Neurodiversity and Grateful Parenting

Since our guest presenter for the July CGL webinar, Brandon Fargis, is speaking about leading with gratitude in a neurodiverse world, I felt that writing about my own challenges in parenting, and how they relate to gratitude, and raising grateful children in a very neurodiverse household was the perfect opportunity. Parenting can be tough, no matter the neurotypes of children, but adding the aspect of raising children on the spectrum can be incredibly challenging and it often leaves many parents feeling like they’re not doing enough to support their neurodiverse children, and allowing them to become successful adults is extremely reliant on proper support. For our family, we add the additional challenge of my being an autistic parent raising both neurotypical and neurodiverse children and it’s quite overwhelming at times.

There are a lot of myths and misunderstandings around neurodivergent people, and this is even more true of children, as their personalities and mannerisms are still developing. It’s very easy to make assumptions about children, because we don’t have the ability to know who they are yet, and the discovery of self is a truly magical part of both child, and of those who love them. Watching them develop into who they will ultimately become is fascinating, and assuredly one of my favorite parts of raising humans. I believe parenting children on the spectrum is especially amazing, and the experience of witnessing the similarities and differences between kids during their development is truly one of the most fascinating things anyone could have the pleasure of experiencing.

Temple Grandin, who is an autism spokesperson, describes autism as a behavioral profile that has strengths and weaknesses. She has suggested that autistic people’s thinking falls into one of three categories: visual thinkers; verbal/logic thinkers; and musical/mathematical thinkers. And while I agree with this premise, I’ve also experienced enough opportunities in human behavioral patterns to know that it’s not this black and white. Some people fall in the middle of two of those categories, some into a bit of all three. That’s because with neurodivergence, nothing fits into any box. They say “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” And there is no truer statement about neurodiversity. The very word “diverse” means exactly that, and while we may experience similar issues, mannerisms, and commonalities, how we react to what we process will never follow any specific standard.

As such, instilling a habit of gratitude can be a challenge with neurodiverse children. One of the commonalities of many autistic people is the literal translation of things we hear from others. Due to this, there are times when a child may not understand exactly what they are expressing gratitude for, especially when the act or action involved that merits gratitude is something that a child is already expecting. A good example of this is something I notice within my kids. My NT (neurotypical) children often thank me for making dinner. It always catches me off guard, because when I hear it, my brain instantly thinks “well, of course, that’s part of my job.” When my NT children encourage my ND children to do the same, they show confusion as well. “Why? It’s dinner, we have to eat, she’s responsible for feeding us, why would this action warrant gratitude?”. It makes it very clear in this example, and many others like it, that I have to approach gratitude, and how I teach my children to be grateful people, a bit differently. There is no one process for this, no guidebook, just a knowledge that each experience lends more tools for me to properly establish a habit of gratitude, and doing my best to learn from each of them.

With my ND children, I have to remind them that we’re not necessarily supposed to be grateful for the action, but grateful for the effort. Without knowing what that effort is, they have no context to associate gratitude with that effort. So, I believe that a big part of this means showing my children examples of that effort. Involving them in it. Allowing them to see and experience what it takes to plan, purchase, and make dinner. They assist with menu planning, and shopping, and cooking, and cleaning up after. This helps them see what exactly happens that deserves their gratitude. And I believe this has been an essential part of helping to raise them to be grateful people.