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Autism, Motivation and Hard Work

Guest post by Cara Damiano, a member of the 2011 Autism Speaks Dennis Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellowship Program.

As a college student, I had the opportunity to volunteer at a school for children with autism. I loved this work so much that I decided that my future career should focus on helping people with autism lead happier, more fulfilling lives. This goal, along with my love of neuroscience and psychology research, led me to pursue graduate studies in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. There, thanks to an Autism Speaks Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellow, my dreams of helping people with autism are coming true.

In my work, I am often struck by how difficult it can be to motivate some children with autism to learn social “rules.” Yet I’ve also seen how strongly motivated these same children can be when it comes to their special interests.

My Weatherstone Fellowship project is part of a larger study on the “rewards” that motivate children and adults with autism. These include social rewards such as someone smiling at you. They also include non-social rewards such as money, food or a special interest. Many families and clinicians have noticed that those with autism tend to differ from “typical” when it comes to what motivates them.

I’m pleased to report that our research team at UNC-Chapel Hill recently published a study on reward motivation in autism in the Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders.

Led by my advisor, Gabriel Dichter, Ph.D., the team included my co-authors, Jim Bodfish, Ph.D., Joseph Aloi and Michael Treadway, Ph.D.

This study looked at what motivates adults with autism to choose either an easy version of a button-pressing game (pressing a button slowly with the pointer finger) or a harder version (pressing the button quickly with the pinky finger). We looked at how the amount of money or the chance of winning influenced their willingness to tackle the harder task. We compared the results to those of a control group of adults not affected by autism.

We found that adults with autism were more willing to work harder regardless of the amount or chance of reward. In other words, they choose the harder version of the game more often, regardless of payment or chance of winning.

We found another interesting association. During a pre-game interview, we gauged the intensity of each participant’s special interests. Across both groups (with or without autism), we found that the willingness to work harder in the button-pressing game increased with the intensity of the person’s special interest. It didn’t matter what that special interest might be (video games, trains, computers, cars, etc.).

These findings have several important implications. Take for example, the lack of social motivation seen in many with autism. The issue may not be a simple lack of motivation. Rather they may simply be motivated by different “rewards.” For example, an individual with autism may be highly motivated to be part of a group related to their special interest, but not a group that meets just to “chat.” 

Ongoing research in our lab will look at the motivation for different types of social and non-social rewards in children and adults with autism. We’re looking at both behavior and brain responses to reward. We believe that this type of work will help us understand how and why motivation differs for many of those with autism.

We hope that this knowledge will lead to new strategies to help individuals with autism harness their remarkable ability to work hard to succeed in school and jobs–perhaps even in social interactions. 

The Weatherstone fellowship has made these projects possible by giving me the time and resources to fully dedicate myself to this project and to my own professional development as an autism researcher. In applying for this fellowship, I was required to write a detailed training plan. This made me think deeply about how I could grow as a scientist.

Over the past year, the Weatherstone has also given me the opportunity to learn from experts in autism and brain imaging, travel to important conferences, become connected with a large network of people involved in autism research and gain further experience with working with people with autism. As a result, I have become even more passionate about research that can help individuals with autism.

I want to extend a special “thank you” to Autism Speaks and the Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellowship program for supporting my career and this research. More thanks go to all of the individuals with autism and their families who so graciously participated in our studies.

Editor’s note: Follow these links for more information on adults with autismsecondary education, housing and residential support and autism in the workplace. Click here to download Autism Speaks Transition Tool Kit for families whose children are transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. Follow these links to learn more about Autism Speaks Dennis Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellowship Program and to explore its many career-launching fellowship projects.


The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.