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Passions and motivation: Why passions aren’t rewards

Although I have had some very positive feedback about my Manifesto for Allies, one part of the Manifesto has prompted more questions and discussion than any other section. My stance on Autistic passions has caused some consternation (or at least uncertainty), so I wanted to spend some time expanding and explaining my thinking on this matter further. Bear with me: this post is another long one!

Let me first revisit what I argued in the Manifesto. In the section on Motivation and Autism, I argued:

Coopting Autistic passions… undercuts the fun and joy of that passion, so careful regard should be paid to the relationship between passion and motivation. Passions might be used to increase the meaning and relevance of a particular task or lesson to an Autistic individual, but they should never be used to undermine Autistic autonomy or as a tool to ensure compliance or achieve coercion. This point is especially salient when passions are coopted for rewards (or removed as punishment). For example, a child’s favourite pastime is gaming. One might use gaming to frame their STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) curriculum or their English and Social Sciences curriculum, or perhaps use gaming to help that child to engage with like-minded peers. However, if gaming is used as a reward for compliance, or to coerce (however subtly) the child’s cooperation, it undermines the passion and enjoyment of gaming. An adult might thus hold the child’s autonomy to ransom by using the power of their passion; by doing so, they risk making an organic interest contingent on external demands. The child may find that gaming is motivating in and of itself, but if an adult uses it to try and entice them to do something they might not otherwise want to do, it compromises the pleasure of that passion. Every Autistic individual has the right to expect that others will respect their passion and not use those passions as a tool to assert ‘power over’. Passions are precious and should be treated with utmost respect.

Before I clarify exactly what I meant in this paragraph, I want to preface the following discussion with two caveats. Firstly, I have not always parented as I parent now. I ascribe to the philosophy of ‘know better, do better’, so my parenting style has evolved as I have learnt more about Autism, about myself and about my children and what works for them (and for us as a family). Secondly, and with that in mind, I currently parent within a ‘respectful parenting’ (sometimes called ‘peaceful parenting’) philosophy. Often people equate respectful parenting with permissive parenting, but that equivalence is an erroneous one: respectful parenting doesn’t imply a lack of boundaries. Rather, respectful parenting has its foundations in reciprocal respect by eschewing more traditional behavioural methods of parenting.

What is respectful parenting?

Respectful parents don’t use extrinsic rewards and punishments to motivate their children to compliance. Instead, we work from the premise that our children are autonomous, whole individuals who are involved in complex relationships, and who need our guidance and kindness to navigate the intricacy that comes with simply being in the world. In our house, then, acknowledgement and conversation are the cornerstones of our interactions, and we operate using the fundamental principles of democracy. I don’t see my children as somehow inferior or even embryonic versions of their ultimate adult selves, but rather as whole and complete beings now in this moment. That means I need to take their preferences and desires into account as equally as an adult’s would be. It doesn’t mean that they always get their way (as so often happens in democracy), but it does allow their positions to be heard and acknowledged.

Fundamentally, my style of parenting is not overly strict, and it shies away from the kinds of punitive and non-empathetic types of parenting that were more common when I was growing up. I try not to manipulate my children. I try to build their autonomy. And I don’t demand a respect from my children that I don’t offer to them. I earn their respect, and expect them to earn mine.

Respectful parenting means I model the behaviours I want to see. I don’t yell, and I certainly don’t punish. When my boys make mistakes, we discuss how they can rectify the mistake if necessary and put plans in place for not making the same mistake again. If I make a mistake, I ‘own’ that mistake, apologise and do my best to fix it (and not to repeat it). I am far from a saint, and it often isn’t easy or straightforward, but these are the parameters within which I operate as a parent.

I’ve come to be a respectful parent because my boys are Autistic, not despite it:respectful parenting seems to me to be the best approach so that my boys can experience authenticity in their Autistic identities, something that I consider to be of vital importance. The boundaries we observe in our house are determined and agreed on by the whole family, and they acknowledge the dual principles that (a) children are learning, and expectations and boundaries should be reasonable and reflective of neurology and age, and (b) nothing is expected of my children that I don’t expect of myself. So, my priorities and needs are not asserted as ‘most important’ because I am the adult. Respect, then, is reciprocal: I find that the more I respect my children, the more they respect me (and, by extension, the family boundaries and expectations). We have a very simple equation in our house: I treat my boys the way I want them to treat me. And something a little less simple, but equally as fundamental: we give primacy to equity over equality.

Respectful parenting (and here we come to the crux of the matter) takes away the need for rewards and punishments. Take, for example, ‘chores’. I expect that my boys will put their clean clothes away. I don’t reward them for doing so. They do it because we discuss — openly and honestly — that putting their clothes away is a reasonable and achievable sign of recognition and respect that I have gone to the trouble of washing the clothes and that I am not my children’s domestic slave. But then again, I don’t expect that my boys would reward me for doing the grocery shopping for the family (something I definitely consider a ‘chore’). That is a fair and reasonable expectation they have of me. I might thank them for putting their clothes away, and they might thank me for making sure there is food enough (and of the appropriate texture, colour and taste) to eat, but there is no reward transaction. When we establish fair and equitable reciprocal expectations based on an acceptance and respect of each other’s needs and on an individual’s capacity to fulfil those expectations, we eschew the need for rewards and punishment.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t natural consequences. One of my boys got upset the other day. He wasn’t in meltdown, he was just really angry. He kicked a few things and threw a few things and generally made a mess. The natural consequence (when he was calm) was that he helped me to clean up the mess (and, indeed, he did the bulk of the tidying). But I didn’t punish him for being angry and losing his calm, or reward him for calming or tidying. And the fact that I was there to help him to clean his mess bore witness to the fact that this act wasn’t a punishment, just a matter of cause-and-effect. That’s my parenting philosophy.

Having said all of that, I know that for some parents, using rewards and punishments are part of their parenting philosophy. And whilst I don’t know that the reward/punishment dynamic works (at least in our house), and whilst I wonder if we don’t do damage by motivating certain behaviours extrinsically, it is ultimately not my purpose to strip parents of a tool if they find it effective in their circumstances.

The problem with using Autistic passions as rewards (and punishments)

The specific issue that I raised in my Manifesto was with using Autistic passions as a reward (by only giving access to passions after behaving or performing in prescribed ways) or punishment (by removing them after proscribed behaviours). As parents or therapists we know how motivating our children’s passions are, so we tend to want to use them to our advantage (not necessarily to our children’s) as a ‘tool’ to make our children do what we want.

But fundamentally, that is coercion.

Using a child’s passion as a proverbial ‘carrot’, by dangling access (or the threat of lack of access) to that passion in front of their nose, to help to ‘motivate’ a child to perform is potentially very dangerous.

Now to be clear: I’m not saying that every reward or punishment transaction is detrimental. What I am saying — very specifically — is that every time we use an Autistic passion-as-reward or passion-as-punishment (that is, every time we coopt passions as a transactional tool), we are entering deeply problematic waters. Each time we use an Autistic passion to motivate a child to do something they otherwise do not wish to do, we are setting their passion in opposition to their autonomy, we are juxtaposing a child’s desire to access their passion against their desire to decide for themselves about themselves. And that is profoundly concerning.

Think about the message that sends to our children, and the vulnerability it creates in them. Think about the future implications. If we train our children to associate compliance and obedience with access to their passions, just imagine the power that gives to any adult for any reason to coerce a child, who becomes an adolescent, who becomes an adult, schooled to expect a passion-obedience transaction.

If a child has no other way to access their passion except through conforming to our authority as their parent (or therapist), what are we teaching our kids? We teach them that they are only worthy of accessing or engaging in their passions when they behave or perform to our parental expectations, which may, or (quite possibly) may not, be reasonable.

And ultimately, I worry that we so often reward our children when they are learning to mask or to ‘perform’ in a non-autistic or more neurotypical way. Teaching and promoting masking through coopting passions might make our lives as parents more comfortable, but it sets our children up for a lifetime of mental health complications, as recent research linking mental illness and Autistic concealment (that is, masking) implies.

And think about how often we punish a child by removing access to their passion when they act Autistically. I know in our house, for a long time, my knee-jerk reaction to my children not being able to switch tasks at my command or desire was to remove access to the thing from which they had had difficulty transitioning. Now I understand more about what the amazing Erin Human calls ‘tendril theory‘, I realise I was effectively punishing my children by removing access to a passion because of their Autistic neurologies, which can make transitioning challenging. Now I find other ways to help my children to transition from a passion to whatever else needs to happen.

Or think about how often we coopt our children’s passions because we assume that as adults we know better than our children what is ‘best’ for them.

One of my son’s favourite thing is gaming. He often uses gaming to help him to engage with like-minded peers, which he can find otherwise challenging. Last week, for example, he participated in an online forum discussing the mythological background to the Zelda games. He was so engaged in the topic that he talked confidently to other children in the forum, who shared his enthusiasm for mythology and Zelda. This experience was an example of how passions can be intrinsic motivators.

But then again, the same boy didn’t want to do his swimming lesson a few weeks ago. I had a choice: I could have ‘rewarded’ him for doing his swimming lesson by ‘motivating’ him with a promise of some gaming at the end of the swim, but that would have undermined his bodily autonomy and his trust that I respect that his passion is not something I can use to assert power over him. I could also have threatened him with taking away his gaming ‘rights’ if he didn’t swim, and admittedly he probably would have done the class. But then again, I would have stripped him of something comforting and fun because he wasn’t obedient or compliant. (And I know from experience that participating enthusiastically with engagement is not something I can coerce or force: his participation in a threat-of-punishment scenario would have been a passive-aggressive protest, and his reticence would have ensured that although he did enough not to be punished, he wouldn’t have learned anything anyway!) As it happened, my boy had tonsillitis and was feeling really unwell, but he couldn’t identify or express that reality in that moment. It simply isn’t the right message if I manipulate him to do something about which he feels uncomfortable because I know the coercive power of his passion. So, my boy sat out of the pool that day and watched his brothers’ lessons and then, when we got home, he fell asleep because he was so unwell. It was a moment to remember that I don’t always know best.

I’m not implying that renegotiating how we approach encouraging our children to behave in the way we’d desire is easy. And nuance is important: nothing is black and white. I will still occasionally ‘reward’ my children when something momentous has occurred. For example, I gave my son a ‘reward’ (although not called that) to recognise the bravery he required to go through with an oral surgery to remove five teeth. The surgery was deeply frightening for him, not to mention a sensory nightmare, but was necessary because he had extra teeth and significant, detrimental overcrowding. The ‘reward’ for that particular surgery was related to one of my son’s passions. But… I didn’t use the promise of a reward to convince my child to undertake the surgery, and I didn’t use its motivating power to influence his thinking about the surgery. Instead, I used it after the fact as an acknowledgement that his actions (having the surgery) required commitment, courage and maturity.

So, my conclusion is that we must take the utmost care when we use passions (either as reward or punishment) to ensure that we are not coopting those passions to increase our children’s masking behaviours, or as motivators to conceal our children’s Autistic selves, or to undermine their sense of autonomy, or to coerce compliance. Obviously there is a level of subjectivity and judgement required here. In part, how we use passions is a matter of degree: if your child has regular access to their passions beyond as a reward or punishment, then that is a different scenario than if the only way a child can access their passion is through obedience. It is also a matter of motivation: are a child’s passions appropriated to change their organic Autistic selves, or to support them to express that authentic identity? It’s not a matter of all or nothing. I simply ask you to consider your motives and the context when you use rewards, and encourage you if possible to find rewards outside a child’s deepest passions. As I said at the beginning, these should be respected and cherished with the reverence they deserve.

One last thought. I use my passions and my boys’ passions to help me (and them) as a diversion. That diversion is not always calming, but passions offer a way of redirecting us to something we love, something that makes us happy. Consider that passions might better be utilised to help us out of a current mindset (for me, for example, overly anxious, overthinking, panic attacks) and to reset.

An example: last week I ran late for an appointment (it was not my fault, but my brain didn’t care that I couldn’t have predicted that a usual twenty-minute drive would take more than an hour and half). I was driving. My hands started shaking and I could feel my heart palpitating. One of my current passions is Dungeons and Dragons, and I am learning how to be an effective and engaging Dungeon Master. So, I talked to myself about my latest campaign, and how I could lay out different puzzles for my players, and how I could use Völsunga saga as a plot backstory. It distracted me enough from my anxiety that I could centre and manage my own emotions. That’s the power of passions. They can work as a diversion.

Importantly, though, this strategy wouldn’t have worked for me if I had threatened myself with not being able to think about D&D later unless I calmed now, or if I rewarded myself for calming with the promise of it. I needed the passion itself to help me to calm, to distract me to a happier headspace.

When my eldest son was first identified as Autistic, I took a course on Positive Behaviour Support, which relies heavily on rewards. I wanted to be a positive parent, so I ended up rewarding my son for everything: eating healthily, going to school, going to bed, getting ready in the morning. Other than ridiculously expensive, I quickly noticed that rewards lost their efficacy over time. I also realised that there was just so much that I was expecting my boy to do that required rewarding, because of how difficult it was, or how challenging, or how much bravery it required from him. Then I noticed that his interests dulled more quickly, and that the promise of a reward stopped outweighing his need to behave in ways that deviated from the ways I wanted him to behave. It was an epiphany to realise that all of my ‘rewarding’ had stripped the joy from my son’s passions because I had made them contingent on the types of behaviours he would find hardest. At that point I started my own research, my own analysis, my own exploration: I knew there must be another positive approach to parenting, an approach that was more sustainable, more financially viable, and more respectful to my son and to the depth of his passions. You don’t need to adopt respectful parenting to think carefully about the ways in which you use your child’s passions. But I sincerely hope that next time you go to utilise Autistic passions, you examine carefully your motives and consider the implications of your choices.


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