Gratitude: How to Show the Perfect Amount

Another one of my autistic son’s special talents

Young man holding mug
Image by author. Used with Diego’s permission.

“People are programmed to desire, not to appreciate.” Matt Ridley, in The Rational Optimist

My autistic son Diego sure is great at many things most people never learn how to do well, including saying “no”, apologizing, forgiving, doing favors, and showing gratitude.

Then again, Diego’s wired a tad differently than the average human when it comes to relationships.

Diego’s “faulty” design comes with things like being loud and talking non-stop at times, an inability to have a regular conversation, being rigid about the location of every single thing, and driving me crazy now and then. It also comes with astounding features, however. Being programmed for gratitude is one such feature.

Here are some ways Diego perfectly displays gratitude, which you can adapt to your own life and style:

  1. He describes what he’s thankful for. “Thanks for making brownies with me.”
  2. He randomly thanks you when he talks about something he’s happy about and in which you had some involvement in the past. “I like my bookshelves. Thanks for helping me organize my books.” I helped him organize and label the shelves some months ago. When Diego mentions his books, he usually slips in gratitude for what I did.
  3. Diego remembers who gifted him what and often loves the item just because you gave it to him. He’ll say, for instance, “Tia Margot gave me this mug in 2013.” Or, “I’ll pack the lion shirt Nonna gave me in 2016.”
  4. Diego’s gratitude is wholly unrelated to the monetary value of a gift. He knows things cost money for sure, but he’ll never get “supply and demand,” or why anyone would value a Baccarat pear sculpture over a Batman figurine.
  5. Diego’s gratitude comes with no strings attached. You know he doesn’t know or think to correspond with an equivalent item or action. It works the other way around too. Diego doesn’t expect the return of a favor or gift. He delights in serving and giving.

Here’s a prime example of Diego’s innate gratefulness.

When Diego and his brother Andres were teenagers (15 and 13 years old I reckon), my husband came back from a trip to Italy bringing a pair of pants for each of us as a gift.

The pants came from the equivalent of a J. Crew chain, and the look was different from what we were used to. We immediately tried them. Andres and I didn’t really like how our pair fit, which we conveyed in a manner that was not quite right.

I mean, I dont remember us being rude, just skipping the part about appreciating the gesture and saying something along the lines of “Hmm, I don’t like how these look on me.” My husband (his name’s Cesar) was exceedingly hurt at my total lack of gratitude.

He didn’t really expect Diego and Andres to know better. But me? He couldn’t get over how I’d so tactlessly rejected a gift he’d brought all the way back from Milan, the fashion capital of the world no less.

Yeah, I was bad that day. A bad partner, bad role model, bad human.

The ironic part is that Andres and I both ended up loving the pants, so much so that, once he couldn’t wear them as pants anymore because his legs had gotten so long, Andres turned them into cutoff shorts.

By contrast, Diego, who’s also cognitively challenged, liked the pants from the moment he got them. He doesn’t get fit and look when it comes to clothes really, but he totally sensed what’s important:

  • His dad adores him, and he loves his dad.
  • His dad was excited to have gotten him a cool pair of pants.
  • His dad had been thinking about him while he was away on his business trip.

After watching our little drama unfold and conclude, Diego stated, sweetly and disarmingly “Dad, I do like the pants. Thank you.” Diego knew to be grateful for his dad’s love, not for a freaking pair of pants.

I’m not saying I had to tell Cesar that I loved the pants and had never seen such a perfectly-tailored pair in my life. But I could’ve shown gratitude, even profuse gratitude for his thoughtfulness to compensate for the fact that I didn’t like the gift itself.

“People are programmed to desire, not to appreciate,” notes journalist and businessman Matt Ridley in The Rational Optimist, his best-selling book about human progress and the factors behind it.

Diego’s an exception to this human tendency. He desires and appreciates equally. We’d all be way more fulfilled if, like Diego, we were equally programmed for both.

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