Tips for adapting love languages to meet the needs of kids with ASD
Written By: Jennifer Ammacher, M.A.
Like all parents, the parents of children with Autism and related disorders want to express unconditional love and support for their kids. In fact, feeling unable to express love and care is one of the biggest frustrations that I heard from parents during my time as a Special Education teacher at Springbrook. How do you express affection to child who doesn’t like to be touched? How do you give praise and affirmation to a child who isn’t verbal? Or, how do you show any kind of love at all to a child who leaves the room when you enter?
All of these are problems that the parents I worked with encountered—and problems that I’ve encountered myself as the mom of a special needs daughter. Fortunately, there are ways to adapt how you express love in order to meet the needs of your child. In this series, I’m going to go over the Five Love Languages* and then give suggestions for modifications you can make when interacting with your child. But, first, let’s look at why it’s important to express unconditional love to your child.
The Impact That Expressing Love Has on the Special Needs Child
I like to say that every child runs on love—every child has a love tank that needs to be filled up daily. A full love tank gives children the emotional strength that they need in order to get through the day. Unconditional love is the premium fuel that fills your child’s love tank the fastest, lasts the longest, and takes care of your child the best. This is especially true for our children with special needs, who may require more support and more expressions of love than other children.
A few more notes about expressing unconditional love:
Unconditional Love is a “No Matter What” Kind of Love. Unconditional love carries the most powerful messages and helps children feel accepted, calm, and supported. Many parents who I’ve worked with are concerned about spoiling or coddling their special needs children. While a failure to discipline or always giving in to your child can create a spoiled, misbehaved kid—this has nothing to do with love. It is impossible to spoil your child with love or to love too much, so go ahead and love on your kid. In fact, I believe that a child’s emotional love tank must be filled before any discipline or learning can occur.
With a Full Love Tank Your Child is More Likely to be:
With an Empty Love Tank Your Child is More Likely to be:
- Immature child
Of course, children with autism can have many physical, emotional, psychological, behavioral and developmental challenges, and I would never suggest that love can solve all problems. But I am saying that love is the foundation—and that it’s far more difficult to address behaviors and other issues associated with autism if you haven’t first communicated unconditional love and acceptance.
How To Discover Your Child’s Love Language
In the rest of this blog series, we’ll address each love language more specifically. The Five Love Languages are: Physical Touch, Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Acts of Service, and Gifts. These languages refer to the ways that people both give love to others and the ways that they understand love. While everyone gives and receives love using all five methods, most people have one or two preferred languages—ways that read as love more readily and more fully. Since it is already difficult to express love to children with autism and other special needs, it makes sense to spend some time figuring out your child’s love language and giving love in the way your child understands it best.
Ultimately, discovering your child’s love language just takes time, patience, and practice. Here are a few useful tips to get you started:
Ask “How do they love me?
How do you know that your child loves you? When trying to express love to you, how does your child go about it? Does she draw you a picture? Does he sit next to you on the couch? Or suggest a favorite shared activity? You may not have thought much about it, but take some time to notice how your child reaches out to you.
Ask “How do they love others?
What about siblings, teachers, and friends? What does your child’s teacher say about your kid? How do you see your child trying to make friends or interacting with siblings?
Provide choices that have more than one love language.
While the other tips require you to pay attention and use some reasoning skills, this is a more proactive tip. Give two or three choices and see which one your child picks. During play time, would your child rather rough house (physical touch), help you cook (acts of service), or do a favorite activity with you (quality time). For a reward, would your child prefer a toy (gifts) or a special activity (quality time). Experiment a little bit to discover your child’s preferences.
By paying attention and having patience, you can figure out ways to reach your child and express love. Read the next installment to learn ways to use Physical Touch to communicate love to your child with autism.
*The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts by Gary Chapman is an internationally best-selling book that topped the New York Times list for 8 years running and is now celebrating over 25 years in print. Many of the ideas in this blog are not original to me; however, I am summarizing, adding my unique take based on my experiences as a Special Education teacher, and explaining ways that parents can adapt Chapman’s ideas to better suit special needs children.
Special Education Teacher
Jennifer graduated from East Stroudsburg University with her MEd in Special Education. Jennifer served as a teacher at SpringBrook and has extensive course work on ABA. Serving as a speaker at many national autism conferences, Jennifer speaks to teachers and parents on how to ensure that children with Autism Spectrum Disorders succeed in the classroom. She also speaks at conferences on Antecedent Behavior Intervention, Discrete Trial Training, and Differential Reinforcement & Extinction. Earlier in her career she was nominated for induction into the Da Vinci Science Center’s Hall of Fame.