Teaching Service & Gratitude to Children With Special Needs During the Holidays


The holiday season is the perfect time to teach children about service, gratitude and giving. Often parents with children with special needs, or more specifically, those with Autism Spectrum Disorder, wish to teach their little ones these lessons, but feel uncertain how to approach these learning opportunities given their child’s developmental delays.

For more information and tips on the topic we called in an expert, Esther Hess, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and executive director of a multidisciplinary treatment facility in West Los Angeles, Center for the Developing Mind. Dr. Hess specializes in the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of children, adolescents and young adults impacted by Autism Spectrum Disorder.

What are some examples of values that parents can teach their children with developmental delays like Autism Spectrum Disorder during the holidays?
Children with special needs characteristically are delayed in their overall developmental capacities, which is often displayed in their choice of play with toy items that are typically suited for a child who is chronologically younger that they are. To encourage children with needs to expand their play towards more age-appropriate toys, I often tell the parents to slowly introduce the concept of sharing with the less fortunate, particularly during the holiday season.

What are some examples of activities parents can engage their children in to help teach these lessons?
To give up a toy even for the greater good can be a challenge. I suggest that parents start a few weeks in advance. You can begin by creating a “social story” that describes the process of letting go of a toy so that another child in need can get a holiday present. Together parent and child can select toys that are no longer age-appropriate and put together a holiday care package for the local children’s hospital.

What age do you believe is appropriate to begin these activities?
Starting at age 7 to 8 is typical. That’s when the difference in the kinds of toys that children on the spectrum play with are more pronounced in contrast to their developing peers. Our children get teased or bullied for bringing poor toy choices to school. Although our message for the holidays is sharing with the less fortunate, there is a duality of messages working concurrently.

Once a tradition has been established to donate toys to the less fortunate, children on the spectrum, who tend to do their best under repetitive conditions actually welcome the routine of giving to another. As the child ages developmentally, the routine of giving can blossom into various activities that give back to the community. These activities can include visiting the elderly, helping feed the less fortunate during the holidays and participating in food drives. Teaching kids these valuable lessons is an ongoing process, and learning opportunities present themselves every day. Remember, consistency and routine is key.