The Spectrum of Gratitude

Grateful Parenting
The Spectrum of Gratitude
By Roxi Nevin


It’s a common misconception that people on the Autism spectrum don’t experience empathy. As an adult with Autism, this is one of the most bothersome myths for me, as I tend to have a hypersensitive sense of empathy. When people I care about are hurting or bothered, it truly pains me to see their experiences. I feel strong empathy for complete strangers, and due to this, have a difficult time watching the news, or sad stories. A more accurate description is that it is difficult for a person with Autism to express emotions verbally to others, and I believe this is the root of the autism/empathy misconception. Expressing any emotion or feeling to others is quite difficult for me personally. Even when I’m fully aware of the explanation, verbalizing this is sometimes downright impossible. I have had to work at this my entire life, and particularly with expressing gratitude. Gratitude comes in many forms. Saying thank you for a gift or compliment. Expressing delight at another person’s thoughtfulness or actions. Letting someone know you’ve appreciated their effort. And in each of these situations, the degrees of difficulty in expressing gratitude can vary as much as the situations that warrant the expression of gratitude in the first place. To improve any given flaw or fault begins with the knowledge that it exists. Once an acknowledgment of a flaw is made, a person then has the opportunity to improve or ignore the flaw.

I only discovered my own faults with expressing gratitude as an adult. I’d often wondered why people seemed annoyed with me in certain situations, but at one point in my life, I overheard my sister explain to someone something that taught me a great deal about myself. Someone had given me a gift that I truly loved dearly. I thanked them for the gift, but quickly changed the subject to something else. Later, she told them that even when I was very happy with a gift or a compliment, I may not show that in a way that most people do, and it can come across as ungrateful, but that in almost all those situations she knew I truly was grateful. This confused me at the time because the amount of gratitude I felt about this particular gift was quite obvious to me. When I asked her about it later, she said that for a long time she thought I could be rude at times when given a gift, or a compliment, but that she came to understand that it wasn’t a lack of gratitude, it was that the enormous amount of gratitude I felt was overwhelming, which made it difficult to express to others. It was then that I became more mindful of my reactions, and over time I realized that she was right. The more grateful I felt about something, the less I was able to show it. I notice too that my 9-year-old, who is on the spectrum as well has similar issues. I try to be mindful of this when he is in a situation where he needs to express gratitude so that I can show him how we are similar in our difficulties. I tell him of experiences where I had to remind myself to show gratitude in a way that was not only heartfelt but came across that way to others.

In 2013 I was lucky enough to become acquainted with Judith Umlas, and her book “Grateful Leadership”. At that time, I became involved with the administration of various aspects of the website and marketing of what would later become The Center for Grateful Leadership. My involvement with CGL has been an instrumental aspect of my own improving my strengths with this difficulty in expressing gratitude. The CGL has made it possible to remind me every single day to be mindful of my reactions of gratitude towards others. It has strengthened my relationships with friends, family, and co-workers. For those very close to me, the change in me has been obvious, and for that, I am truly grateful.