4 Steps in Motivating Learning in Autistic Children

I have often heard teachers or therapists’s ask the question, “what motivates her?” or “I can’t find anything that motivates him.” Well stop looking, it is found. It is usually being demonstrated when the child is left to his own devices. The answer is 1) watch, 2) listen, 3) mirror, and 4) watch again.
Watch and see what the child does. Is it rocking, flicking fingers, is it clapping hands repeatedly? Whatever it is, mirror it, mirror to a simple tune which can be repeated – then watch and see what happens. Is the child looking, smiling? Although the behavior may be unusual from what a nuero-typical child does, the child is receiving something motivating from doing it. As we all know, spectrum children have many sensory issues, an observed behavior is probably satisfying something. It is not necessary, at this point, that we understand what the behavior is satisfying, all we really need to know is what motivates, or satisfy’s this child. Remember, 1) watch, 2) listen, 3) mirror, and 4) watch again. See the result you get from mirroring back that behavior.
In previous blogs, I have written about “Eddie” (also containing a video clip. https://backmountainmusictherapy.com/2012/07/disconnect-to-self-regulation-all-systems-go-ready-for-take-off/) and his “Click Clack” song Eddie carries a matchbox car which he holds by the wheels and flicks back and forth repeatedly. We have developed a “Click Clack” song to accompany his stim.As the music ant the stim are matched, the therapist can vary the tempo and the energy of the tune and “Eddie” will follow the music, staying connected in a co-responsive activity with the therapist. As “Eddie” plays, he gives eye contact to the therapist, engages in turn taking activity and follows 1 step verbal direction.
This week “Eddie” needed to be carried in tot the Music Therapy room. Recently, in Music Therapy, “Eddie” has been sitting in the corner, pushing his hands along the carpet. As he waits for his session in the waiting area, he pushes on play dough. Last week, I happened to have left play dough sitting on the piano. As “Eddie” was carried in last week, he immediately spotted the play dough, grabbed it and started to squeeze it. I used his old, familiar Click Clack tune and started to sing about the “squeeze” of the play dough that he was engaging in. Although the TSS remained, “Eddie” connected with me through his vigorous play dough pushing with frequent eye contact.
This week, upon being carried once again into the Music Therapy room, “Eddie was given the play dough. I left the piano and used only my voice as I squeezed the play dough in both of “Eddie’s” hands, then his feet. “Eddie” then pushed on pillows with his feet, allowing me to hold the pillow. “Eddie went from displaying anxious, frantic behavior to spending most of the session smiling at me maintaining sustained eye contact., shaking his head “yes” to my assistance and continuing to gesture for my continued assistance. “Eddie’ left the session calm and happy, not displaying the anxious, frantic behavior that he entered the room with at the start of the session. “Eddies” sensory need had been met. Did he learn or develop anything this day? I don’t think so, but he did leave the room displaying calm, attentive behavior. “Eddie” displayed trust in the therapist by smiling, giving very consistent, sustained eye contact, answering “yes” with a head shake to assistance offered, and reaching for what was needed, employing the therapist’s help. “Eddie” was able to trust the therapist, the therapy routine and the environment. As in Maslow’s theories, physiological needs must be met first, and then trust must be established before other higher learning is to occur. Watch, listen, mirror and the watch again.



Love it, one of those things I do all the time but really useful to see it written down and described in plain english. Thanks!


Your description is great, but as an OT, I disagree that Eddie did not learn anything in the session. He learned that your squeezes (deep pressure touch) felt good and allowed him to calm down and get more organized and focused. This organization allowed him to make more eye contact with you and to communicate that he wanted you to continue with the activity. In future sessions, he may calm as soon as he enters the room, knowing that you will provide the deep pressure touch that he is needing. I have had this experience with children as they come into the sensory motor room. Sharing this technique with family will further enhance his organization and his communication to request it. I often say the word “Squish” or “squeeze” as I provide deep pressure touch. If the child is non-verbal, I will stop, ask “more?” while signing and see if the child indicates in any way that he wants me to continue. Eye contact, smiling, lifting feet up are all means of communicating “more”. This is a great opportunity to work on labeling body parts or other communication skills.


Thank you so much for this! I agree, I have been questioned here and am not use to people seeing this as learning. Your explanation and points made are re-affirming!

barbara smith

Thank you for this well described success and use of sensory stimulation to motivate children with autism. I do similar work during hippothrapy where the child learns to sing along, gesture with songs, give commands etc. and is rewarded by horse movement which also has great impact on sensory integration. I will share on my facebook page.


Great rapport building methods and ideas to desensitize a child to “non favored” activities as well. Thanks for the blog post!


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