Self-Determination Theory

View through a car windshield of a tree lined road

Self-determination Theory (SDT) is… — a model, a macro theory, of human motivation.

It’s one of several models of human motivation, but it’s one that has been confirmed over and over by current research.

The base assumption of SDT is that human beings “have natural, innate, and constructive tendencies to develop an ever more elaborated and unified sense of self.

That is, when sufficiently supported, people will strive “to learn; extend themselves; invest effort; master new skills; and apply their talents responsibly.

However, when missing the necessary support, individuals can become fragmented, passive, reactive, or alienated. Ryan and Deci — pretty much the godfathers of SDT — acknowledge three fundamental psychological needs that need to be satisfied for an individual to thrive.

Self-determination Theory: Understanding Human Motivation for Fun and Profit

We see elements of self-determination theory show up in human-centered education, critical pedagogy, and other places where people have turned away from behaviorism. Self-determination theory is a better lens for understanding human motivation than behaviorism.

Self-Determination Theory positions itself as directly and unapologetically antithetical to behaviorism, a fact that manifests in the literature repeatedly in behaviorist commentary…

Autonomously Autistic | Canadian Journal of Disability Studies

Telltales of self-determination theory are the terms autonomy, mastery, purpose, and intrinsic motivation. Daniel Pink’s pop-sci treatment of self-determination theory, “Drive”, popularized these terms.

Audrey Watters asks of persuasion and behavior design “how they imagine to leave space for freedom and dignity.” Self-determination theory offers that space, which is why it shows up in human-centered education and neurodiversity advocacy.

Dr. Leif Singer has a great introduction to self-determination theory:

I want you to think about human motivation in a sustainable manner that is also good for your users. Making them addicts isn’t the way.

Self-determination Theory: Understanding Human Motivation for Fun and Profit

Jonathan Mooney offers examples of autonomy, mastery, purpose, and intrinsic motivation in his brilliant talks.

Successful human beings, whether they have learning differences or not, mitigate weakness through teams, technology, and help, and they build a life around strengths, gifts, talents, and interests.

What we know about successful human beings is they take an interest and they make it a passion and they take the passion and they make it a sense of purpose and they take the sense of purpose and they build a pathway.

Lab School Lecture Series

Intrinsic Motivation

How do we build learning environments that embrace intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose?

The Gift: LD/ADHD Reframed

Self-determination Theory distinguishes between two different kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Individuals that are intrinsically motivated to carry out a task do so because of the enjoyment or fulfillment that is, in their perception, inherent to the task.

Conversely, extrinsic motivation is external to the task itself: individuals perform the task to reach another goal, such as obtaining a reward, avoiding punishment, or gaining in social status.

The most important supporting factors for intrinsic motivation are perceived autonomy and competence. Both must be present for intrinsic motivation to thrive.

Facilitators for perceived competence are, for example, optimal challenges, positive performance feedback, and freedom from demeaning evaluations.

At the same time, the individual must experience her behavior as self-determined, i.e., experience autonomy. Relatedness can further support intrinsic motivations.

The sustainability of engaging in an activity, productivity, and the well-being of individuals are associated with motivations that are more intrinsic.

Self-determination Theory: Understanding Human Motivation for Fun and Profit


Self-determination is a key value and outcome targeted in disability policies and human right treaties enacted over the past 30 years. The right to self-determination also continues to be a rallying cry in the self-advocate community.4 For example, the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) states, ‘‘disability is a natural part of human diversity. Autism is something we are born with, and that shouldn’t be changed. Autistic children should get the support they need to grow up into happy, self-determined autistic adults.’’10 

Second, interventions to promote self-determination have been developed that can support people with disabilities to take steps toward self-directed lives. Such interventions can be personalized based on strengths, interests, and supports. There is the inherent diversity in the autistic community (e.g., ‘‘There is no one way to be autistic’’).11 Understanding each autistic person’s strengths and support needs, from their perspective, must be a focus of self-determination interventions particularly during the transition to adulthood when there are new and changing demands. 

Advancing the Personalization of Assessment and Intervention in Autistic Adolescents and Young Adults by Targeting Self-Determination and Executive Processes | Autism in Adulthood
My choice is my own
My body, my own
Opinion is my own
I own it, I own it
I don't want unsolicited advice
I might succeed, I might get in strife
But my choice is my own
My voice, my own
My life is my own
I own it, I own it

I can make my own choices
I ignore all the voices
Life has layers, it's lawless
Ah, stuff ya

--Choices by Amyl and the Sniffers


As a kid, you stumble into what you love and use the fuel from what you love, and it takes you places you could have never thought to go.

 Free Your Fingers, Free Your Mind: A performative presentation with DiViNCi | Loop



  1. An overarching life goal beyond an incremental step.
  2. It looks at the world beyond the self.
  3. It’s the ultimate concern.
100 Seconds to Midnight: The Need for a Human-Centered Education (Full Documentary) – YouTube
A Human-Centered Education: Cultivates Purpose-Driven Classrooms

Self-Determination and Executive Processes

  1. Engage autistic adolescents and young adults in research on how to leverage strengths and areas of needs related to assessing executive processes to advance self-determined goal-directed actions and use knowledge gained to advance decision-making about sup- ports for assessment and intervention.
  2. Integrate objective measures of executive processes with subjective measures of self-determination to understand how objective indicators and subjective perceptions change, or do not change, together with interventions and supports.
  3. Enhance self-determination interventions, including facilitator training protocols such as those associated with the SDLMI, to explicitly target a range of executive processes, particularly cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control, guided by the values and needs of the autistic community.
  4. Recognize the unique issues encountered by all adolescents, including autistic adolescents, and consider how the increased risk taking and impulsivity that may manifest during the transition to adulthood period can be reframed as opportunities to learn and build more lifelong supports for self-determination that will generalize to early adulthood environments, consistent with Causal Agency Theory.
  5. Increase understanding of systemic factors (e.g., access to personalized supports, interventions, opportunities) that can be changed to maximize outcomes for autistic adolescents and young adults, with a focus on a strength-based perspective.
  6. Recognize and honor neurodiversity in all assessment and intervention design and implementation, as well as in all research activities.

Source: Advancing the Personalization of Assessment and Intervention in Autistic Adolescents and Young Adults by Targeting Self-Determination and Executive Processes | Autism in Adulthood

Self-Determination Theory: Unapologetically Antithetical to Behaviorism

The locus of pathology exists not in the autistic person, but in the interaction between a hostile environment and the subjugated autistic. It is essential for parents, practitioners, educators, and autistic people themselves to ask the crucial question— Is the autistic a machine, or an organism? Are we active agents in our own embodied experience, or are we a locus of behavior? It is not with defiance, but autonomy, that I declare as an autistic person— I am not a manifestation of stimuli and response. I am agential. I am Autonomously Autistic.

Despite the field of Disability Studies’ rhetorical progress toward new models of disability, Autistic subjectivity is still locked within medical pathologies and assumptions of deficit. Self-Determination Theory provides an intriguing contrast to other psychological frameworks, making it possible to reconceptualize and re-localize deficit. We can then disrupt our assumptions and form new principles that empower autistic people to develop in autonomous, competent, connected, and self-directed ways.

Self-Determination Theory positions itself as directly and unapologetically antithetical to behaviorism, a fact that manifests in the literature repeatedly in behaviorist commentary…

Autonomously Autistic | Canadian Journal of Disability Studies

Everyone should have the right to make choices. Some people make choices differently than others. Some people get help from a few friends or family members to make choices. Some people show other people what they have chosen through gestures or actions rather than words. But all people, no matter what disability they have or what support needs they have, can make choices. 

Supported decision-making is an idea about the right to make choices. Everyone needs help to make decisions sometimes. Disabled people might need more help. We might need a lot more help. But, needing help isn’t a good reason to take away someone’s choices. Supported decision making means that even if someone needs a lot of help, they still have the right to make their own choices.

We also have the right to communicate and tell people about the choices we make. We have the right to communicate in whatever way works best for us. Everybody communicates – whether using language, behavior, gestures, facial expressions, sounds, or other means. We have the right to use augmented and alternative communication (AAC) methods, like sign language, communication boards, and iPads. Effective communication is a key part of self-determination!

Self-Determination – Autistic Self Advocacy Network

Self-determination is controlling your own future. It means you are the one in charge of your life. If you need supports, as all people do, self-determination means you decide what those supports are and how you want to receive them.

Many people with developmental disabilities are not expected or allowed to control our own lives. Other people decide where we will live, how we will spend our money, what we will do doing our days, who will work with us and who our friends are, and what we need. Self-determination says that this is wrong. Self-determination says that people with disabilities have the right and the ability to be in charge of our own lives.

If a person with a disability is self-determined, we get to decide where we will live, what our job is, how we spend our days, who our staff is and what we want them to do, what help we need, and what we want to do. We get to make our own decisions and live the lives we want to live, just like everyone else.

Self-determination is a right and a possibility for all people with disabilities. Some of us might need help figuring out what we want, understanding our options, and communicating our desires to other people. That’s okay. With the right supports, everyone can be self- determined.

Accessing Home and Community-Based Services: A Guide for Self Advocates – Autistic Self Advocacy Network
Because we′re standing in the way of control
We will live our lives

-- Standing In the Way of Control

Flow States Are the Pinnacle of Intrinsic Motivation

People need to feel appreciated and safe, to give themselves to an activity; and they need to feel like they are making progress to keep giving themselves to it. To get into The Zone, you need to know you’re getting somewhere, that you’re in the process of mastering a skill – you need ongoing feedback, whether from another person or another source. There is also something uniquely satisfying about working with other people effectively, towards a shared goal; in my experience there is no substitute when it comes to building a community.

Flow states are the pinnacle of intrinsic motivation, where somebody wants to do something for themselves, for the sake of doing it and doing it well.

Flow allows us to recharge, to feel a sense of achievement and satisfaction, and a kind of respite from the often-baffling demands of the school social environment.

Craft, Flow and Cognitive Styles

The first part is in my “native language,” and then the second part provides a translation, or at least an explanation.

But my language is not about designing words or even visual symbols for people to interpret. It is about being in a constant conversation with every aspect of my environment. Reacting physically to all parts of my surroundings.

In My Language

Many people with autism are stressed individuals who find the world a confusing place (Vermeulen, 2013). So how does someone with autism achieve a sense of flow? McDonnell & Milton (2014) have argued that many repetitive activities may achieve a flow state. One obvious area where flow can be achieved is when engaging in special interests. Special interests allow people to become absorbed in an area that gives them specialist knowledge and a sense of achievement. In addition, certain repetitive tasks can help people achieve a flow like state of mind. These tasks can become absorbing and are an important part of people’s lives. The next time you see an individual with autism engaging in a repetitive task (like stacking Lego or playing a computer game), remember that these are not in themselves negative activities, they may well be reducing stress.

If you want to improve your supports to people with autism from a stress perspective, a useful tool is to identify flow states for that person and try to develop a flow plan. Remember, the next time you see a person repeating seemingly meaningless behaviours, do not assume that this is always unpleasant for them – it might be a flow state, and beneficial for reducing stress.

What is ‘flow’?

Flow state is a term coined by Csikszentmihalyi to describe “the experience of complete absorption in the present moment” (Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). It is widely viewed as highly positive and many texts advise readers on how to attain it when performing tasks. Autistic people are sometimes puzzled that flow seems to be regarded as somewhat elusive and difficult to experience, since the common autistic experience of complete engagement with an interest fits the definition of flow well. Thus, it is not hard to find accounts of autistic detailed listening that seem to describe a flow state:

“When I work on my musical projects, I tend to hear the whole score in my head and piece every instrument loop detail where they fit. It relaxes me and makes me extremely aware of what I’m doing to the point that I lose track of time.”

Autistic listening

What Is The Flow?

Flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

I think process is something that we shouldn’t try to hack our way out of. Because it’s beautiful.

Free Your Fingers, Free Your Mind: A performative presentation with DiViNCi | Loop

The biggest practical thing to take away from this is the importance of meeting the child, or adult, where they are. This is not an insight unique to the monotropism perspective, but nothing else I’ve seen demonstrates with such clarity why it’s so crucial. Treat interests as something to work with. Recognise what someone’s passionate about and learn how to become part of the attention tunnels which come with monotropic focus, rather than trying to just reach in and pull the person out of the flow states that are so important to us. Never pathologise ‘special interests’, and don’t assume that autistic interests are ‘restricted’  – there are plenty of ways to get us interested in new things, it’s just that they mostly involve taking existing interests and building on them.

Me and Monotropism: A unified theory of autism | The Psychologist

Further reading,

Published by Ryan Boren

#ActuallyAutistic retired technologist turned wannabe-sociologist. Equity literate education, respectfully connected parenting, passion-based learning, indie ed-tech, neurodiversity, social model of disability, design for real life, inclusion, open web, open source. he/they