We had an IEP meeting today, and I left feeling unsettled. Don’t misunderstand, the meeting was terrific and the team had great ideas.

We were looking for ways to help my son with positive reinforcement at school. He can get into a loop about his performance at school that results in his feeling like a failure.

It is the “feeling like a failure” part that can be most difficult because there is no middle ground for him, it is all bad or all good. This can trigger perseverative thinking which can lead to meltdowns, but in truth if it were just a matter of managing a meltdown, I wouldn’t worry so much. 

My greater fear is that negative feelings about himself will get internally entrenched, that his inner voice will be focused on what he perceives as failure instead of all the amazing and wonderful things that are part of who he is.

While I can get him to cooperate at home using screen time as a carrot or a stick, there does not appear to be a clear-cut carrot or stick that works at school. What might motivate him – and promote his feeling of success – is a mystery.

Motivation may not be the real issue. I think my son puts himself into a box at school. Or a cocoon, wrapping himself up in an emotional blanket to be able to deal with what is required of him.

He has learned very well about “expected behaviors” at school and his behavior has improved immensely since first grade. He has figured out how to walk-the-walk even if he does not truly understand it.

I think he works so hard at trying to behave that the emotions needed for motivation are mostly buried. You have to be able to feel a feeling to be motivated.

At home the pressures are much less. It is Mom, Dad, and two cats. Meltdowns are tolerated. Quiet time is available and encouraged. Figuring out how to do schoolwork is the exception not the rule. The emotions needed for motivation are more accessible.

The individual social rules and expectations of 30 classmates, and 20 or so adults that he might interact with are just not there at home.

I suspect that until he is able to open himself up more emotionally at school and still maintain the expected behaviors, until managing all that school demands of him somehow becomes easier for him, true motivation will continue to elude us.

I am uncertain how to help him and so I am unsettled.


  1. I am curious about how your son responds to the social expectations and rules imposed by his 30 classmates. Do you think that is “positive” pressure? It is so hard to say and kids can be ruthless!

  2. That is a great question Rosanne. It has been my observation that the kids are for the most part pretty good and kindness is promoted well. The school does well nipping unkind behavior before it becomes cruelty. The biggest issue we have faced is his recognition that there are social rules he doesn’t understand and his feeling really anxious about it.

  3. I am sorry that I don’t understand more about this, but I find comfort in educating myself through your blog. It is truly amazing. I have a very dear friend with a son that is on the autism spectrum. I truly feel her frustration during those tough times, and her joy through those great accomplishments.
    Would you mind sharing what EIP had to say? I am very interested since my LO is currently in sessions supervised with EIP. He has been cleared for Autism as on now, but he is still very young.
    What I do know is that motivation is not prevalent enough in schools. Even my older one fights with finding the motivation to do schoolwork and homework. The hardest part is that we are into Alternative Schooling. The motivation can be set, but following through is a huge challenge!

  4. That loop… it’s too familiar. I deal with that cycle on an almost daily basis when it comes to housekeeping.I am slowly finding my way out of the loop but it’s definitely a struggle.

  5. I am glad that you find this a valuable place to learn more, thank you! I will send you and email about the IEP details – I hope it helps.

  6. That we all get into loops like this is a great reminder. I will think about what I do to get out of mine and see if that can help him. Thank you!

  7. Maybe you feel unsettled because you are looking at two issues as oppposed to just one. They do seem to be related though. Hopefully, one of the good ideas from your meeting will be the right kind of help.

  8. I think what I am seeing is the flip side of something that makes him so special – there is a great deal of honesty in his world with no middle ground.

  9. Maybe in time it will get easier for him. Maybe you guys as a team can come up with tools to help him. I know they are hard to come up with from personal experience but once you have a few set strategies they seem to help with people learning new things when they have autism.

  10. Thanks so much! I think another resource is going to be more and more from him. He is so much better able to talk about his thoughts and feelings than he used to be. Soon he will be able to help more and more.

  11. Tough for each kid it’s different. Sometimes it’s all oversensory stimulation

    Quieter classes help. Safe places to leave normal classrooms help. ( my son could go to a resource room / or nurse- any time he was activated). My son – gifted – iq of 150+ was in a special needs class in 7th/8th grade. His special needs teacher was brilliant and made it safe for my son to be his own person. She also ran interference with the other teachers

    So – safe places to decompress & internal advocates were two means of survival

    My son wasn’t diagnosed on the spectrum until age 14. He got very depressed age 11-13. These mechanisms helped his behavioral outbursts. Looking back – I know why.

    We also advocated for less math ( he got great grades in math & redundacy was impossible in the homework) and he got special needs resources for writing ( he is so literal he would trap his writing in never ending arguments that led to not writing)

    The hardest was the other kids. To be identified gifted, with unidentifiable special needs – led to some bullying and put downs. That was the hardest.

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