Autism Spectrum Disorder

5 Ways to Understand what Motivates a Child with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Today we have a guest post from Occupational Therapist Hope Caracci.  Hope specializes in the evaluation and treatment of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Sensory Processing Dysfunction.  She is a well-known speaker who often presents on the topic of Autism Spectrum Disorder. (See below for more information on her next conference in November).


Are you having difficulty motivating your clients or your child to participate in learning activities?

Learning a new skill requires the internal drive to do so. Unfortunately, children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) often lack intrinsic motivation.

As an experienced OT who has presented and written extensively about Autism Spectrum Disorder, I have some secrets to share!

These are my 5 tried and true techniques to identify what is interesting and meaningful to a child with ASD.  

They really work, and can help you to improve the child’s participation significantly!

The secret to understanding what your child with Autism Spectrum Disorder is thinking or feeling is this….

Understanding Homeostatic Changes

It sounds confusing, but here it is  in simple terms:

Human homeostasis refers to the body’s ability to physiologically regulate its inner environment to ensure its stability in response to fluctuations in the outside environment and the weather. In other words, your body responds to internal or external demands.

All humans have homeostatic changes throughout the day. A simple example is when your body produces sweat when it feels overheated.

how does that help you to understand your child with Autism Spectrum Disorder?

When a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder is presented with an activity, toy, piece of equipment, or even transitions to a new environment, his body goes through changes.

Noticing these changes may give you an understanding of what the child likes (and doesn’t like).

So what should you look for?
Here are five things to observe when trying to figure out what might motivate a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder to participate in…just about anything!


1. Muscle Tone

When you present a child with a toy, watch their overall muscle tone.  Look for subtle (sometimes very subtle so you must really observe closely) changes in facial muscles.

  • Does their face tense or relax?
  • Is the child’s face smooth, and relaxed; do the muscles appear soft and tender?
  • Or, is the child holding excessive tension in the brow area?
  • Are there increased facial lines in the eyes or forehead?
  • What about the jaw, are the teeth clenched?

If you said smooth and relaxed, you may have found a toy that will motivate the child in the future, so hold onto it!

2. Breathing

When you present a child with a new experience, (for example, a ride on a swing) watch and observe their breathing pattern.

  • Does the child’s breathing become rhythmical, and does the rate slow down?

If yes, they are enjoying the ride!

This may motivate them to participate in a new learning experience!

On the other hand, if you observe the child’s breathing rate becoming fast, the length of breaths short, and the overall rhythm becoming erratic, the ride may not be very motivating.

3. Sweat Rate

When you take a child into a new environment, watch their sweat rate:

  • Are they beginning to sweat?
  • Look at the forehead, is it moist?
  • What about the child’s palms, are they clammy?

If yes, this may not be a motivating environment.

If no, and the child remains dry, you may have found a winner!

4. Color Changes

When you introduce a child to a new piece of equipment, perhaps a bike, watch for color changes in the face, neck, and chest.

  • Is the child’s coloring the same?

If the child’s skin remains consistent, smooth, and even, you may have found an activity they enjoy. However, if the child feels unsafe or is not enjoying an activity, their skin may redden.

  •  Is the child’s face flushed?

If yes, capillaries may be opening. This makes the skin change color, showing you that this is not a motivating activity!

5. Temperature

And last, temperature…temperature has a correlation to sweat rate and color changes.

But…it’s another way to use your detective skills to figure out what will motivate a child to participate in activities and learn new skills.

Now here is the tricky part.

Stress may lead to increased or decreased temperature. That makes this is a bit harder!

Nonetheless, be aware of changes in temperature.

  • If introduced to an activity, does the child become hot?
  • Does the child become cold?

Either of these changes may signify that the activity will not be motivating in the future.

On the contrary, if the child’s temperature stays consistent; you may have found another winner!

Now let’s pull this all together.

Imagine in your mind’s eye…you introduce a child to a new experience: Sitting in a ball pit.

  • You immediately notice that the child’s facial muscles loosen, their brows and jaw relax, and their muscles are soft.
  • Next, you notice that their breathing slows, becomes rhythmical, and their skin color is even and smooth.
  • Next, the child smiles happily.

Ah ha!

You have found an activity that is motivating and may increase the child’s participation in new learning experiences!

About the Author:

Hope Caracci, OTR/L, OTD, SIPT is a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in the evaluation and treatment of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Sensory Processing Dysfunction. She is a well-known speaker and will be presenting on the topic of Autism in November.




 Many parents and even therapists are unaware of the differences between using “sensory strategies” and treating with an Ayres Sensory Integration (ASI) approach.  This is a Must Read for OTs, parents, and other related service providers.

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