Psychological Needs and Goal Setting Among Adolescents with Autism



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Relatedness may be a missing explanatory element in looking at self-determined behavior among adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Defined as experiences of closeness and connectedness to others (Deci & Ryan, 2000), relatedness is one of three basic psychological needs, along with autonomy and competence. Schools may focus on building autonomy and competence, as both are essential to academic success, but many times relatedness is not a major focus. The expression of relatedness in students with autism is affected by marked deficits in reciprocal social communication and social interactions.
This study explored the role of psychological needs in the context of goal setting among students with autism. Using a mixed methodology approach, we selected the American Institutes for Research Self-Determination Scale (AIR-S) as a measure for self-determination in children, in the context of goal setting in a school environment. At first glance, these items bear similarity to the items in the Balanced Measure of Psychological Needs, a measure of three psychological needs, designed for adults (BMPN; Sheldon & Hilpert, 2012), that we modified for use with children in this study. The target population for our sample was adolescents with autism, who attend The Monarch School, a research-based, educational and therapeutic center for children and adolescents with neurological differences. The structure of the school emphasizes the community experience and provides a framework for developing a sense of social connection, termed relatedness by Deci and Ryan (2000). Students are engaged with their peers and faculty members in collaborative community time throughout the week. The emphasis on building social connections at school creates the opportunity to study the concepts of relatedness, autonomy, and competence, grouped by Deci and Ryan (1985, 2000) as the three basic psychological needs in self-determination theory. Open-ended and close-ended questionnaires were administered orally to ensure students’ understanding. The American Institutes for Research Self-Determination Scale (AIR-S; Wolman et al., 1994) was accompanied by the modified version, Balanced Measure of Psychological Needs- Revised for Young Test Takers, designed to be developmentally appropriate for adolescents with autism. Open-ended questions asked students to explain their answers on the AIR-S, so that we could expose the thought processes behind the numerical ratings they gave us. The primary research questions were, “What are the underlying meanings of numerical responses to American Institutes for Research Self-Determination Scale (AIR-S) among students with autism spectrum disorder?” and “Does the theoretical association between Balanced Measure of Psychological Needs-Revised (BMPN-R) and AIR-S remain consistent for this group?” Findings from comparisons of responses on AIR-S and BMPN-R provided insight about the theoretical association of core principles in the existing literature, and explored whether young participants with autism employ this theoretical structure in their mental processing. The open-ended qualitative responses provided insight into the internal experiences of students with autism, and suggested ways to foster self-determined behavior across settings through seeking information from the words of participants themselves rather than observers or rating scales.



Self-determination theory, Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)