Listen, I know gratitude lists are sacrosanct in mental health. Everyone touts the mood boosting benefits of taking daily time to write down the things you are grateful for. They’re even scientific studies to back up these claims.
How could a little bit of gratitude possibly be bad?
When a gratitude list is given as a prescriptive measure within a mental health setting, it comes with some unspoken assumptions.
It immediately puts the locus of control for one’s mood on the person. It implies, “If you just changed your perspective, you’d feel better.” Sometimes this is true. Sometimes, a change in perspective is a great momentary measure to feel better. However, it is not a long-term solution to feel better.
Many late-identified autistics struggled their entire lives with feelings of exhaustion, mood swings, and overwhelming thoughts and emotions. They can’t quite make sense of why they are so tired by the end of the day, or why little things annoy them so much.
A gratitude list isn’t going to change that.
Feeling better starts with understanding WHY you feel the way you do. Many autistics feel the way they do because of their sensory overwhelm, pushing past their energetic capacities, struggling to fit into neuronormative culture, and not having a daily structure that honors their needs.
Once a person understands these factors, they can begin to make changes that improve their lives. They can avoid or limit their exposure to items and places that cause sensory overwhelm. They can structure their day to honor their energy expenditure. They can name and shirk the harmful neurotypical norms that don’t work for them.
Trouble is, many unidentified autistics know none of the above. They go to therapists, desperately seeking help to feel better.
When they are told to write a gratitude list, they will dutifully do it. It might help them in the moment, but five minutes later their brain will be flooded with new thoughts and emotions. They’ll still experience the same sensory and energetic overwhelm. They’ll still feel exhausted by the end of their day.
When their therapist asks how their daily gratitude practice is going, they’ll feel embarrassed and broken yet again. They wrote the list, but it didn’t work. Self-shaming thoughts can easily invade their heads: Why does nothing seem to work? Why am I like this? Why can’t I just get better??
How do I know this? I’ve been there. I was that unidentified autistic desperately trying to get better.
Therapists aren’t the enemy here. They’re trying their best to help. I’ve even been that therapist that suggests gratitude lists.
Now that I understand autism far better, I know gratitude lists are a good temporary boost, but certainly not what is needed for long-term improvement.