Many parents find it difficult that despite their pleas and requests trying to appeal to their child’s better nature, their child still doesn’t do what they ask.

Most people have a preference for collaborating with others and being part of a group.  Social motivation theory holds that most people find it rewarding to seek, initiate and maintain social interactions rather than doing things by themselves.  As such most people will engage in behaviours that are aimed at providing others a favourable impression of them, so in turn, others will respond positively toward them.  The positive responses from others are intrinsically rewarding for most people.  This positive social response from others can be highly reinforcing alone without a person needing or expecting some extrinsic reward to be given for engaging in pro-social behaviours.

Social reinforcement may not be as motivating for those with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.  One reason this is children with ASD may either not recognise or are not motivated by social rewards and consequences.  Additionally, individuals with ASD may have deficits in their understanding of how others may be feeling and thinking, and therefore are not tuned into the importance of responding positively.  For example, if you ask your child to have a shower, they may think, “I’m clean enough – not a priority.”

Therefore, if doing things for other people is not rewarding, and the consequences of not complying are inconsequential, then there is little incentive for individuals with ASD to do what we want.  What’s in it for them?  

For younger children, it is helpful to point out to them what is the positive outcome for them to do what is asked and what are the consequences for not.  Once an individual with ASD can identify the motivator for engaging in a particular behaviour, then they are more likely to comply.  For example, you may say ‘If you have a shower now, then you can come back and play your game.  But if you don’t shower now, then I will pack away your game.”  Simplifying this request, you may say “First shower. Then game. No shower. No game.”

As children develop and mature, they can be taught the link between their behaviour and the consequences they experience.  The way they act affects how others feel and respond to them, and how others treat them affects how they think and feel about others and also themselves. An excellent resource for understanding how to teach the link between behaviour and social consequences is  “Social Behavior Mapping: Connecting Behavior, Emotions and Consequences Across the Day” by Michelle Garcia Winner. 

Remember, if it is not rewarding for a person to please others or to be viewed positively by others, what’s in it for them. Remember to help your child with ASD to identify what’s in it for them and the social consequences of their behaviours.