Goal setting, rewards and autism

W.E. Powers

In college they taught that the reward system works best when it is sporadic. While that may work in dog training, it doesn’t work with autistic people like me.

By W.E. Powers

Every new year brings another chance to improve who we are. As an autistic person, I also seek out self-improvement even though a potential disadvantage of autism is an insistence on sameness. That little monkey gets us every time! We love our habits and routines; they offer us safety and organization in a dangerously chaotic world. Unfortunately, dropping bad habits can become somewhat arduous. For many people with ASD, trying to stop eating pizza every day for dinner is equivalent to a neurotypical trying to stop smoking. Our routines define us, for better or worse.

The good news though is that once we set our minds to doing something, you can bet we are going to get it done. Dedication to our chosen area of focus is a strength. Hint: If you are reading this in order to help facilitate goal setting for someone you love who is on the autism spectrum (first, thank you!), figure out a way to get them fully invested. This may take a bit of fancy footwork, but the only way to get many of us to make a change is getting us to decide we actually want the change.

If the change is not ours, we will revert to our old habits the second we have a chance to do so. I am reminded of Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory. Amy Farrah Fowler (played by the real-life superhero/neuroscientist Mayim Bialik), sets up a series of activities to break Sheldon’s habit of compulsively completing everything. After a short time, her methods appear to have worked. He is content to leave tic-tac-toe games unfinished…that is until Amy bids him a fond goodnight. She is no sooner out the door when Sheldon eagerly, and to his great satisfaction, goes back and completes every activity he was forced to abandon.

Once we have accepted our goal, that insistence on sameness is going to fuel our ability to develop new habits. If I decide to eat a salad before eating my pizza at dinner, my autistic monkey will quickly begin to demand that salad should be there. After all, that is now how we do things.

My first step was to set my yearly goals. Although it would be a blast to have superwoman strength, the emotional genius of Oprah, or even a private showing of my artwork in a fancy gallery, those goals are not reasonably obtainable. As the years go by, I find that setting goals out of realistic reach only keep me from making any effort at all. I suspect that feeling is not limited to those on the autism spectrum. It feels universal. Why try to do something when there is no chance of success?

So this year I decided to give myself a few realistic goals. By the end of the year, I want to have made an effort to become healthier in body, mind, and soul. As long as I make an effort, I will not have failed myself. And who doesn’t like to win?!

With realistic goals in place, I decided to follow a pattern used by neurotypicals to reach goals: setting smaller goals that will accomplish a larger goal with time. My love of logic found this method deliciously inviting. It offers a stark contrast to the chaotic goal-setting schemes of my previous career.

One year I set a single work goal. It was a very simple goal I could accomplish in literally five minutes. The task of talking with a superior who was not in my department required me to coordinate a meeting. Doing that required me to use the company calendar, which was something I had never done before. Because I didn’t have the skills to accomplish that task, I could not accomplish my goal for the year. Failing in a task other people saw as simple caused me to experience horrendous shame and internal humiliation. Looking back, I should have made a smaller goal to learn how to use the scheduling calendar. Then I could have pushed out the task of meeting the individual for a whole ‘nother year!

So this year I decided to make steps out of my goals. My smaller goals needed structure and to be obtainable. I couldn’t set a goal of running a mile every day because I would fail after one block. The smaller step-goals must not lead to frustration so I elected a goal of taking fifteen steps a day on the stair machine. I will increase the number by whatever number I feel is obtainable in consecutive weeks. Perhaps at the end of the year, I will be able to run a mile. That would be a fine bonus, but it is not my goal. If I am unable to run a mile by that time, I will not have failed. As long as I make an effort to live a healthier lifestyle, I can reach my goal.

Next, I wanted a way to document my step-goals. No matter what goals are set, it is important for autistic people to fully understand the “rules” of the game. If you are helping someone set up these step-goals, involve them in creating their rules. Provide a concrete method of tracking each step. For me, I decided to give myself a heart sticker on the calendar every day I completed my stair-steps. This visual reward goes a long way in encouraging me to repeat the activity the next day. It also allows me to gloat over past accomplishments. This all plays into using the autistic love of routine as fodder for change.

Consistent reward of accomplishments is a key step in establishing good habits. In college, they taught that the reward system works best when it is sporadic. While that may work in dog training, it doesn’t work with autistic people like me. Missing a reward breaks the pleasure found in routine. For us, the actual internal reward system fueled by predictive experience is far more valuable than any exterior reward. It would be an interesting study to see what exactly happens in our brains when this occurs. From personal experience, I can tell you that the “high” I get through consistency is better than any drink or pill. Rewards should also include a tangible way to view past accomplishments. A big reward of a giant pan-pizza is great, but there is nothing left of it a month later that reminds me of accomplishing the goal (not counting a new roll of fat).

In addition to the daily goal reward, I have set up a weekly reward for myself. It is only slightly larger than my daily reward, but it is something I can see. I know that if I complete my daily step-goals next week, I will get another larger reward. And at the end of each month, I will find a super large sticker for myself! It will only take 12 of those for me to reach my big prize at the end of the year.

The thing with goals is that we must understand all the rules before we play the game. This includes the rules for what happens when we do not meet a goal. This point is vital: always offer a way to make up a missed goal!

For a few years, I studied math on a website that tracked my progress. It gave badges for completing tasks. It had larger badges for reaching bigger goals. And it kept track of how many days in a row the person signed-on to study. I was very proud of that number. Then one day I had to take care of something at a place that didn’t have internet access. I wasn’t able to log-in that day even though I did work on the math problems on my own. The next day my counter showed “1 consecutive day.” I was broken-hearted.

I tried to continue my routine but having my days reset discouraged me. Not long after, I stopped using that tool altogether. It may sound silly, but there is something inside my brain that is now terrified of building up my number of days only to have them get reset if I miss one. So I avoided that danger and thus missed out on learning additional math skills.

When I reflect on this, I wonder what the website could have done to encourage me to continue. I only wanted my day counter back. If they had a rule stating you can get a skipped day once a year, that would have made me stay. Or they could have let me log-in an extra time on the day after the one I missed. The bottom line is that rules need to encourage a person and help them overcome mistakes.

For me, if I miss a step, I will allow myself to make it up the next day. If I am sick, I will allow myself to make up any missed days the following week. By doing this, I will not become discouraged when I do miss a step. There is still hope. I can still get my big sticker at the end of the month!

Being able to set goals and accomplish them is an important life skill. I hope this blog offers some encouragement. I know that by writing it, I have earned my writing sticker today!


Wen of ZenBorn in Florida, I spent my childhood being bullied for reasons I did not understand. Autism spectrum disorders were unknown to my family or teachers. Taking everything literally, unable to read facial expressions, and emotional ruptures, resulted in being an outcast.

Today, art therapy provides me with a way to share my experiences and emotions with the outside world.

Digital art by Wendi Powers

2 replies on “Goal setting, rewards and autism”
  1. Outstanding post! The part about needing a clear rule that encourages resuming a routine that has been interrupted (interruptions occur more and more for me as I enjoy [NOT] my dotage) resonated strongly enough to move me to tears.

Comments are closed.