Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Autistic Children’s Visions for Their Futures

The importance of valuing personal goals, a mother’s perspective.

Key points

  • Therapy interventions for autistic children are founded on a person-centered philosophy.
  • Parents of autistic children would like greater consideration of their children's interests and goals in therapy and school interventions.
  • Nourishing personal interests and establishing motivating goals are key foundations of person-centered interventions for autistic children.

Autistic characteristics are usually not detectable before the second half of a child’s first year of life, a time when many parents start noticing that their child’s behaviors differ from those of other children (Rogers, 2009). Formal assessments (ideally conducted by a team of allied health professionals) are used to establish diagnoses and assess how a child compares with their peers developmentally, cognitively, socially, academically, and behaviorally.

Ideally, the diagnostic process is followed by tailored evidence-based therapy interventions founded in a person-centered philosophy (Renzaglia et al., 2003). A person-centered approach to therapy interventions is committed to exploring the individual’s desired visions for their future, endeavoring to establish therapy supports that empower the individual to move towards those. Inclusivity and person-centeredness are internationally recognized values and rights of people with special needs and disabilities, reflected in numerous international policies and legislations such as the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2006).

However, I often find that parents of children on the spectrum feel that the focus of therapy or classroom interventions for their children can be restricted to surface behaviors or environmental expectations (Renzaglia et al., 2003). Many parents would like to experience greater visibility for and consideration of their children’s interests, goals, and visions for their future, to make their learning journeys more meaningful and motivating (Lee and Kim, 2022).

My four-and-a-half-year-old son’s dancing passion brought home to me the central importance of inclusion (the belief in everyone having the right to belong and share in life’s opportunities) and appreciating the impact that an individual’s strengths and passions can have on their learning and development.

From when my son was two-and-a-half, he was the recipient of many assessments, which on the one hand, were immensely valuable at clarifying his therapy goals, and at times created expectations about his ability to cope in certain situations.

However, despite concerns about how he may cope, inspired by his enthusiasm for music and dancing, he commenced a local baby ballet class when he was three-and-a-half years old. Prior to this age, he found the same class overwhelming and needed to step back and work towards developing skills such as joint attention, with the help of therapy and activities such as story-time meetings at the library.

Initially, he required one-on-one support during the dancing class. We videoed the steps he was learning so that, with the assistance of his OT, we could break them down into smaller steps and offer opportunities for repetition and learning outside of class.

My little one showed much enjoyment in his participation in this dance class and, towards the end of the term, was recognized as the most improved dancer (while this validated our perception of his progress, I couldn't help to wish that every child were acknowledged and celebrated for their effort!).

Our little one especially loved the experience of the midyear concert (even though during his very first concert he looked considerably shell-shocked) and looked forward to “being in a show!” Just like his favorite number block character, “5,” he couldn’t resist the spotlight, the lights in his eyes, and a cheering audience. He sang along with "5," “I’m a star, star, star, star…”

His love of dancing and performing had a positive impact on countless other aptitudes, including social connection with peers, everyday personal care skills such as brushing teeth and cleaning ears (we needed these to stay clean for the show), joint attention skills, body awareness, concentration, to name a few.

After a year of baby ballet, our little one joined another local cultural dancing group, with additional regular opportunities to perform in shows!

We were fortunate to join a community for whom inclusiveness and welcoming of all persons of any ability was more important than trophies. For autistic individuals, an experience of a “lack of a sense of belonging” has been found to be associated with a vulnerability to depression (Pelton & Cassidy, 2017). So efforts directed toward inclusivity and acceptance are crucial.

Within two weeks of joining his new dancing community, our little one had his first performance in a traditional folk costume (supported by an older group member). To this day, he continues to develop his dancing abilities. His achievements are celebrated at his school and are a big source of inner pride and joy.

The developmental trajectories of children on the spectrum are unique and diverse and change markedly with time and interventions. The personal profile of my son (a summary of his strengths and challenges) is very different now from what it was at the time of his first formal assessment, just as is the case with many young persons on the spectrum.

While formal assessments are immensely valuable in helping to identify strengths and challenges, and establishing therapy goals, for many autistic children retaining high expectations (especially around activities that are personally fulfilling) and taking time to notice and nourish what matters to them is an important component of personally centered interventions and a force of nature in their development.

Sport psychology confirms that setting goals is amongst the most powerful technique for increasing motivation and personal achievement. However, it warns against making them conditional for one’s happiness, overly preoccupied with outcomes vs process, and defined in negative terms) (Street, 2002).

Even though my personal example may not represent the diversity and uniqueness of every child on the spectrum and their family’s circumstances, I hope that it brings home the point that supporting an individual on the journey of discovering their passion (for example through access to opportunities and choices) and establishing motivating future goals is a key component of the foundation of person-centered interventions.


Lee, C. E., & Kim, J. G. (2022). Person-centered Transition Planning for Youth on the Autism Spectrum: What are We Still Missing? Exceptionality : the Official Journal of the Division for Research of the Council for Exceptional Children, 30(3), 173–186.

Pelton, M. K., & Cassidy, S. A. (2017). Are autistic traits associated with suicidality? A test of the interpersonal‐psychological theory of suicide in a non‐clinical young adult sample. Autism Research, 10(11), 1891–1904.

Renzaglia, A., Karvonen, M., Drasgow, E., & Stoxen, C. C. (2003). Promoting a Lifetime of Inclusion. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 18(3), 140–149.

Rogers, S. (2009). What are infant siblings teaching us about autism in infancy? Autism Research, 2, 125-137.

Street, H. (2002). Exploring Relationships Between Goal Setting, Goal Pursuit and Depression: A Review. Australian Psychologist, 37(2), 95–103.

Snell-Rood, C., Ruble, L., Kleinert, H., McGrew, J. H., Adams, M., Rodgers, A., Odom, J., Wong, W. H., & Yu, Y. (2020). Stakeholder perspectives on transition planning, implementation, and outcomes for students with autism spectrum disorder. Autism : the International Journal of Research and Practice, 24(5), 1164–1176.

United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, December 13, 2006,

More from Bozena Zawisz
4 Min Read
Monotropism is a term coined by Dinah Murray (1992) to describe an orientation of attention that focuses on a narrow range of interests.
More from Psychology Today
More from Bozena Zawisz
4 Min Read
Monotropism is a term coined by Dinah Murray (1992) to describe an orientation of attention that focuses on a narrow range of interests.
More from Psychology Today