We just started our Thankful List – something we do every November.  This year we are putting feathers into a pine cone turkey with the things we are thankful for written on each feather.  My 4 year-old’s first feather says, “I’m thankful for our thankful turkey,” and my 2 year old’s says, “I Superman!”

There has been a lot of buzz about gratitude buzz in the past few years.  Recent research has linked health and psychological benefits to having an, “attitude of gratitude.”  Apparently, a healthy dose of gratitude improves everything from sleep to our ability to be kind to others.

It is easy to have grateful moments, but assuming a grateful outlook takes effort.  Being grateful requires that we look beyond ourselves, our own desires, and preconceived expectations.  It asks that we spend less time comparing and wanting and more time appreciating and giving, even when things are not going our way.

Now imagine that you are small, less capable than many around you, and despite your egocentric view of the world, most of your daily life is not in your own control (any young child).  Now add autism…  Communication challenges mean even less control and you have extreme difficulty understanding the perspectives of others, making it hard to relate to or compare your own circumstances.

Understandably, gratitude is not a beginning skill in an Early Behavioral Intervention Program.  In fact, until children develop perspective taking skills (Theory of Mind), it is difficult to teach the concept of gratitude to any child.  In a child with neuro-typical development, perspective taking begins to develop around age four, but parents don’t wait until then to start teaching the foundations of gratitude.

The technical aspects of expressing and receiving thanks can be introduced as early as you like.  The ultimate goal is for your child to gain the attention of the person they are thanking, make appropriate eye contact, and communicate their thanks, ideally specifically labeling and explaining what they are thankful for.  E.g., “Aunt Susie, thank you for the cookie!  It is so yummy!”  When receiving thanks, the ultimate goal is for your child to make appropriate eye contact, say, “you’re welcome,” and if suitable, elaborate.   E.g., “Your welcome!  It was fun picking out the gift for you.”

Modeling is one of the easiest, most influential, and often overlooked steps to teaching manners.  When we thank and accept thanks from those around us, including our kids, it provides a contextual example of how to express and receive gratitude.

The next step is teaching, “thank you” and “you’re welcome.”  Very young children are often taught to say thanks using sign language, and this may be appropriate for your child.  If your child is using sign language, be sure to model the sign when you say, “thank you” to your child.  Initially children use manners when prompted, but overtime your child will be able to use these skills independently.  As your child’s language skills develop, you can elaborate on these basic polite phrases.  Social skills, including gaining attention and eye contact can also be incorporated.

Once your child is able to use, “thank you” you can begin to require it in socially appropriate situations.  Some children are extremely shy about expressing thanks, so it helps to begin at home with lots of reinforcement before taking your child’s new manners on the road.   It may also be helpful to role play different situations where using, “thank you,” is appropriate.   As your child begins to understand emotions, they will learn how using manners affects the emotions of others.  Older children will also learn that there are times when they should express their thanks, even if they do not feel particularly grateful.    Your supervisor can help you select lessons that are most appropriate for your child.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!