A number of studies have shown that children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and autism have trouble in controlling their attention. Tangible rewards - such as sweets - have been found to help with this but it is not known whether less tangible ones are effective in improving cognitive control. A study of 77 children by researchers in the Netherlands looked at how children with ADHD and autism could be motivated. The children were given a task in which they had to identify a character from the cartoon Spongebob Squarepants while other characters from the cartoon tried to distract them. The children took the test under two conditions; a neutral one where they took the test on its own merit and a 'motivation' one when they were told that they were competing with other children. Different children took the tasks in different orders to prevent differences in the results simply being due to the children having had more practice in taking the tests. All the children, those with ADHD, those with autism and an unaffected control group improved their performance when they were told they were competing against other children. Although the boys with ADHD were still slower than the control group in the motivation condition they were just as accurate. The children with autism also improved in speed and accuracy in the motivation condition but this was not statistically significant.
Geurts, Hilde M., Luman, Mariolein and van Meel, Catharina S. - What's in a game: the effect of social motivation on interference control in boys with ADHD and autism spectrum disorder Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry August 2008, 49(8), 848-857