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Motivation and Autism

Posted by Katherine Stavropoulos, a 2012 Dennis Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellow at the University of California, San Diego. Katherine’s research grant supports her study of how children and adults with autism respond to positive social and non-social feedback. 

I was already working as an applied behavior analysis therapist when I started to think about a recurring issue with several of the children I was treating. How could we motivate them to do what a parent, teacher or therapist asked?

I worked with one boy for about two years. When we started working together, he would yell and scream when he didn’t get what he wanted. Eventually, I managed to get him to say what he wanted. The experience made me wonder. What convinced him to ask politely for his juice or goldfish rather than yell? Was it my smiles and praise? The promise of the tasty reward? Something else?

Brainstorming about these questions helped me identify the topic of my doctoral dissertation and the aim of my Weatherstone research project.

Many of those affected by autism tend to avoid eye contact and struggle with social cues. Often, they don’t seem to be motivated by social interactions. Researchers often talk about these motivational differences. But so far there hasn’t been a scientific study that measures this difference and explores its neurological roots.

I want to fill this gap in knowledge because greater understanding can help us increase motivation in directions that will improve learning and quality of life.

More specifically, my study aims to identify whether lack of responsiveness in children and adults with autism is related specifically to reduced social motivation or to a more general lack of motivation. The findings might help therapists design interventions to ease social difficulties. My advisor, Leslie Carver, and Autism Speaks have provided invaluable support in my pursuit of this goal.  

In my study, I’m comparing brain activity related to social motivation in children and adults with or without autism. I will use electroencephalography (EEG) to noninvasively measure brain responses while participants play a guessing game and receive feedback on their answers.

Sometimes the feedback to an answer will be accompanied by the image of a face (smiling for correct and frowning for incorrect). Other times it will be accompanied by an arrow (an upwards arrow for correct and a downwards arrow for incorrect). The face represents “social feedback.” The arrow represents “non-social feedback,” or feedback lacking a human component.

As I study the brain activity patterns of participants with or without autism, I will look for differences in the responses to these social versus nonsocial cues.

I deeply appreciate that Autism Speaks is supporting this work with a Weatherstone Fellowship. It is allowing me to pursue my doctoral research for the entire two years I need to complete my study. Thanks, too, to Autism Speaks’ community of supporters for making this research possible.

Click here more information about the Dennis Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellowship, and here for information on the 2012 Weatherstone fellows and their research projects. Also see these recent blogs, feature profiles and videos by Weatherstone Fellows Myka Estes, John Danial, Esther Berko and Elaine Hsiao

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.