Realistic Goal Setting with Children on the Spectrum
Realistic Goal Setting with Children on the Spectrum

With a child on the spectrum, expectations look a little different. Dealing with behavioral and developmental delays can make reaching an important milestone feel like an achievement like no other. Applied Behavior Analysis therapy is effective for several reasons, but in its simplest terms, it is a means to achieving goals in your child’s development. If we take that idea and apply it outside of therapy, you and your child can see some amazing results. This makes goal-setting with children on the spectrum an effective tool to support healthy development.

Most parents have a set of goals in mind for their child, especially for children on the spectrum. Through no fault of their own, these goals can become vague or self-serving. The most common ideal that parents have for their children is of course, achieving happiness. While that should always be the goal, an effective goal-setting strategy includes specific and measurable objectives that you and your child can work toward together and individually. In this post, we want to break down some of the best strategies for setting goals with your child on the spectrum.

Involve Them

One of the most important aspects of goal-setting is to involve your child in every aspect of the process. If the child is left out of the equation, we are much more likely to create unrealistic goals for our children that, when pursued, can leave them in a worse place than they started off.

For example, many parents worry that their child on the spectrum will “never” find a romantic interest because of the social challenges they face early on. For one, this goal doesn’t necessarily reflect the future happiness or success of your child. Though it’s intention is pure, that’s not necessarily a measurable goal that your child will care about or consider important. Instead, we recommend focusing on the tangible objectives you can lay out for your child. Instead of focusing on the end goal, discuss what you and your child can do together to tackle the social challenges they’re facing daily. Breaking it down by steps and getting your child’s input is crucial.

Define “Happiness”

This ties in closely to our last example. If happiness is the end-all, the definition of that success must be outlined. To do this, you of course need input from your child and those who care for them in spaces beyond your own.

If you’re having a hard time nailing down specifics, start broad- what makes your child happy? Is it success in school, a certain topic that interests them, or being with friends? Maybe it’s none of these, but either way you can break these ideas down further and get to their root.

If success in school is the goal- break your child’s performance down by class- take a closer look at where they need support, what they struggle with and most importantly, how you can work to remedy these things in a way that is productive and effective. If your child is fascinated by a particular subject or idea, consider the ways you can work to incorporate their interests into their everyday life.Though it may seem miniscule, ultimately it can have long-term effects on your child’s happiness, perhaps even leading them to pursue something greater in the future.

Think Short-Term and Long-term

As you begin to craft these broad and specific definitions, consider the timeline in which they can be complete in. The most effective structure usually involves a long term goal that has been broken down into several short term goals with an estimated timeframe. For example, if the long-term goal is better grades, the short term goals can be related to better performance on specific assignments, i.e. “Score higher on homework by receiving support from mom and dad.”

Short term goals should be designed to benefit your child with some level of near instant gratification, without compromising the path toward the wider long term goal. This thought process is like a funnel, the goals start broad, then trickle into smaller, more specific pieces.


This powerful acronym serves to summarize the strategies we spoke about above. It is a tried and true goal-setting strategy that can work wonders. If your goal is S.M.A.R.T. it is:

  • Specific (simple, sensible, significant).
  • Measurable (meaningful, motivating).
  • Achievable (agreed, attainable).
  • Relevant (reasonable, realistic and resourced, results-based).

Time bound (time-based, time limited, time/cost limited, timely, time-sensitive).

In other words, consider the goals you’ve constructed with your child and ensure that they are all of the above. If you can’t say for sure that they fit these criteria, reconsider the goal and how you’ve framed the objectives for your child.

With these goal setting strategies, you and your child are on your way to achieving great things. As you work through goals, things might not always go as planned and that’s perfectly okay. Some things we simply can’t plan for. For the things we can, keeping an open mind and appreciating the journey is half the battle.

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December 18, 2018

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