on the spectrum should realize their children may not respond to rewards and motivation like neurotypical children. And even if they do, the rewards provided may have to be adapted to motivate in any real way.
Motivation can be intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation comes from within. An individual does something because of a deep-rooted desire or because the act is in keeping with a belief or value system (or simply because it feels good!). Extrinsic motivation comes from the outside. Children may not have a deep-rooted desire to clean their bedrooms, and therefore you may have to provide some extrinsic motivation.
The distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation becomes important when determining whether there are any negative effects of motivating children with a reward system.
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The dark side of rewards
Whenever a reward system is discussed, the first question is usually something like: “Won’t my child expect to be rewarded for every little thing?” Or, those who were subjected to a more traditional style of parenting, will mutter about how back in the day you did what was expected without expecting rewards.
It does seem like a valid concern. If you provide rewards for children to comply, what happens to intrinsic motivation? Would you be raising a child who expects a reward for doing things he/she would have done naturally had you not introduced extrinsic motivation?
Most of these fears are based on the findings of older studies, and many of the conclusions reached have been refuted. Edward Deci, a social psychologist, was one of the first to claim that extrinsic rewards lessen enjoyment and interest in activities. His paper introduced the topic by saying: “If a boy who enjoys mowing lawns begins to receive payment for the task, what will happen to his intrinsic motivation for performing this activity?” (Edward, 1971).
Most parents will first want evidence of a boy who enjoys mowing lawns before moving on to worrying about the conclusion and what it means in terms of keeping children motivated. Careful analysis indicates that even earlier studies did not indicate that rewards are generally harmful.
Findings of external rewards reducing intrinsic motivation have been questioned, particularly because rewards used in some earlier studies were not proven to be positive reinforcers (Cameron & Pierce, 2002). Moreover, many earlier studies looked at how intrinsic motivation decreased when rewards were given for favored or enjoyable activities.
Most parents have little interest in a reward system for kids to encourage activities they already find enjoyable; rather, rewards and motivation are needed when it comes to transitions, bedtimes, and eating healthy foods.
Cameron and Pierce (2002) examined years of studies about rewards and intrinsic motivation and found no pervasive negative effects of using rewards. Instead they found appropriate rewards can enhance motivation and interest.
Rewards should be introduced for a specific goal and the reward should be provided until the goal is reached. Ideally a reward should encourage desired behavior and, once the child experiences the benefit of displaying the desired behavior, intrinsic motivation should suffice in the absence of continued reward provision.
The right kind of rewards
Giving rewards is a way for parents to practice positive reinforcement, focusing on good behavior rather than getting stuck on trying to ‘fix’ children. For example your child with autism may struggle with transitions. If you understand the biology behind his/her struggle, you’ll want to lessen the frustration rather than punishing him/her for the meltdown occurring in the switch from screen time to bath time.
Practically speaking, a reward chart could be used to encourage positive behavior with regards to transitioning from a favored activity to a less enticing one. In the example above you can explain to your child that after watching his/her favorite show you want him/her to have a relaxing bath to prepare for bedtime.
If your child is old enough to understand, you can explain how a relaxing bath can calm down a mind switched on by screens—which will help him/her sleep better. If your child achieves a smooth transition you can reward him/her with a sticker on their reward chart. Many children with autism are highly visual, therefore, a visually appealing chart and stickers may increase motivation.
When your child collects a certain amount of stickers, he/she can claim their reward. As mentioned earlier, a reward appealing to your child with autism may look different to something appealing to a neurotypical child. Your child should be part of the decision making process to ensure the reward is appealing enough to motivate. Of course children will aim for the stars (who wouldn’t want a pony for putting dirty clothes in the laundry hamper?) so you may have to narrow the options to a few reasonable choices.
Help your child to find intrinsic motivation
The goal of giving rewards should be assisting your child to find intrinsic value and motivation. Whether you’re trying to help him/her acquire positive behaviors or changing negative ones, the reward should not be a permanent provision. The reward should serve as a push in the beginning but, with your help, your child should find motivation from within for long term results.
Another practical example involves something most kids need extrinsic motivation to achieve; keeping their bedrooms clean and tidy. A child on the spectrum got into repeated arguments with his mom because of his untidy room. Because of his love of electronics and his trouble with organization, his room often resembled a mucky techno cave. With a reward chart allowing him extra screen time over weekends, his room became tidier. But the real change occurred when he realized he played better when he had the space to organize his keyboard, mouse, camera and all the other gaming paraphernalia as his desk was tidy and organized.
Technology orientated rewards have magic appeal for many children on the spectrum. An interesting study (Constantin et al. 2017) examined the potential of digital technologies to provide task-based rewards. Researchers acknowledged the positive impact of rewards on children’s learning and motivation, but recognized that limited studies focusing on the impact and nature of rewards for children with ASD were available. The study provides interesting insights concerning the reward preferences of children on the spectrum, which could have significant motivational potential for future learning initiatives.
Creating a reward system for your child on the spectrum
A special reward
A system that works for your child with autism may look slightly different to that which most people envision when they think of an effective reward system. For some children, good choices or good behavior can be motivated with an ice cream on a walk back from the park; for your child on the spectrum you may need to zone in on his/her special interests for behavior management.
If you’re thinking of giving a reward to encourage your child with autism to do his/her chores, you may want to structure the system for success by incorporating his/her special interests. Special interests are very important and meaningful to individuals on the spectrum—see this related article—and can therefore serve as one of the most appropriate rewards for your child.
For example, if your child with autism has a special interest in trains, a reward involving this interest may work a whole lot better than a social type reward; which the autistic brain may not perceive as meaningful or rewarding.
A practical example of how parents could incorporate their child’s special interest in a system that feels rewarding to the child could look like this:
- First identify your goal in introducing a reward. Don’t give rewards just because you feel like spoiling your child, a reward should serve a specific motivational purpose. If your child enjoys a certain activity, don’t give rewards—his/her intrinsic motivation is enough
- Don’t feel guilty about giving rewards. Even as adults we are often motivated by rewards. We work harder when we know there is a bonus at stake, we eat healthier when skinny jeans are in fashion and we’ll weather the most magnificent tantrum for the cuddle before bedtime
- Talk to your child about the importance of acquiring the desired behavior long-term even when the reward is no longer on the table. Provide praise when they clean their room, and stress the benefits of living in an organized space. Soon he/she will start feeling ‘house-proud’ and the reward may no longer be necessary
- Don’t give the reward when your child did not earn it. You may feel bad but you’ll set a dangerous precedent by giving the reward without your child earning it first
- In the above example (of a child on the spectrum with a special interest in trains), you could take a jar (or even better, construct a cardboard train with a coin slot) and the child can save up reward money for a special train trip or train toy. By incorporating his/her special interest, you may achieve much more motivationally than expected
- Don’t ever bribe your child with rewards. This is an express route to manipulation station, and you’ll soon find your child acquiring negative behaviors to get more rewards
If you’re still hesitant about a reward system for your child with autism, consult an occupational therapist and ask for ideas to motivate your child in an appropriate way. You can also try out a reward chart, chore chart, or coin jar for insignificant behavior management to see if it works for your child. It’s not easy keeping kids on track but, as the Latin proverb states: “After the battles come the rewards.”
Cameron, J., Pierce, D.W. (2002) Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation: Resolving the Controversy. Westport, Conn.: Bergin & Garvey.
Constantin, Aurora & Johnson, Hilary & Smith, Elizabeth & Lengyel, Dipl.-Inf & Brosnan, Mark. (2017). Designing computer-based rewards with and for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and/or Intellectual Disability. Computers in Human Behavior. 75. 10.1016/j.chb.2017.05.030.
Deci, Edward. (1971). The Effects of Externally Mediated Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 18. 105-115. 10.1037/h0030644.
Kohls, G., Peltzer, J., Schulte-Rüther, M., Kamp-Becker, I., Remschmidt, H., Herpertz-Dahlmann, B., & Konrad, K. (2011). Atypical brain responses to reward cues in autism as revealed by event-related potentials. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 41(11), 1523–1533. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-011-1177-1
Pavăl D: A Dopamine Hypothesis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Dev Neurosci 2017;39:355-360. doi: 10.1159/000478725
John D. Salamone, Mercè Correa. The Mysterious Motivational Functions of Mesolimbic Dopamine.Neuron, 2012; 76 (3): 470 DOI:10.1016/j.neuron.2012.10.021
Supekar, K., Kochalka, J., Schaer, M., Wakeman, H., Qin, S., Padmanabhan, A., & Menon, V. (2018). Deficits in mesolimbic reward pathway underlie social interaction impairments in children with autism. Brain : a journal of neurology, 141(9), 2795–2805. https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awy191