How To Motivate by Adding Direction:
There’s a famous scene in Alice in Wonderland where Alice encounters the Cheshire Cat in a tree and asks him for directions. The interchange went something like this:
Alice: “I just wanted to ask you about which way I should go.”
Cat: “Well, that depends on where you want to get to.”
Alice: “Oh, it really doesn’t matter so long as I get somewhere.”
Cat: “Then it really doesn’t matter which way you go...”
See, your child doesn’t just need to have enough internal and external resources to do the task at hand. They also need to understand what the task is and, like Alice, understand where it’s going to lead to. They need specific encouragement and guidance to show them what it is they’re expected to achieve. Think of it like archery. You can’t successfully hit the target if you don’t know where it is. As you provide this guidance to your Asperger’s child, there’s an ideal way to go about it.
Believe it or not, the brain has great difficulty processing negative information. When I say negative I’m not talking about it in the pessimistic sense, but rather in the mathematical one; information that is missing or taken away. For example:
Try to imagine yourself NOT standing in the forest. You can’t do it. You have to replace that “NOT” with something else. You can imagine yourself standing in the desert, standing at the mall, standing atop an impeccably groomed llama, or even standing in a blank white room, but you can’t picture yourself NOT standing in a forest.
Similarly, your brain has a hard time with words like “don’t” and “stop.”
- “Don’t talk to me like that!”
- “Stop playing with your food!”
- “Don’t be so annoying.”
As a parent, when you make negative statements like these, your child’s brain has to make that additional mental leap towards deciding what to do instead.
Not to say that you shouldn’t educate your child about common mistakes and the pitfalls to avoid. The “don’ts” are still needed, but by themselves they are insufficient. Your child also needs to hear the positive information, the “do’s”. They need to understand which paths might be worth trying out. When the “do’s” and “don’ts” are given together they balance and complement each other beautifully.
How exactly do you provide the positive information? Give your child less criticism about what they’re doing wrong, and include more praise about what they’re doing right. Offer clear guidance. Educate them and give them the tools and knowledge they need to make educated choices and move forward in a good direction. Have brainstorming discussions where you discover together how the task at hand might be completed or how the problem might be solved.
For example, if you say to your child “Please don’t leave stuff all over your bedroom floor.”, also make a point of sitting down and having a conversation where you talk about and decide, in detail, what a clean room looks like. (I say “in detail” because people with Asperger’s need hyper-specificity.) Explore why a clean room is important, both generally and to your child specifically. Share the lessons you’ve learned through the years about how to best achieve and maintain a clean room. Ask open-ended questions and invite your child to come up with their own ideas for how they would like to keep their room clean.
Unless the task is one that must be done in a very particular way, then avoid dictating exactly what your child should do moment by moment. That would diminish your child’s feeling of responsibility and destroy the potential for any creativity. As Dr. Stephen Covey, the author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People says “You can’t hold someone accountable for results if you supervise their methods.” In instances where there is some room for creativity keep the main focus on specifying the desired, observable results and perhaps suggest a few “best practices” to get them started. Then let them take ownership of the process from there.
This specific guidance combined with the important discussions will help both you and your child shift your focus away from the ground at your feet and towards the target down the range you’re trying to hit.