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Asperger's and gratitude

lindy7lindy7 Registered User Posts: 7 New Member
edited May 2010 in Parent Cafe
I'd appreciate advice from parents of Asperger's or other similar conditions on an issue that has been on my mind for quite some time.

My son is 19 and a college freshman. When he was about 13 or 14 he was evaluated and diagnosed with executive function deficit. His therapist at the time was reluctant to pin the Asperger's label on him, but said that some of my son's characteristics could be understood in Asperger's terms. For example, he has a significant sensitivity to certain fabrics. He's somewhat physically awkward. There are other characteristics that fit, but in the interest of privacy I'll stop there. If he truly is on the autism spectrum, which I'm not convinced he is but not convinced he isn't, it's very mild and there are many many characteristics that don't fit.

The issue that's been on my mind is my son's lack of gratitude. He shows no appreciation for anything that anyone does for him. He has to be prompted to say thank you, he never writes thank you notes unless forced to (I did force him when he was living at home), and he truly seems oblivious to actions by others that are done on his behalf. For example, I took him on a short mother-son trip abroad (his choice of location and activities) as a high school graduation gift. No "thank you" either during or after the trip. My husband (his step-father) routinely spends hours/days with him on projects that interest my son. He's happy and fully engaged doing these projects, but there's no sign of gratitude for the time and effort on my husband's part. We drove 6 hours round trip to deliver his bike to his college; no thank you for this, or any hint that my son recognized that this was something nice we'd done for him. Small things that I routinely (and gladly) do go unrecognized. Favorite meals cooked when he is home on break, cookies sent to college, things that he needs packed up & shipped off to him, all of this and more elicits no sense of gratitude.

I realize that all of this might sound like I've got a martyr attitude. I don't. I love my son dearly and I'm happy to do all of the things I've listed and more for him. He's a smart, funny, happy kid and I want the best for him. But I worry about this side of him that doesn't acknowledge others' feelings, and I'm concerned that it will hamper his relationships. He's very shy, has never had a girlfriend, and often seems uncomfortable in social situations.

In an effort to understand this, I searched the forums of wrongplanet and found a post referring to a 40-year-old man who, in his family's memory, had never said "thank you". I fear that this could be said about my son in 21 years.

From that forum and others, I've come to understand that one way an Aspie mind works is to consider that gifts or actions done for the Aspie are of course appreciated, and that appreciation is shown by the simple act of using the gift or accepting the action. For example, a gift of a sweater; in an Aspie's mind it's sufficient thanks to the giver if he or she wears the sweater. That's enough to show that the gift was liked and appreciated. If the gift wasn't liked, it goes in the closet with nothing more said, and no concern for the feelings of the giver.

In the past, in the face of resistance on the thank you note front, I've said things like "even if you don't like the gift, it's important to acknowledge that [insert relative here] loves you and tried his/her best to find something you would like". This gets met with "You mean I have to lie and say I like the gift even if I don't?" I've also on occasion asked my son to thank his stepfather for the time he (my husband) has spent with him on his projects. The light bulb goes off and my son, with no trace of resentment or irritation, goes off to thank my husband for all he's done. I've pointed out many times over the years that people are more likely to do nice things for him when their actions are recognized, that everyone likes to be appreciated. This seems to be heard, but my son's actions don't change. He's not defiant or entitled; he's simply unaware that how other people feel matters.

I should also say that my other son, 2 years younger, recognizes this "oddity" about his older brother and struggles to understand it as well. My younger son has none of these characteristics - he's very much in tune with emotions and how people interact. Saying thank you comes naturally to him.

So having written all this, I'm wondering if there's a cognitive way to get through to my son that showing appreciation and gratitude are important. I understand that even though this isn't something that comes natural to Aspie's and others on the autism spectrum, that there are cognitive behavioral techniques that can be effective. And finally, how do I come to terms with this for myself, in the case that my son simply cannot change? It's painful to show love through words and actions, and get very little in return.
Post edited by lindy7 on

Replies to: Asperger's and gratitude

  • calmomcalmom Registered User Posts: 18,612 Senior Member
    Do you think that your son wants to change? (to fit in better, or to "get" what others expect of him better?). As you've noted -- there are cognitive behavioral techniques that can help, but that type of therapy for a teenager or an adult really does require internal motivation on their part -- he has to care enough to put in appropriate effort.
  • lindy7lindy7 Registered User Posts: 7 New Member
    I'm pretty sure that my son doesn't see his actions as a problem, and therefore wouldn't think that anything needs to change.

    He doesn't seem to be very introspective and has difficulty talking about how he feels, so it's hard for me to know.

    One one hand, he might very much like to fit in better, but on the other he seems quite content with the small circle of friends he has at college, and is enjoying the one club he's joined. He's thriving at his college.

    I wasn't really thinking that he should be in therapy. My question was more how can I as a parent reach him, and if I can't, how can I reset my expectations, acknowledge that it makes me sad that we're not connecting in this way, and move on from there?
  • zpmqxonwzpmqxonw Registered User Posts: 1,052 Senior Member
    I'm not a parent, but an individual with Asperger's, who also happens to work in the autism field. I hope it's okay that I provide my input here.

    There are a lot of possible reasons that your son might not be expressing gratitude in recognizable ways, some of which may be related to Asperger's and some of which may not. One possible explanation that really stuck in my mind while reading your post was the theory of mind deficits that are extremely common in autism spectrum conditions. In essence, individuals with autism often struggle to recognize that others may have different beliefs, intentions, and desires, which may not necessarily match their own. For myself, I tend to automatically assume that others know what I know, which means I sometimes don't communicate as clearly as I should. I have to make a conscious effort to remind myself that others can't "read my mind," if there's an important detail that I want others to know, I need to say so. I am wondering if this may also be the case with your son?

    Theory of mind deficits can also affect the individual's ability to empathize. They are not as capable of taking another person's perspective and may not see how much effort you have taken into doing something for them. It may be helpful to both of you if you can have a conversation in the future about steps you have taken in a specific instance to help him. From there, you might be able to allow him to see what it was like from your perspective. With the cookies, for instance, you could say something like, "I hope you enjoy the cookies. Did you realize I had to go all the way to the store to get the ingredients and then it took all day to bake them. Then, I had to package them together and stand in line at the post office to mail them. It was a lot of work..." You could see how he responds.

    Also, with a lot of kids on the spectrum, generalization is a very significant problem. Skills learned in one situation just don't translate over to another very easily. If you simply want him to say "thank you" to be polite (without necessarily understanding why he should do so), this can probably be fairly easily taught. I know that, for me, I had a mental list of "thank you situations," which helped out a lot. I basically just made saying thank you another step of my daily routines. I knew to say thank you if somebody held the door for me, gave me a gift, let me borrow an item, gave me directions, etc. It was reflexive and probably without meaning most of the time, but to be honest, most people didn't notice.
  • mom2collegekidsmom2collegekids Registered User Posts: 82,539 Senior Member
    have you ever asked him why he doesn't express appreciation for the extra efforts that you and your H do? What would he do if you refused to do some of these things? If you had said no to his request to bring out his bike, what would he have said? Would that have been a time when you could have inspired him to be more grateful?

    Will your son go out of his way to do nice things for you or others?

    some of what you've described is actually normal male behavior. I doubt my H has ever written a thank you note.

    In my H's case, it's only been in his more adult years that he's been more verbally appreciative. I know when we were younger and single, he seemed rather oblivious to things that I would do for him, his roommate did for him, or that my family would do for him. Now, he would never dream of not being more gracious.
  • icedragonicedragon Registered User Posts: 2,170 Senior Member
    First off let me start by saying i have Asperger's.

    Alright, i'm going to try and explain.

    It is very difficult to say 'thank you' sometimes. (an example here with me, my mom worked with me for years to get this down. I eventually got it when it comes to big things: going to dinner, etc. But small things like carrying down a coat or something is still very hard). Its like you want to say it but its hard to understand WHY you must say it or for what reason (even if its obvious).

    I hope this helps nn
  • lindy7lindy7 Registered User Posts: 7 New Member
    zpmqxonw thank you so much for adding your perspective. I haven't seen any evidence that my son assumes I can read his mind, but I understand what you're saying. I've had conversations similar to the one that you've described. My son "gets" it - he can recognize when effort has been involved, and at some level understands that the effort was done with love for him as the motivator. He responds in a nice but sort of rote way - he'll say thank you and then move on to the next subject. It just doesn't seem to register at a deeper level than that. I'm not looking for him to say thank you or show gratitude just to be polite (although that would be a great start!) It's more than I'm wondering if he's really capable of gratitude. How did you learn your mental list of "thank you" situations?

    mom2collegekids, I haven't actually asked my son why he doesn't express appreciation, but I've been planning to. He rarely goes out of his way to do nice things, although on occasional Mother's Days he'll make a wonderful breakfast for me. That just melts my heart. I do realize that thank you notes are becoming a quaint anachronism, but even letting my son write emails rather than notes, it's still a struggle. My extended family interprets a lack of thank you's as ingratitude, and so to a certain extent I'm trying to shield my son from their criticism when I insist that gifts be acknowledged. But I also believe this is a life skill that's important.

    icedragon your explanation does help. How did you feel when your mom "worked with you" to "get it" for big things?
  • zpmqxonwzpmqxonw Registered User Posts: 1,052 Senior Member
    How did you learn your mental list of "thank you" situations?

    One at a time, to be honest. I tend to learn each detail individually (instead of focusing on general overarching concepts), so listing every situation seemed natural to me. Pretty much every time somebody (usually my Mom) told me to say thank you, I would add it to the list. I had a pretty lengthy list by elementary school, but still am adding situations; thanking people who compliment me, for instance.
  • menloparkmommenloparkmom Registered User Posts: 11,949 Senior Member
    "he's simply unaware that how other people feel matters." And that says it all. He has a literal "blind spot" in his ability to think about feelings- his own and those of others. Scientists now believe that Aspies lack, or have fewer "mirror" neurons that normal people. These mirror neurons are the reasons a normal baby will naturally cry when they see other babies crying, or why you or I will get choked up seeing a sad scene in a movie They help us to recognize feelings in others. They also help us learn the normal give and take, back and forth way of interacting that occur in conversations. Aspies don't have the same neural wiring, and that is why the "social lessons" that we "get" naturally just "don't stick"- they have less ability to recognize emotions in others, or remember that what they do has an emotional impact on others, because they don't feel the same way themselves.

    "how can I reset my expectations, acknowledge that it makes me sad that we're not connecting in this way, and move on from there? "

    You have to accept that he is different, and keep yourself from trying to transform him into someone he cannot be. You also need to avoid laying a "guilt trip" on him when you do something for him [ do you know how long I spent doing this? etc, etc] because he doesn't remember to give you the response that you want from him. That would be like asking a paraplegic to walk. He knows he's different[ believe me], and he needs your unconditional love and acceptance regardless of his differences. He will always love you in his own way.
  • meezermom2meezermom2 Registered User Posts: 84 Junior Member
    Lindy7, I don't know if I can offer any advise but I can certainly sympathize. My husband has never been diagnosed but believes as do I that he has Aspergers. I try to look at the glass as half full rather than half empty but it can be difficult. He is profoundly gifted but has no arrogance about his intelligence. He is a very moral person (faithful, doesn't smoke, doesn't do drugs, rarely drinks). His intelligence and other good qualities are what attracted me.

    That said we have unique challenges. He has several sensory "over excitabilities" (touch, smell, hearing) and lacks gratitude. I notice this most with cooking. He rarely tells me something is good but doesn't hesitate to tell me what's wrong with something. The way I've come to accept this is to realize he treats life like a science experiment. It reminds me of the intro to the 6 million dollar man "we have the technology, we can make it better."

    One of the most difficult aspects from my perspective is I no longer accept gratitude easily. I provided dessert to a function at church recently. As I began cleaning up, the rector thanked me. I responded "well I think we could have used a couple more brownies." He replied "No it was perfect." I didn't say anything but I thought to myself "Wow it was perfect! I don't hear that very often." On the way home I said to my daughter "so that's what gratitude sounds like."
  • mom2collegekidsmom2collegekids Registered User Posts: 82,539 Senior Member
    I haven't actually asked my son why he doesn't express appreciation, but I've been planning to.

    :) I think it's time to do so... :) Hopefully, it's not too late.

    Do you think that your son might be more open to listening/changing if you approached the situation from a perspective outside of yourself...such as... If you'd like to have a significant other in your life, you will need to learn these things. Perhaps having your H there during the discussion to offer reinforcements to your points would help. You both could explain that other people (significant others, specifically) want/need to feel appreciated when they've done something nice or correct. People also like to have a reciprocal relationships where both do little extras for the other.

    Explain that it can appear to others as being selfish when one is mostly a receiver of others' generosity, while rarely being a giver of time or treasures.

    I know you don't have this attitude, but I don't think anyone should have the attitude that, "well, he's an aspy, therefore this is how he is," because the person has to live in the world. Zpmqxonw obviously realized that early on (in elementary school) when he began forcing himself to learn/remember correct responses to various situations.
  • NaturallyNaturally Registered User Posts: 1,308 Senior Member
    I don't know . . . I've known people who don't have Asperger's who are ungrateful and never say thank you. Especially amongst teenagers. The "I should be honest and truthful no matter how much of a jerk it makes me sound!" is a pretty common teenage phenomenen too. (I went through it for a while. Ah, teenagers.)

    Hopefully when he starts alienating friends by never appreciating what they do for him, he will feel a need to change. You can make an effort to explain this to him--he is going to make other people angry/disappointed. But it sounds like you've already tried this.

    If he's not feeling any negative consequences now (doesn't thank relatives for doing this or that, but relatives continue to do it anyway), why should he change? Next time he wants you make a six hour drive to deliver something, don't. If he asks why not, tell him he hurt your feelings by not showing appreciation your for your time and effort last time, so you're not going to do it again. Maybe that will drive home "not thanking people who help me hurts their feelings, when their feelings are hurt there are negative social consequences for me."
  • HuntHunt Registered User Posts: 26,851 Senior Member
    Everybody has to learn to say "thank you" in situations in which we don't actually feel any gratitude (such as receiving a gift we don't like). We all have a mental list of "thank you situations," even if we don't have to be as conscious of it. If may be that this is all the OP can really ask of her son--and it would be worthwhile to suggest that he try to do this, because it will make his life smoother.
    But if the desire is for him to actually feel gratitude, that may or may not be possible, and it may be something that just has to be accepted.
  • lindy7lindy7 Registered User Posts: 7 New Member
    Thanks everyone for your thoughts and for taking time to post - it's appreciated :)

    What's unusual about my son's situation, and why I'm uncertain that the Aspergers label applies, is that he wasn't like this as a child and through grade school. He was lively, enthusiastic, at times ebullient in his affection and his interactions with me and his father. He would throw his arms around us for hugs, and declare "I love you mom!" I remember lots of specific examples of gratitude, and I also don't remember feeling as I do now, that he's unaware of opportunities to be thankful. Middle school (grades 7-8) was a turning point. I rationalized that this start of adolescence is a natural time of pulling away, of individuation, and I encouraged it. But I didn't expect it to go this far or in this direction.

    As menloparkmom says, I do have to recognize that I can't transform him (or anyone, for that matter), and I do give him my unconditional love. What I struggle with is that I feel it's my job as a parent to give my children skills that will help them as they go out in the world, and I believe that compassion for others and gratitude to those who help along the way are important.
    he treats life like a science experiment
    That made me smile, meezermom2. Thank you for sharing your experience. My son is very cerebral too, very logical.

    mom2collegekids I use the thank you note times as opportunities to tell my son exactly that; people are going to stop giving you gifts if you don't show them that you appreciate the gifts and the givers' thoughtfulness. I practice what I preach - several nephews no longer receive gifts from me after years of never hearing a word from them. My friends make the point that you did, that life is going to give my son the lessons he needs once he starts wanting to have a close relationship with a woman. It might be painful, but he'll learn that it's important to people that they feel appreciated.

    Naturally - yes, I do wonder how much of this is the typical teenage thing. But other than pulling away physically, my son hasn't been rebellious, grouchy, moody, or exhibited any of those annoying teenage attitudes ;) He's actually a nice kid, very even-keeled, and very willing to help out when it's something that interests him.

    And you and others are correct that boundaries are important. The classical formulation of boundaries would be something like "when you don't thank me for making cookies, I feel sad. I don't want to feel sad like that so I won't be making cookies for you again". Somewhat overly dramatic, but you get the idea. The point is, my son would shrug this off; it wouldn't affect him in a meaningful way, and it wouldn't cause him to reflect on his behavior.

    He seem closed off to me - I have difficulty reaching him. We can talk for hours about his courses or what he's doing in his club - the things that interest him - but he seems unable to converse in any depth about matters of the heart. As Hunt says, this is something I'll probably just have to accept, although I do try to model this kind of behavior so that he can see it's not impossible.
  • missypiemissypie Registered User Posts: 18,303 Senior Member
    If you simply want him to say "thank you" to be polite (without necessarily understanding why he should do so), this can probably be fairly easily taught. I know that, for me, I had a mental list of "thank you situations," which helped out a lot. I basically just made saying thank you another step of my daily routines. I knew to say thank you if somebody held the door for me, gave me a gift, let me borrow an item, gave me directions, etc. It was reflexive and probably without meaning most of the time, but to be honest, most people didn't notice.

    I agree that this can and should be taught. He may not give you warm gratitude, but you can teach him a script so that others (teachers, class or dormmates, employers) don't think he's a jerk.

    Some neurotypicals don't express gratitude. Members of my husband's family don't express gratitude, and don't give complements. I think because of that I've gone overboard to teach my kids to do both.

    My own Aspie son expresses genuine gratitude to me when I've done something for him. He understands the effort and appreciates it. But it's not automatic with others. There was an awkward moment last spring when we saw someone in person who had just sent him a gradutation gift and he didn't mention it and say thanks. He just didn't get that that is something he should have done.
  • moonchildmoonchild Registered User Posts: 3,296 Senior Member
    He seem closed off to me - I have difficulty reaching him. We can talk for hours about his courses or what he's doing in his club - the things that interest him - but he seems unable to converse in any depth about matters of the heart.

    You should know that most 19 year olds don't discuss matters of the heart with their moms. I know one or two who do, but they are rare. This is a separate, but not unrelated issue. I would probably keep working on teaching him the importance of showing appreciation, but I don't think you can expect any young man to be really open with his mom about his deeper feelings at a time when they are trying to establish their independence. It may come later, when they have achieved it.
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