May Institute
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Setting and Achieving Goals
Categories: ASD and DD, Adult-focused


How can I help an individual with special needs set and achieve goals?


We are all familiar with New Year’s resolutions. Chances are, you’ve recently made one to lose weight, save money, or make a career change. Now that you have set your goal, you’re probably hard at work trying to achieve it. It’s not always easy.

For some individuals with special needs, resolutions can be difficult to make and keep. Communication deficits may hinder their ability to express their desires, and physical impairments can make it difficult to do the work required to reach their goal. It is up to us, as family and friends, to help them set goals, stay motivated, keep track of their progress, and achieve their personal best.

The first step is to help the individual identify his goal by expressing his wants and needs. The best way to determine this is to ask him! Questions like “what do you want to do,” or “where do you want to go” may be too broad and overwhelming, so it might help to share some of your ideas and offer him choices. You might also use pictures. A person who is unable to speak may be able to point or smile at a picture to show you what he wants.

Once you have an identified goal, you can set a timeline for achieving it. Consider dividing the major goal into a number of short-term milestones. Individuals with special needs need regular reinforcement, and succeeding at short-term goals will provide that and keep them motivated.

Let’s say a person expresses a desire to take a cruise. There are many steps involved in reaching that goal, and you can work your way up to the ultimate goal by first setting and achieving smaller ones.

For someone who has never been on a boat or near a large body of water, it may be a good idea to visit a marina, try on a life vest, and spend a little time on a docked boat. Taking him on a small boat tour of a local lake or river might help determine whether or not he could be safe on a longer trip. Once you have helped him achieve these smaller goals, you can plan something bigger, such as a two-hour ferry ride or a one-day excursion.

When working toward any goal, it is important to pay close attention to the person’s reactions to new experiences. Facial expressions, gestures, statements, and behaviors can help you determine whether he is happy with the goal and willing to continue, or whether you need to modify the goal.

It is a good idea to design a system that will help him see that he is making progress toward his goal. This will not only help him stay on track, but can also provide him with the intermediate reinforcement he needs to maintain his enthusiasm.

You might reward him with tokens for achieving small steps. For example, the visit to the marina could be worth one token. Purchasing the items necessary for the vacation could earn him a second token. To make it interesting and fun, you could cut a picture of a ship into pieces, and each piece of the picture could serve as one token. Once he earns all the pieces, he could assemble the picture of the ship like a puzzle, which would symbolize the vacation he has earned.

Goals are important in so many ways – they motivate us to work harder and help us achieve our dreams. Helping someone with special needs achieve his goals by creating a plan and encouraging him to stick to it can be extremely rewarding. It can also build a stronger and more trusting relationship between the two of you.

By Teka J. Harris, M.A., BCBA