I was so proud when one of my recently-graduated students with autism got a job at his family-run jewelry store. When I visited him there, he was the only one working, and a few customers were browsing.
I was interested in purchasing a necklace, so he took out a few large trays of jewelry which attracted the other customers.
When he stepped away to retrieve something from the back room, he left these trays unattended.
Upon his return, I asked him if he felt there was anything wrong with this scenario. His response indicated that he did not think it possible that someone could have stolen some items, nor did he realize this jewelry’s great value.
My former student didn’t fully understand the concept of ‘value.’ A bill or a coin, just like the shiny metals and stones at the jewelry store, has no value or use until it’s time to exchange it for something we want or need.
In comparison to a physical need or want, the value of money and jewelry can’t directly be ingested like an apple to resolve one’s hunger or transformed into a cushy mattress when exhausted.
Often, people may think that people with autism fully understand the value of money simply because they learned about it in school. This is not always the case.
Mathematics and currency denominations are far different than truly understanding the practical concept of the application what money represents.
So, if your child with autism struggles with judging the value of money and goods to satisfy his or her own unique wants and needs, here are some techniques to help:
Does Money Grow on Trees?
To empower your child with a better concept of money, start at the root — literally! To really catch your child’s attention and make a point, go to a gardening store and look at the various seeds that can grow into plants or trees. Ask your child to find the seed that can grow into a money tree. When he gives you a strange look —because of course he knows that money can’t be grown — ask him, “Where does money come from?” Ultimately, your child will probably answer you with, “the bank,” or “the ATM.”
You can then dig deeper with, “Yes, Mom and Dad put the money in the bank/ATM, but where did we get that money from?” Your child will probably answer, “your jobs,” or “at work.” You can explain that a ‘job’ is called ‘work’ because one’s body is moving while one’s mind is thinking instead of playing or relaxing.
Since the boss can’t do these jobs or tasks by herself, she needs you and other ‘workers’ to work for her. Explain to your adult child that for every task that is completed, the boss gives the worker money. So, for doing work, which is usually less fun than relaxing or playing, your boss will pay you money.
Money is of No Value Unless It’s Put to Good Use
Requiring your child to use his earned money for leisure and necessary items is key. Ask your child what she thinks will happen if she goes to a restaurant and asks for food without having any money. Or, what if she tries to buy a coat for the cold winter at a store without money?
Before your child earns any money, its value has to be understood. One way to do this is to make analogies between money and food. For example, when you are hungry, food is the most valued thing you desire.
When we feel starved, we want to consume a lot of food to fill our empty bellies. When we’re only a little bit hungry, on the other hand, we eat a smaller amount.
Along the same lines, some items that we want to purchase ‘eat up’ or cost a large amount of money, and other items consume just a little money. Sweets can be compared to valuables like gold or any other very expensive item. Although we want to eat lots of sweets (or buy a lot of pricey things) because they are highly desirable, we are only allowed a small amount. If we eat too many sweets, we get sick and then we cannot eat healthy foods that our bodies need to grow. If we buy too many expensive items, we will not have enough money for the things we need every day.
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Plan Ahead for How to Spend Earned Money
There has to be a need — similar to the feeling of hunger — to use money. Make a list of what your child needs to purchase versus what she wants. The ‘needs’ list may include items like a bathing suit for an upcoming vacation, his lunch, or a new warm blanket for winter. Compare this with items on his ‘wants’ list, which may have items like a new video game or a remote-controlled airplane.
Alongside the items on the list, have your child write down how much she thinks the items are ‘worth.’ Then, look through magazines, catalogs, or online to see and write down and compare the actual ‘costs.’
As an extension activity, make ‘price tags’ for each and every item possible in the house, especially within your child’s room. Ask her to write down how much she thinks each item costs. Then, with a marker, cross out that value and write the true value. [You may wish to show proof by showing a credit card bill or a store receipt]
In anticipation of earning money, help your child create a make-shift ‘bank’ or ‘ATM’ for storage. Give your child an empty shoe box with dividers for organizing 20, 10, 5, and 1-dollar bills. Use empty egg carton halves to separate coin denominations. Since your child will start off with no money, he should continuously log how much he earns and spends into a ‘bank book,’ which would simply be a notebook.
House Chores and/or Employment
You can make a chart of daily house chores (using language like “jobs” or “work”) from which your child can choose to get paid by you for doing. Unpleasant chores or those that take more time will earn slightly more money. Highlight the fact that payment is typically higher when the work is harder or takes more time.
Providing uneven wages will help improve your child’s mathematic skills. For instance, perhaps offer a wage of $0.53 for bringing in the newspaper from outside; $1.14 for folding the laundry; $2.78 for scrubbing the floor. Non-work-related tidiness that is expected as a member of the household, like putting shoes away or putting dirty dishes in the sink, would not earn any money. If your adult child has gainful employment, cash some of her paycheck for her make-shift bank at home so that she can manipulate the bills and coins.
As an extension activity, look at a calendar alongside the chart of choice chores. Together, calculate the wages from the intended chores to predict the date when enough money will have been earned to purchase the desired item.
Waste Not, Want Not
Warn your child as much as possible of the consequences of spending money on ‘wants’ without leaving enough money to cover his ‘needs.’ As in the analogy of eating too many sweets discussed above, point out how to calculate and ‘save’ money to use it to buy even more items within a shorter amount of time.
Compare prices from two different stores. Using index cards, glue the pictures with the prices from different stores. On a large piece of paper with three columns, ask your child to find and glue the ‘more expensive’ one in the first column and the ‘cheaper’ one in the second column. In the third column, show your child how to subtract the prices to come up with the difference of how much she has saved. Add this amount of money towards another desired item on her list. In this way, she will learn the true need of prioritizing and budgeting.
The Ultimate Payoff
It’s never too late to teach your child with autism about the value of money. Even some adults who do not have special needs continue to learn, improve, and experience the power of money. Money and valuable items are one of the ‘languages’ that adults use to communicate with others in society, which gives us independence as well as brings us closer together.
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This article was featured in Issue 49 – Understanding the People We Love