Capitalizing on Enthusiasm
I am constantly thinking of ways to build skills in my kids. We're always told to find our children's cash and use that as a motivator. For my middle schooler, the cash is often and quite literally, cash (thanks YouTube and TikTok). No shocker there. For most of us cash is the ultimate. There are so many things to buy and a never ending list of wants make it the motivator of all motivators.
For my son who is on the spectrum, cash takes on different forms. When he was first diagnosed with autism, they ran a test to tell me possible barriers to treatment. This test has a name. I do not remember what it is, but there are essentially around sixteen barriers to therapy. A barrier would be something that hinders therapy. For example, a sensory sensitive child could have environmental barriers such as bright lights or loud noises. Anything that might prevent successful therapy. All autistic children have a social/communication barrier, since that's essentially what autism is. In our case, the main barrier was "weakened motivators." When I first saw the feedback, I was like "What is a weakened motivator?" It was wisely described to me using cake as an example, and because of this, I've literally never forgotten what it means...
An example of a weakened motivator is if someone offered you cake, you would (obviously) want the cake, right? RIGHT!?
But now suppose the person offering you the cake made it conditional. And let's say the condition was you had to run five miles before you could have it. Would you still want the cake?
If you said, "no," then you just experienced a weakened motivator. If you said, "yes," then...we can't be friends, but I might eat your cake while you are out for that run.
So if we put this in terms of autism, and to quote a developmental pediatrician we once met with, "your ability to build skills in your child is contingent on always understanding what deeply motivates him...and those motivations constantly change."
And like all people who are given the gift of wisdom handed to them on a silver platter, I still managed to only learn this the hard way...by doing it wrong over and over again. I struggled for years as plastic treasure box toys and social incentives all fell short time and time again. Threats of punishment were consistent disasters and late night worrying sessions became the norm. I didn't yet understand how to get into my son's head and capitalize on his enthusiasm.
I WILL cut Andy and I some slack by saying that some of this comes with development of your child and their understanding of incentives, but I still managed to have plenty of "how did we get here," moments when things didn't go according to plan. It can drive you mad.
And just to let you in on what you probably already know, Autism moms be crazy. No seriously, it's fine, we are. We wear our nuttiness like the badge of honor that it is and I'm fine with it.
But let me tell you why so you understand.
On the day that our kids were diagnosed, right after dropping the A-word on us, someone said directly or indicated in a round about way, one terrifying piece of information, and that was that - time was of the essence. Therapy is always beneficial, but when it comes to therapies for kids newly diagnosed with autism, the earlier the better is drilled into us. Here you are - digesting a diagnosis you don't understand, you are wondering how you will afford to help your child and now...you have to do it all fast....and that is when your heart starts to race... and in that moment, just like in Poe's, Tell Tale Heart, the sound of the ticking clock begins...and it slowly drives us into insanity (except it's nothing like that story because that was actually a heart beating...but you get the picture - minus the murder). We bring that stress into our strategy meetings, to the playground, on our vacations and into our IEP meetings. It may look like we are a bunch of hostile, abrasive and emotional crazies, but the root of what we are...is worried. We can all relate to worry.
So with that in mind, we become out of the box thinking experts on our children in record time. And that, my friends, four hundred paragraphs into this blog post, is why I'm writing this. I have developed a keen sense of how to capitalize on my son's interests to get what I want from him...whether it is behavioral or communicative. It must be interesting to him or he won't bother.
I must find his enthusiasm and capitalize on it.
For example, if I can code language with numbers, his absolute love, then language becomes interesting to him and he's more inclined to use it. So I don't ask him to find words for his day, instead, I ask him to give it a ranking. From 1 to 10, from 1 to 1,000, he has no problem identifying what number his day was...so we start here. Then I can ask him why he assigned his day a specific number and he usually wants to then assign descriptive words to his ranking. And voila - he's just told me about his day. But to just simply ask him about his day though...BORING. He has no time for descriptive words alone. And as you can see, that cost me nothing. I didn't have to reward him for his answer...I just made it interesting to him, but challenging at the same time. THIS is one of the many things that makes autism beautiful in my opinion, their fascinating little minds.
Another thing that works to my advantage is the use of regiments. Sometimes by just creating a process that he can regiment for himself will ensure he follows through with things. In one of his earliest IEP meetings in preschool, he was not meeting his goal of hanging up his bag. So the IEP team and I discussed what happens after he hangs up his bag. Was it motivating enough to make him want to hang his bag up quickly and move on to the next thing. At the time, once his bag was hung up, he could go socialize with friends. We quickly realized our mistake. Socialization was not necessarily a motivator for a child who struggles with social development - so we created a regiment instead. This time the teacher told him to hang up his bag, then he could go sit on the orange dot with the number 8 (his spot in the room). To me, that sounds like a punishment...why can't I go talk to people? But to him, it was the regiment he needed to his morning routine Right after we setup that sequence, he mastered the goal.
Social motivators. I have been seeing an awesome social motivator for him in recent days. Humor. He. loves. jokes. He loves to make people laugh and I can see him trying out jokes and asking me to rank how funny it was. He wants to understand what makes a joke funny. What makes other people laugh. He has an amazing set of teachers this year who have picked up on this too and they use it. They let him tell a joke a day. They have brought in joke books to expand his repertoire. He's even made up a few jokes of his own (some still need to be workshopped a bit more), but what a beautiful tool this is to help him tune into his surroundings and read other people's reactions.
Lastly, I have used incentive-type motivators as well - but these are tricky. The minute you offer a reward for doing something undesirable or unnatural, it better be good. Because if it's not something that they want that bad, you've lost them. (I wanted the chocolate cake until you told me to run five miles for it).
I now do a much better job of watching and latching onto things he consistently talks about. A few months ago we went to a birthday party where we played laser tag - he loved it! He would not stop talking about coming back and playing again. BAM - a solid incentive! I was giddy! I came up with a quick point system and emailed his teachers to get them onboard. Great teachers will LOVE your incentives and ideas. They want your child to be motivated too, but may not understand his "cash" like you do. Also, collaborate on those goals - that's why you've got a team!
Within a few weeks, we were playing our victory game of laser tag for earning points. Now, it is important to note that I was very specific about what behavior we were incentivizing. In our case, simply having a good day is too broad. We want him to work. Pick a troublesome area of opportunity. For us, it is usually in the processing and handling of frustration. Let your child help you come up with ideas of "do's and dont's". I have told our son that frustration is fine...we all get frustrated, but let's come up with positive ways to handle it. This narrowing of the focus has been extremely effective as it relates to building awareness and coping skills.
Look, I am just a parent - I'm not an expert on autism, but I've learned over the years that we make the MOST headway and accomplish the MOST goals by capitalizing on our son's enthusiasm!
I'm attaching our most recent incentive - Disney Bucks. Wesley and I collaborated on this so he fully understood what was expected and so he could identify the positive and negative responses on his own.
What things have worked for you?