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How to Determine Your Child With Autism's Love Language

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Communication lays the foundation for how we interact with each other and the world we live in. As parents, educators, siblings, caregivers, and friends of individuals with a developmental disability, solid communication is a key part of our days. Yet, the struggle to build consistent lines of communication can be continuous.

This is where the love languages come in. Dr. Gary Chapman, author of the best-selling book, “The Five Love Languages,” teaches that the main ways of expressing love are through words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, physical touch, and quality time. Chapman presents one simple truth, “Relationships grow better when we understand each other.”

You may be thinking, “I don’t really need to know my (student / friend / brother’s) love language. We don’t often tell each other, ‘I love you.’”

Well, love is an emotion. And when we understand how someone communicates an emotion such as love, we can better understand how they express anger, sadness, pain, joy, and the full spectrum of emotions. This is so helpful when building relationships and rapport with individuals with developmental disabilities because it allows us to identify their triggers and know what behavior interventions and supports to put in place. Additionally, when we realize a behavior stems from an unmet need, we can more effectively interact and connect with that child or individual.

Determining the primary love language of an individual with a developmental disability is as simple as tuning into their behaviors while asking some key questions. Notice their level of reaction or engagement to each of the aspects of the five love languages described below.

For example, if your loved one with a developmental disability tends to show a higher level of positive response when you compliment them versus when you attempt to help them with a task, their primary love language could be “Words of Affirmation.” On the other hand, if your loved one tends to get triggered when others touch them, it’s likely that physical touch is not their primary love language.

Words of Affirmation

How does your loved one with autism react to:

– Verbal praise
– Written notes
– Checklists / token reinforcement systems

Words of Affirmation Action Steps:

1. Repeat what they verbalize or what you think they are trying to communicate, even when you’re unsure of what they’re saying.

For example, if a nonverbal child is repeatedly pointing to a picture, try saying, “You’re right, that’s such a cool picture!” Then gage their reaction. Repetition shows you are listening, which in turn builds trust that it’s safe for them to communicate with you.

2. Always speak to them through choices, frontloading of schedules, etc.

Those that value words of affirmation value words, so even if you are not always getting a response when you offer snack choices or talk about schedules, please don’t let that discourage you. It all adds up over time!

3. Provide verbal praise immediately after positive behaviors that identifies the desired behavior.

Use statements like, “[Name], I love the way you put your dishes in the sink and cleaned up your table by yourself, you’re so awesome!”

Acts of Service

How does your loved one with autism respond to:

– Assistance with tasks (homework, chores, daily living, etc.)
– Situations that require them to ask for help

Acts of Service Action Steps:

1. If they have difficulty asking for help, remind them you are there to help if they need it.

It sounds simple, but even as adults we have difficulty admitting when we need help with something, so the reminder can take the edge off for those individuals with anxious tendencies. This can be done when they’re tying their shoes, sitting down to do homework, or heating up food in the microwave.

2. Assist with non-preferred or difficult tasks without doing it for them.

Trust me, I know it can be so hard not to intervene when a loved one with a developmental disability struggles with a task. Just remember, you’re servicing them tenfold when you assist rather than take over! So for example, if their household chore is to wipe tables and counters, grab a towel and tell them you’re going to wipe down the chairs because they’re making the tables look so dang shiny. Sometimes that’s the little show of support they need to see a task through.

3. Ask them for help.

Flip the tables and make them feel needed and valued! If your hands are full, ask them to open the door and give a gracious, “thank you.” If they’re tech savvy, have them help you with a task on the computer. Children and individuals with disabilities need and deserve to see our own vulnerabilities, as well as how their acts of service are of use to us in daily life.

Receiving Gifts

How does your loved one with autism behave:

-Around holidays or birthdays
-When working for reinforcers and/or rewards
-When they give something to you or others

Receiving Gifts Actions Steps:

1. Allow them to pick their own reinforcers.

Allowing an individual with a developmental disability to choose what they are earning — whether after completing work at school or after finishing chores at home — helps them feel empowered and valued. Just remember to set expectations (i.e. “First finish this math problem, then you can play Minecraft!”) so they know what needs to happen in order to receive their preferred reward.

2. Make a big deal.

Sometimes the hype and the recognition is better than the material gifts themselves. If it’s their birthday month, put a countdown on the calendar for everyone to see. When it’s the big day, ask if they want to pick out a special outfit or if they want you to tell people. Make them feel like it’s truly a day worth celebrating, because it is.

3. Start a holiday or birthday tradition.

Whether it’s Christmas or a friend’s birthday, have them help you decorate, put together a gift bag, or sign a card. Yes, these days can be stressful, but those who value this love language want to experience joy in the togetherness and the unfolding!

Physical Touch

How does your loved one with autism respond to:

-Proximity: when standing or sitting
-Affection: kisses, hugs, etc.

Physical Touch Actions Steps:

1. Give them sensory breaks.

Children and adults with developmental disabilities whose primary love language is physical touch, may also have sensory processing disorder (SPD). While SPD needs vary from person to person, sensory breaks provide appropriate access to touch to regulate their senses. Sensory breaks can include shoulder squeezes, wheelbarrows, brushes, chews, and more.

2. Let them pick who they are with.

Whether they are picking what team they’d like to be on or who they are sitting next to on the couch, allowing them to choose who’s in their proximity makes them feel happy and heard. Just make sure to review appropriate touch expectations beforehand.

3. Greet them with high-five’s or handshakes.

If physical touch is their love jam, then a secret handshake, a high-five, thumbs up, or even a wave will be more meaningful and fun for them then a simple “hi.”

Quality Time

How does your loved one with autism react when:

-They have your undivided attention
-It’s free time and they can choose to do what they want
-Engaging in small and large groups

Quality Time Actions Steps:

1. Set aside five minutes of quality time per day, doing an activity they love, for one week.

Whether you’re doing puzzles, looking at world maps, listening to the latest bachata hits on YouTube, or drawing Thomas the Train characters, I promise that your undivided attention means the world to them. You’ll learn about them, they’ll learn about you, and you’ll become a wealth of random knowledge and fun stories.

2. Engage them in small and large group activities.

If they have a tendency to disengage in larger groups, make sure they feel included by asking if they want to join in the activity or helping facilitate them in conversation. When possible, insert them into peer conversations to help them build on social skills that may be difficult for them to cultivate on their own.

3. Teach them how to be present.

Remember that you’re their constant teacher and they’re looking to you as an example. If you’re watching a movie with them, put your phone away. If you’re speaking to them, turn towards them and give them eye contact. If they are talking and someone begins talking over them, politely ask for the interrupter to wait until they are finished communicating. Try to detach from the desire to rush through your days, and see how it benefits both you and the individual with a developmental disability.

What’s your child’s love language? Tell us in the comments.

A version of this story originally appeared

Photo credit: Paperkites/Getty Images

Originally published: April 17, 2020
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