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Smiling When There Are Learning Differences

Updated: Feb 8

By Karen Kaplan


A smile connects two people or more. It is a sparkle to most. It can be a thank you, a hello, and a goodbye. A smile often indicates a “yes.”


A smile is an I-gotcha moment. It is not just a turning up at the corners of the mouth. It is a non-verbal language action expressing fun, warmth, satisfaction, joy, acceptance, and thank you.


Learning and practicing non-verbal gestures can be valuable. It's important to note that fine/gross motor skills and/or apraxia can make it more challenging to smile, so please never pressure anyone to do so.


Here are some creative ways to encourage smiling when someone can benefit from added support and guidance surrounding non-verbal language:

  1. Put your detective hat on and observe. Capture an image of them smiling and what makes them smile and make an album. Go through the album and point to smiling, point to what they are smiling at, and label the images. For example, “You look happy in this picture, you like _____, you enjoy ____. You are happy in this picture. This activity or person makes you feel happy.”

  2. When you read aloud, point out faces and their smiles, then ask them to find smiles in the book. Do not forget to ask them why the person is smiling; ask them to show you what or who makes them happy.

  3. At a café or restaurant, you might point out that the barista or server smiled when they said hello. You might remind them, before they go into the café, to smile at the person helping them if they are comfortable doing so.

  4. When grandma or aunty comes over for a visit, point out the smiles on their faces when they arrive. Remind them to smile when they see a family member if they want to. Tell them how happy it may make their grandpa or grandma feel.

  5. Find books and films of their favorite characters. Draw their attention to when their favorite comic individual is smiling.

  6. Teach them to invite friends over and greet them at the door with a smile. Then talk about how that smile can transcend.

  7. For those who enjoy art, ask them to draw all kinds of faces with smiles. Have them draw next to the faces what makes those face drawings happy, joyful, and grateful.

  8. Have them draw different kinds of smiles. Cut them out and glue those smiles on blank faces.

  9. Take out the mirror or when they are in the bathroom washing up, do some modeling of smiles and have them copy back.

  10. If you have dress-up clothes or costumes, dress up and have their characters react with different smiles. You can add other non-verbal gestures as well.

Always acknowledge when you see smiling. Praise them for smiling when greeting a friend, when people they enjoy are visiting, and when they are in the community connecting to others. Don’t forget to show your smile as well!

Karen Kaplan, MS, is a native San Franciscan. She completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, in speech pathology and audiology. She minored in special education and obtained her speech therapist and special education credentials in California. Karen worked as a speech therapist for schools for 20 years before opening her own residential and education program for students with autism. She worked in credential programs at Sacramento State University as well as UC Davis and spent 20 years directing private schools for those with autism and similar learning challenges.


Karen founded a non-profit, Offerings, which helps cultures globally to understand those with developmental challenges. For seven years, she founded and facilitated an autism lecture series and resource fair in Northern California. Karen still facilitates an annual Autism Awesomeness event. She is currently consulting, helping families, schools, and centers for children, teens, and adults. Karen has authored three books: Reach Me Teach Me: A Public School Program for the Autistic Child; A Handbook for Teachers and Administrators, On the Yellow Brick Road: My Search for Home and Hope for the Child with Autism, and Typewriting to Heaven… and Back: Conversations with My Dad on Death, Afterlife and Living (which is not about autism but about having important conversations with those we love).



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