Valentine’s Day is a special time of the year to pause and express love to those who are close to us. Communicating this love to each person in our lives takes a unique form. According to Dr. Gary Chapman, author of The 5 Love Languages®, everyone expresses and receives love in a unique way. Children with autism are no different!
In my eight years of working with children with an autism diagnosis, I have loved the challenge of finding ways to “reinforcer pair” with them. This is applied behavior analytic talk for “loving them in their own unique way.” For some children, this looks as simple as providing them with their favorite toy. For others, this can entail months of chasing them with hand puppets, blasting them up like a rocket, and working up a sweat to evoke one heartful giggle.
As parents and caregivers of children with autism, we do the work of finding ways to show love to our kids—and they return the love tenfold. Just like any relationship, it is always helpful to reflect on new ways to express our affection.
Using the wisdom of The 5 Love Languages®, here are a few ideas for expressing love this Valentine’s Day:
1.) Words of affirmation: Many children with autism are visual learners and thus respond well to pictures, videos, and written words over spoken words of affirmation. Consider creating a photo book with pictures of significant memories with your child and a few words to describe each memory (https://www.shutterfly.com/photo-books/kids-photo-books).
2.) Physical touch: Children with autism seek sensory input in a myriad of ways. Some enjoy the physical touch of loved ones through hugs, tickles, cuddles, and kisses. Others find more enjoyment in the sensory input from the physical environment in which we live. This Valentine’s Day, if Michigan winter allows, try spending time outdoors with your child exploring the cold snow. For extra sensory input, take food coloring with you and watch a winter wonderland turn into modern art!
3.) Quality time: Our children receive demands all day long— “get dressed,” “clean up,” “do this,” “do that,” etc. As adults, it is challenging for us to spend time with a child without placing any demands. Perhaps this is the gift we can offer our child this Valentine’s Day—one hour of praise, imitation, attention, and freedom to be exactly who they are in that moment.
4.) Receiving gifts: Although chocolate and a teddy bear may be the perfect gift for some kids on Valentine’s Day, a beautiful gift for any child is the gift of a new experience. Considering your child’s interests and preferences, you could take your child to a sensory friendly movie, bake cookies from scratch, complete a science experiment, visit an indoor trampoline park, or explore the various children’s museums in Michigan.
5.) Acts of service: As a twist, the recommendation for this category does not directly involve the child. As parents and caregivers of children with special needs, much of our time is spent caring for others. To give from a fuller cup, try scheduling time for self-care this Valentine’s Day. Just 10 minutes of meditation is linked to decreased anxiety, physical pain, and even cardiovascular disease.
Remember, “The number of ways to express love within a love language is limited only by your imagination” (Chapman). Let your creativity soar this Valentine’s Day!