February 5, 2021

Is it a good idea to use rewards as motivation? I’m not a huge fan, since I feel that the possibility of a reward can take focus off the real, inherent value of an action. But overall, my feelings about rewards are pretty neutral – depending on how they’re used.

Sometimes rewards are used in ways that I believe are actively harmful.

What looks from the outside like a frivolous reward may actually be an important tool to support self-regulation. Examples include physical play, music, sensory stimulation, and food. These can all provide fuel to face a challenge – stronger fuel than the mere hope of getting them later.

In other words, if it would be helpful beforehand, don’t save it for later.

Another pitfall is when rewards are used to promote unquestioning compliance. If a child learns to push through internal resistance for the sake of an external reward, then they may never examine that resistance closely enough to identify its cause.

The cause of resistance may be that a task is hard, or that it’s harmful.

For hard tasks, there may be strategies that could help make it easier, but they’ll remain hidden if the child is able to push through to a reward on the other side. Over time, all that pushing may inch them toward burnout.

For harmful tasks, a child may intuitively sense that it will be painful, perhaps invisibly, unique to their own threshhold of tolerance. In that case, ignoring their intuition and pushing through for the sake of a reward is dangerous.

My school uses rewards. It’s not the system that I would choose if I were in charge, but at least we manage to avoid the major problems I’ve listed.

First, the rewards are essentially meaningless. (Yes, that’s a good thing.) They’re just tickets, which can be used to purchase trinkets. If an item or activity is meaningful, helpful, or important to students, then it’s offered freely – not withheld for use as a reward.

Second, blind compliance is not rewarded – self-advocacy is. We know it can be hard for students to notice what they need and ask for it, so we reward them when they do.

If you hear that a school or therapist uses rewards, find out how. Ask what the rewards are, what actions get rewarded, and what additional supports they provide besides the hope of a reward.

P.S. I write from my personal experience as an autistic. What I share is not a substitute for advice from an autistic medical professional. Also, some of my opinions have changed since I first wrote them.