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.