Especially at this time of year, from Thanksgiving through Christmas and Hanukkah, parents often wonder how they can teach their child to be thankful for what they receive. Many children on the autism spectrum have difficulty putting themselves into someone else’s shoes to imagine how good they’d feel to be thanked when they’ve done something nice. They have the heart for gratitude, but may not have all the skills and social graces down yet.
Here are 4 tips to help your children develop the gratitude habit:
1. Timing is key. Many families have a Thanksgiving tradition of going around the table and having each person say what they are thankful for before the turkey dinner. For young children, and especially those on the spectrum or with ADHD, this can be frustrating. They can smell the delicious food and watch it get cold while people talk and talk and talk and talk. The idea of being thankful is associated with a negative experience for them. Instead, this year have the head of the family say a brief grace before the meal (if you are a family that says grace) and then let everyone eat while the food is hot. Later, right before dessert, have each person share around the table what they are thankful for. You can excuse the children after they eat to go play and call them back later for dessert. Now, the thankful exercise is not on an empty stomach, and is immediately followed by dessert, which is reinforcing. Simply changing the timing can change the tone from an exercise in exasperation to an attitude of gratitude.
2. Don’t prompt it, elicit it. That means when someone gives your child a gift, after you have spent years prompting them to say “Thank you,” it’s time to back off and give them a chance respond for themselves. As parents, we often feel stuck in a loop, endlessly repeating, “Say thank you,” eventually replaced by, “What do you say?” They may have inferred from this that an important part of the routine is to wait until you have prompted them, and only then to thank grandma for the present. We need to start fading our prompt so the responsibility for initiating the “Thank you” can belong to our children. One way to do this, after they’ve heard “What do you say?” for years, is by dropping hints instead of prompts. “What a lovely gift,” or “Grandma must have spent a long time making that for you,” or “Your uncle gave you something he knew you’d like. That was very thoughtful of him.” If your child doesn’t take the hint, pause a bit before taking the next step. Then, instead of “What do you say?” consider rephrasing, such as asking, “How can you let them know how much you appreciate getting this?” In another situation, if you are handing your child, a glass of milk or cookie that they requested, try holding onto it while looking at their eyes. When they notice that you haven’t let go of it yet and look up, your expectant, smiling face may be prompt enough. If not, say, “I brought you the milk you asked for…” or “I’m giving you this cookie.” This may be enough to get a “Thank you” out of them, but again, if not, paraphrase something like, “Is there something you could say to show that you’re glad I’m giving this to you?” By removing the rote, “What do you say?” it makes them think, rather than simply parroting back your words.
3. Thanks first, gift second. Although formal thank you notes are often considered old-fashioned, the idea of thanking the giver before using the gift never goes out of style. Today, that might mean having your child pose for a smiling photo holding the gift that you can text to Aunt Susie or email to distant grandparents. Letting your child decide how to pose for the picture makes it more personal, but the idea that the giver must be thanked in some way before running off with the new toy is an important concept.
4. Sharing is caring. If your child has a lot of toys they don’t play with often or have outgrown, let them choose some to donate to children who don’t have toys at the holiday season. Don’t insist or pressure your child about this, though. Some of our kids on the spectrum have friendship-like relationships with toys and special attachments to their belongings. Giving them away feels disloyal or like a betrayal, and can be emotionally painful. Instead, if this is the case for your child, go on a shopping trip and let them buy something for another child. This could be an inexpensive dollar store item if that’s what the budget allows, but the act of choosing something to give to someone else is important.
However you choose to enhance the attitude of gratitude in your household, I wish you all the best of the season. By the way, thanks for reading this. I am grateful for you!