“People are looking at you.”
I said this in a hushed tone and without even the hint of judgment, but in the hope of recognition.
My son, in his interest in keeping things predictable and exactly the same as before, had escalated at the large family gathering. The result was behavior that was not at all socially appropriate and the looks on everyone’s faces told us that loud and clear.
I was mortified. He couldn’t care less. Literally, no one has cared less about social judgment than my son in that moment. I kind of envy him really. When other people are trying to everything fit into a proper little box, he just can’t be bothered. It’s freeing, in a way. It’s also the calling card of having a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.
We all know the typical presentation of an individual with autism—lack of eye contact, talking repetitively about a single subject, some kind of rigid expectations—but another, less understood thing about autism is that it is a motivation disorder.
This difference in motivation wouldn’t be such a major problem except that all learning occurs by watching, listening, interacting, and responding socially and relies on the person feeling motivated to engage in the environment. Our entire learning system is set up to be a social experience that is driven by motivation to participate. If you are a person who does not get motivation from social interaction or if you would rather avoid social interaction altogether, you are going to miss out on all kinds of learning opportunities.
This is why it is so important to understand learning through the lens of motivation. Disinterest in social interaction deprives some neurodiverse individuals of typical learning opportunities, which drives them to find interest in other, less typical areas, which deprives them of even more learning opportunities, and the cycle continues unless someone helps to increase social motivation and insert opportunities to learn that are motivating.
When you consider an autism diagnosis as a motivation difference, it helps to understand why individuals with autism need a plan to create new ways to interact with the world. This can happen by engaging in ABA therapy, pairing primary and secondary reinforcers, and making social interaction valuable.