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There are so many benefits to working on expressing gratitude during the Thanksgiving season! It’s an opportunity to focus on what we have in our lives that we are grateful for and to strengthen your relationship with your child before the chaos of holiday plans sets in.
Thinking about what you are thankful for and sharing that gratitude with others can be very challenging for many people, let alone a nonverbal child with autism. In fact, even verbal individuals on the spectrum may struggle with expressing gratitude, be it verbal or through actions. The good news is that there are many ways to help your child express gratitude — even when they cannot speak.
What does it mean to be nonverbal?
Simply put, nonverbal means that your child cannot communicate using words. There are many reasons a child may not be able to communicate verbally — some medical and others developmental. For others, being nonverbal may be the first indicator that leads to a diagnosis of autism.
If a child is non-verbal due to autism, they are part of the 25% of people with autism who cannot speak or communicate with others. However, just because they don’t communicate with words, don’t think for a minute that nonverbal children don’t understand what is happening around them. Being nonverbal is not a sign of low intelligence.
Nonverbal children still need to ‘feel heard,’ and “feeling heard” by others is not about their social or communication skills. The responses they receive when they are amid their feelings drive their behavior. So, if they hand you a cookie, and you light up and show positive feedback, they know they did something that you liked.
Why is Expressing Gratitude Important – even if you are nonverbal?
Expressing gratitude verbally and nonverbally helps to promote a positive sense of self-worth and belonging. When we feel grateful, we are able to see the bigger picture and feel connected to others. Gratitude is also a positive emotion that can promote health and wellness. In fact, many healthcare providers are encouraging patients to express their gratitude by giving them “gratitude journals” to write in each day. However, children on the spectrum have more difficulty experiencing and expressing gratitude because of their difficulty reading facial expressions, body language, and social cues. As a result, they may not be able to recognize the “bigger picture” or fully grasp why they should feel grateful.
How to teach gratitude to your child with autism
First, it’s important to recognize that this is a lifelong process. You don’t have to wait until the holidays to start helping your child identify their blessings and feel grateful. In fact, it is important to start this work as early as possible.
Very often, children on the spectrum are detail-oriented and tend to get “caught up” in the small things. This can make it difficult for them to step back and see those details as parts of something bigger. For example, they may be so caught up in seeing their new Harry Potter book, they don’t consider for a second that someone put thought, effort, and money towards making it appear.
Of course, this is the case with most young children, but as they get older, they gain some perspective. It is much more challenging for those on the spectrum, even more so if nonverbal. It is very easy for them to be labeled as spoiled or ungrateful, but it is not necessarily the case. Children with autism, verbal or non-verbal, need to be taught how to recognize when they’re given gifts and express their gratitude.
Focus On Something Meaningful
A great way to convey the meaning of gratitude is to focus on something meaningful to the child but with no material value. For example, a pet. If your child has a special connection with their pet, it is something they can be grateful for. Help your child create a photo collage of their pet and look at it with them every day. The warmth and relief they feel because of the pet’s existence is gratitude; you can help your child link the emotions by explaining that the pictures are to remind them that they are lucky to have a dog. It is a good feeling, and it is an example of gratitude.
Expressing Gratitude Nonverbally
We may think it’s simple enough. For example, how would you express gratitude to someone who doesn’t speak your language? Perhaps your instinct is to hug them or bow your head with your palms pressed together. But as logical as it sounds, it’s not that simple for children with autism. They often dislike physically engaging with people, especially those they don’t know well. Eye contact is also a challenge often, and society is pretty hung up on eye contact being a sign of good manners.
There is no reason why you can’t adapt how your child shows gratitude in a way that works for them. Initially, the fact that they demonstrate appreciation is the goal, even if the person they are expressing it to doesn’t realize it. Many cultures express gratitude differently. Many are more likely to offer something meaningful or useful to someone as a sign of gratitude rather than expressing it verbally.
I recently visited a former student of mine. He has ASD and struggles with traditional greetings and expressions of emotion. But we had a special bond when I taught him, and it had been a while. He came out of the house carrying his pet chicken. After greeting him, I told him I’d missed him and asked if it would be okay to hug him. He looked at me deadpan and stuck his hand out to give me the chicken.
Most people would have seen it as strange, at best, or rude, at worst. My heart sang. For that child, passing me his beloved pet was more meaningful than any hug or affectionate reminiscing.
Create a Sign For Gratitude
If you and your child use sign language, you may want to create a sign for gratitude. Even if your child isn’t fluent in sign language, they can still participate in creating a unique sign. You can work together to help your child understand what gratitude means and encourage them to use the sign whenever they are grateful.
Thanksgiving may be an excellent time to teach these skills, but genuine gratitude is something we all value any day. It helps us see that despite the stress and challenges we may face, we still have an abundance of blessings. Your child will reap the benefits too if you focus on the meaning of gratitude and when to express it, even if it is in their own unique way.
If your child is nonverbal and under the care of a speech therapist, ABA therapy can reinforce the communication skills you and your child are practicing at home. Additionally, ABA can help to teach your child how to communicate with a PECS board or by using gestures while slowly encouraging verbal skills.
Circle Care Services can help guide you as a parent as you teach your child how to communicate and use speech effectively. Our team has the experience and skills you and your family need to support your child with autism who is struggling with communication.
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