Communication Series – Identifying Motivators and Demotivators

Identifying Motivators and Demotivators


I have mentioned motivators and demotivators before in the communication series, but just to reiterate I specifically mean identifying things that the student is motivated to communicate for, and things they are not. Demotivators is not a synonym for adversives.

When we are first teaching communication, especially from a young age, we tend to focus on requesting. This is logical because it is the easiest, and often the most motivating reason to communicate. I don’t believe for one moment that we should teach requesting and then stop, because people have far more to say than just asking for things, but it is a very good place to start. It also has the immediate value of providing the non-verbal individual with some independence by teaching them how to get their wants and needs understood.

So, to teach this requesting we need to know what someone thinks is worth communicating for. This can be achieved in a number of ways:

  1. Just watching and knowing the person. What do they like? What do they avoid? What are they ambivalent towards?
  2. Giving choices and getting the individual’s opinion. Do you want this? or this? Remember which choice seems to be the preferred one. Choices in life should be given regularly anyway, this is just a way of using it it to help understand preference.
  3. Offering different objects throughout the day. Do they take it, examine it, play with it? Or is it immediately dropped to the floor or thrown away?
  4. Set out different experiences. A tray with feathers, a tray with foam, play different types of music at different times. What do they enjoy.
  5. A very structured way of determining motivators (which has the benefit of providing an order of sorts in preference) is getting six objects and presenting them at once. Note which one the student takes. After a short while take the item back, muddle up the order on the tray or table and re-present them. Do they take the same item? Then start to remove the most preferred item and repeat. You can do this with loads of different items on different days to help build up an understanding of what they like the most.

So knowing what they like, and also what they do not like, allows us to build up a list (mental or otherwise) of motivators and demotivators. The use of the motivators is fairly straight forward – those are what motivates someone to communicate. But why do we want to know what isn’t motivating?

As I said at the beginning, it isn’t about having access to things that are in any way adversive. I would not recommend involving objects that cause distress or upset to the student at all with communication. When I say demotivators I mean things that the student is completely uninterested in – that they have absolutely no desire to have. Their importance is for things like Phase III PECS and other stages of teaching communication – where the student is working on the fact that the symbols and photos have meaning, and that to get the item that they want, they need to look at the images. This is why we want a database of non-motivating items.

To give a specific example from Phase III PECS we might put two PEC cards on the front of the folder: a balloon (motivator) and a pair of socks (demotivator). The student is new to Phase III and so first time doesn’t look at the cards, picks up the socks card and hands it over. When presented with the sock, they are unimpressed and drop them. The teacher then backtracks and teaches them the value of what is on the card, how to look and choose the right card. The next time, the student looks at the cards, identifies the balloon card and hands that over.

One more thing to note – don’t rule anything out as a motivator. All sorts of things bring happiness and interest to different people. I have worked with children who want me to blow up rubber gloves for them (never balloons, just gloves), some who love clothes pegs, and some who like to carry around different coloured strips of paper. So as long as it’s not dangerous or harmful in anyway, let go of ideas over what are “appropriate toys and experiences” and let your student guide you.

Disclaimer: The opinions and information provided in this post are my own, and based on personal, educational, and work-based experience. They do not reflect the opinions of any of the authors of the content referenced in this post. I am not affiliated or supported by any organisation, and this is meant to be an educational series of posts. The information posted here is not a substitute for advice and information provided by your own GP, speech and language therapist, occupational therapist or other professional in the field of autism, and should not be taken as such.

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