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Human beings, in their essence, are capable of remarkable achievements and profound growth. However, the extent to which individuals can realize their potential largely hinges on the social environments they are nurtured in and the psychological needs that are met. Research in self-determination theory (SDT) sheds light on this fascinating interplay, revealing how social conditions foster self-motivation and healthy psychological development or lead to diminished motivation and well-being (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

The Core of Self-Determination Theory

SDT assumes that there are three innate psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. When these needs are satisfied, individuals experience enhanced self-motivation and mental health. Conversely, motivation and well-being are significantly diminished when these needs are not met.

  1. Competence: Refers to experiencing a sense of effectiveness in one’s actions and having opportunities to utilize and showcase one’s skills.
  2. Autonomy: Refers to having control over one’s actions and choices, acting in harmony with one’s true self.
  3. Relatedness: Refers to feeling connected to others and being part of a group, community, or relationship.

The implications of SDT are far-reaching, influencing various domains like healthcare, education, work, sports, religion, and psychotherapy. For instance, students are more intrinsically motivated and engaged in educational settings when they feel competent, autonomous, and connected to their teachers and peers.


A Brief Example

Consider Emily’s story, a high school student passionate about art. In her art class, where she felt competent, her teacher encouraged creative freedom, which fostered her autonomy. This nurturing environment helped Emily produce original and expressive artworks.


On the other hand, Emily felt disengaged and anxious in her photography class because her teacher was overly controlling and dismissive of student input. This highlights the contrast in motivation and satisfaction from unmet psychological needs.

Humans are naturally curious, vital, and self-motivated at their best, striving for learning and growth. This intrinsic motivation is a critical component of SDT. However, it’s equally important to recognize that humans can also be passive and disengaged, often due to unmet psychological needs.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

While intrinsic motivation is about doing an activity for its inherent satisfaction, extrinsic motivation is driven by external outcomes. SDT emphasizes that extrinsic motivation can vary in its autonomy. For example, a student might study diligently because they value education or simply to avoid parental disapproval. The degree of internalization of these extrinsic motivations significantly impacts one’s personal experience and behavioral outcomes.

The Influence of Social Contexts

Social contexts play a crucial role in either catalyzing or hindering intrinsic motivation. Environments that support autonomy and competence are likely to foster intrinsic motivation while controlling or overbearing environments can suppress it. The role of relatedness, although more indirect, is also significant in nurturing intrinsic motivation.


Importance of Self-Determination for Autistic Individuals

Autistic individuals, like their neurotypical peers, grow up to become adults. Hence, it becomes vital for them to start their journey towards self-determination early. This journey begins with equipping them with the knowledge and skills required to navigate their path toward independence.

Role of Supporters in Fostering Self-Determination

Supporters – parents, friends, professionals, and community members – are pivotal in empowering autistic individuals in their journey toward becoming self-determined adults. For self-determination to become a reality, supporters must be committed to “letting go” and empowering their learners in developing self-awareness, understanding, and advocacy skills. As their learners grow, it’s important to modify support accordingly.

The journey to self-determination can be challenging for anyone, not just individuals with a diagnosis. However, with the right resources, opportunities, and support, individuals can exhibit self-determined behaviors and successfully achieve their goals. 

The Path to Optimizing Human Potential

Understanding and applying the principles of self-determination theory can profoundly impact personal growth, motivation, and well-being. By creating environments that nurture the psychological needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness, we can unlock the potential inherent in every individual. Recognizing and supporting these fundamental needs in classrooms, workplaces, or personal relationships is critical.



Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78.

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