Developing Independence: Teaching Goal Setting Skills to Adolescents on the Autism Spectrum

Research conducted amongst the broader population has reported that goal setting is a teachable and effective support strategy, yet it is one that remains under-utilized by the Autism community.

The ability to live a meaningful life, with as little reliance on others as possible, is the aim of many families with a loved one on the Autism spectrum. As a result of the wide spread success of early intervention during the 1990’s and subsequent school-based supports grounded in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), many students diagnosed with high functioning Autism or Asperger’s syndrome are today both capable and motivated to pursue tertiary education (Pinder-Amaker, 2014; VanBergeijk, Klin, & Volkmar, 2008).

Monica E. Carr, PhD

Monica E. Carr, PhD

As this growing group of adolescents and young adults often face challenges in accessing ongoing support, self-management training is of critical significance. The techniques necessary to independently focus on required tasks, achieve optimal productivity, and work towards their own meaningful life goals may be taught to many people on the Autism spectrum by drawing on goal setting literature. Empowering adolescents with the necessary skills to develop and achieve their own realistically attainable goals is an important, yet often overlooked, component of self-management support strategies.

The US Department of Education has long considered self-determination to be an important outcome for students with disabilities (Algozzine, Browder, Karvonen, Test, & Wood, 2001). The Division of Career Development and Transition (DCDT) suggested that by the age of 14 years, students should be encouraged to assume a maximum amount of responsibility in planning their futures, to the full extent of their capabilities (Halpern, 1994).

Research conducted with students with various developmental or learning disabilities has reported that goal setting and goal attainment are important components of self-determination (Algozzine et al., 2001; Fowler, Konrad, Walker, Test & Wood, 2007; Konrad, Fowler, Walker, Test, & Wood, 2007; Palmer and Wehmeyer, 2003). The skills required to develop self-determination include developing an understanding of the relationship of time to goal attainment (Field, Martin, Miller, Ward, & Wehmeyer, 1998).

In the seminal literature on goal setting and task performance, Locke, Shaw, Saari, & Latham (1981) reported that in 90% of the studies, specific and challenging goals lead to higher performance than easy goals, “do your best” goals, or no goals. Locke et al. (1981) reported that goals affect performance by directing attention, and increasing effort, persistence and motivation. Locke et al. (1981) noted that in a supportive environment, and for individuals with sufficient ability, goal setting is most likely to improve task performance when goals are specific, sufficiently challenging, feedback is provided to show progress in relation to goal attainment, and rewards are provided for goal attainment.

While evidence of success in teaching goal setting techniques has been reported in the literature for individuals with mental retardation or cognitive disabilities, a recent review of self-management interventions for students with ASD reported a paucity of goal setting research for students on the Autism spectrum (Carr, Moore, & Anderson, 2014a). Carr, Moore & Anderson (2014b) conducted a broader systematic literature review of goal setting research to address the knowledge gap regarding implications of goal setting for students with ASD. Their review was limited to single-case research designs (SCDs) to better examine the effects of individualized interventions, as is typical in special education research (Horner, Carr, Halle, McGee, Odom, & Wolery 2005).

Carr et al. (2014b) reported that, while the data set they developed from published literature provided preliminary support for the effectiveness of goal setting techniques in a wide variety of interventions, little SCD research on goal setting has been conducted with students on the Autism spectrum (Carr et al. 2014b). Amongst the broader population, upon whom the data set was based, self-monitoring was included in two thirds of the studies. Several of these studies noted that the participants valued establishing goals independently and self-monitoring their progress. Feedback was described in almost half of the interventions, with original author reports suggesting that feedback information contributed significantly to achieving positive outcomes in intervention.

Carr et al. (2014b) argued that goal setting training may be important to include in treatment packages that aim to develop independence for students with ASD, and that development of effective goal setting techniques may be a vital skill for high functioning students who wish to pursue higher education. Additionally, as capability in goal setting appears to be developed over time, it was noted that training for generalization across tasks and settings and monitoring maintenance over time is of particular importance. While the data from the goal setting review is drawn from a variety of learner profiles (given the absence of research published with students with ASD), the original research reports have suggested that goal-setting skills are teachable.

With increasing numbers of highly capable students on the Autism spectrum now pursuing higher education and entering the work force, teaching self-management to adolescents is of utmost significance. Including goal setting in self-management support packages, and devoting adequate time to attain mastery of these skills is of critical importance to assist students, teachers, clinicians, and family members wishing to develop independence in this population. Additional information on goal setting and the implications for students with ASD may be found in the published review (Carr et al., 2014b).

Dr. Monica E. Carr is a Research Fellow at The University of Melbourne, Australia, and Member of the Board of Directors, Genesis School for Special Education, Singapore. For more information, please email


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