Gift Giving & Autism: The One Golden Rule

With Christmas approaching with force, it’s time for us all to turn our minds to what we’ll be giving as gifts to the ones we love this year.

I know I personally find it very difficult to come up with the perfect gift solution for friends and family. Even if I feel I know the recipient well, it can be daunting trying to land on the perfect gift idea to show how much I care.

When autism is thrown into the mix, it can make it even harder to select the right gift for someone with intense, specific and sometimes very hard to buy for interests. To be honest, I struggle to even meet my son’s very detailed gift requirements, let alone other members of my wider family with autism.

However, all is not lost. There is one golden rule you should follow when considering gifts for a child with autism: ALWAYS ask their parent or caregiver for gift ideas before you buy.

Gift Giving & Autism -

Here are a few reasons why NOT asking for this information prior to giving the gift can be a very bad idea.

Gift Giving & Autism: Why you should ALWAYS ask for gift ideas first

Giving an age appropriate gift could be unwelcome

There are certain gifts in certain age brackets that seem always like a sure thing. For example, dolls for 3 – 7 year old girls and Lego for 6 – 12 year old boys are usually safe gift choices.

However, many kids on the autism spectrum don’t share the same age-appropriate interests as their peers. In fact, they often have intense and sometimes unusual preferences when it comes to gifts.

My son, for instance, has never been interested in toys. Ever. He has amassed quite the collection of unopened toys over the years. He is not interested in opening them to play with, yet will not let me give them to others who would enjoy them, as they were gifts given to him.

Depending on his mood, he may receive these gifts with seeming disinterest or become upset when he realises he has not received what he really wanted. Depending on the occasion, he may politely thank the gift giver despite his disappointment or become enraged they didn’t know what he really wanted. Because, in his mind, they should have known what he wanted.

If you are gift-giving to a child on the spectrum this year, take it from a parent who deals with this every year. Please, ALWAYS ask for gift ideas from a parent or caregiver before purchasing gifts, to avoid the chance of upset come Christmas Day.

Buying a gift for their special interest might cause them upset

I’m sure you are thinking you misread that heading. Surely purchasing a gift in line with a child’s special interest is what we SHOULD be doing?

Well, yes. Only if you ask for advice first.

You see, you may be thinking you are doing the right thing by buying them a Thomas the Tank Engine model train as Thomas has been their special interest for years. However, you may have inadvertently done one of the following things:

  • bought a duplicate model they already own
  • bought a model in the wrong range (this can be VERY important)
  • bought a model they do not want to own/have dismissed previously
  • bought a model that doesn’t match their existing collection
  • bought a model in the wrong number order (thus upsetting their collection)
  • bought a model online, thus not in it’s original packaging

See where I’m going here?

I learned this to my cost last year. My son wanted cricket DVDs so he could relive all the best moments of the matches he loved. The only problem? It’s impossible to purchase cricket DVDs of full matches – you can usually only buy DVDs of highlights of matches. I bought him a couple of DVDs that I thought he’d love, however he STILL hasn’t unwrapped the packaging nearly a year on because they are not the full matches he requested.

Make sure you find out EXACTLY what they would appreciate as a gift and coordinate with others to minimise the risk of duplication and/or upset.

The one golden rule for gift giving & autism -

A gift with lots of sounds, lights & movement may not be the best idea

There’s always a new toy each year with all the bells and whistles. They are pushed hard by toy companies who are desperate to attract kids of the internet generation. They typically make a lot of noise, have all sorts of lights and visuals, often move around in weird and wonderful ways and are almost always interactive.

These toys always set alarm bells off in my head as I know they are the recipe for sensory overwhelm for my kids.

When considering a gift for anyone on the spectrum, consider their sensory needs and preferences. If you don’t, you could overload their sensory system and unknowingly trigger a sensory meltdown.

My son cannot cope with toys that make any sort of sound. I still remember when he was a baby and we bought him an interactive Leap Frog learning bear. It had colours, lights and sounds, perfect for keeping a baby entertained and intrigued for hours.

He cried from the moment he saw it. In the end we had to give it away as he could not cope with it. Even now, he gets upset when we play music, videos or games without headphones. So the latest and greatest interactive toy would not be a good gift choice for him.

Always think twice about giving gifts that make noise, light up, move around or have a distinctive smell. If you are in doubt, talk to the parent or care giver to identify any triggers to avoid.

Gifts are often better than gift cards/vouchers/certificates

One thing I’ve learned about autism over the years, is the inability for many on the spectrum to understand abstract concepts.

My son, for instance, knows to expect presents on Christmas Day. Concrete, tangible presents which you can watch, play with or hold. Something that is missing from gift cards/vouchers/certificates.

Early on, after he received his first non-tangible gift card, we realised he didn’t understand that it was a real gift. He thought he had been “done over” by the gift giver. He was distraught as he could not initially grasp the concept that the gift card meant he could buy a gift of his own choosing.

Be very careful with gift cards/vouchers/certificates. It seems like a really logical way to give the hard-to-buy-for-person a gift they can truly appreciate. However, it can also bring on upset and disappointment if the recipient can’t get past the lack of immediate gift gratification that a present would normally provide.

Again, check first with their parent or care giver to make sure a gift card/voucher/certificate would be a welcome gift on Christmas Day.

Surprises are not always greeted with joy

My kids enjoy receiving presents and they don’t experience any trepidation or fear when given a surprise gift. However, that’s not the case for every child on the autism spectrum.

Many kids do not like surprises and will become upset and overwhelmed when given a wrapped present because they do not know what’s inside. They might not even want to go near the present and reject it completely because they are overcome with trepidation and worry at what it might contain.

Others feel anxious when opening presents in front of the gift giver due to the pressure to provide an appropriate response to them, even if the gift is unwelcome.

One way to get around both these issues is to give an unwrapped present, so the recipient can see exactly what it is, without the fear of an unwelcome surprise. You could also wrap the present in clear cellophane or place it unwrapped in a gift bag to achieve the same result.

In this way, the child will know exactly what they are receiving and will not experience unnecessary stress because of a possibly unwelcome surprise.

It’s another case of following the one golden rule – seek advice from the parent or care giver first to avoid unintentional upset and distress.

So that’s my golden rule when it comes to gift giving & autism – ALWAYS ask a parent or care giver for specific gift ideas before starting out on your Christmas gift shopping. It really is the best way to ensure a happy, festive and fun-filled Christmas Day.

If you’d like to find out more, feel free to check out my video below where I go through these points as part of my Challenge of the Week special needs parenting Facebook Live series:

Parenting Children with Special Needs

This post is part of a Parenting a Child with Special Needs blog hop where myself and other special needs bloggers share our thoughts on a set theme each month. This month’s theme is “best gifts.” I’d love for you to check out all the other posts linked up for this month!

Nutcracker Themed Gift Ideas for Kids | Every Star is Different

Gift Giving & Autism: The One Golden Rule | My Home Truths

Self-Care Gifts for Special Needs Parents | Life Over C’s

Best Gifts for the Autism Mom | This Outnumbered Mama

115+ Stocking Stuffer Ideas for Kids with Hyperlexia | And Next Comes L

Great Gifts for Children with Anxiety | Raising Lifelong Learners

Fun Gifts For Sensory Seeking Kids | 3 Dinosaurs

Best Sensory Swings for Kids| Parenting Chaos

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36 Responses

  1. Renee Wilson says:

    I can’t imagine how difficult it must be. Asking first is definitely a good idea. I did this recently when I bought a birthday present for an autistic child. The mother was very grateful.

  2. Lydia C. Lee says:

    This is a great post. I knew about the noise/lights but had never thought of the other stuff.

  3. So much of what you have shared I never realised, which is probably common f you do not have a child who needs a little more thought when buying gifts for.

    • Kirsty says:

      Raising awareness and getting the community to have a glimpse into our world is my purpose for the blog so I’m beyond glad that you’ve got so much out of this one Nat!

  4. As always, you teach me. With every one of your posts I become more and more aware. Thank you x o

  5. Jodi Gibson says:

    Such great advice Kirsty.

  6. I wouldn’t think to ask so great advice.

  7. Maxabella says:

    This is so insightful, Kirsty. I will always ask.

  8. Michelle says:

    I think the point about gift cards is really important because a lot of children with autism don’t understand and feel incredibly hurt and hard done by. Great tips.

    • Kirsty says:

      We’ve experienced that first hand ourselves. My boy enjoys receiving gift cards now but he really did struggle when he was first given one.

  9. Deborah says:

    Great ideas Kirsty as gift-giving is complex even without added challenges. If I’m not sure I always check with parents – though fortunately I don’t have to worry about it too often – buying for my niece when she was little and now for a friend’s 5yr old.
    Deborah recently posted..When our priorities surprise us

  10. This is a fantastic guide of gift giving ideas! I think it is important to always check with all parents first, it is the simplest way to get it right. and when giving gifts you certainly want to make the recipient feel special.

  11. I too never thought to ask, so thanks for the heads up on this. So important to get it right! #teamIBOT

  12. I often ask parents/carers what to buy for their kids and as a rule, never buy noisy toys, but thanks for making me aware of how to be a good gift giver to a child with autism. These are top tips!

  13. Tina says:

    Great post Kirsty although sometimes I don’t even have the answers!! Joseph’ list went something like this when I asked him. I then realised he doesn’t actually understand the meaning of the question and rattled off a list of transportation he had seen on youtube! #SpectrumSunday

    Underground train
    Freight train
    Steam train
    Propeller plane
    Human powered aircraft
    Naval Vessel
    Oil Tanker
    Police Car
    Fire Engine
    Garbage Truck
    School Bus
    Quad Bike

    • Kirsty says:

      Clearly I don’t have all the answers either Tina, given the mistake I made with my son last year! Wow, that is a huge list of transportation options – Joseph might not know what your question meant but he certainly knows his stuff!

  14. Renae Eddy says:

    I LOVE this!!! I found myself giggling at your examples and just giggling as I thought about our experiences with the kiddos over the years. We do wish lists for each of the kiddos in our family available on the blog actually. That way grandparents, aunts, and uncles etc. can make sure they’re getting the right thing. Lol. At first grandparents were kind of leary about it, but now… They can’t live without it. I can’t wait to share this!

    • Kirsty says:

      That’s such a good idea Renae – I’ve never thought of sharing their wish list on the blog before, but I can see how it could help the wider family come up with the right gift choices. Thanks for sharing that with me!!!

  15. Cindy@YKOT says:

    What an insightful article! Thank you for sharing your experience. This will be so helpful to so many!

  16. Amy says:

    What an interesting read, I’d have never thought to ask but after reading this it seems the obvious thing to do. It must be so difficult.
    Amy recently posted..Christmas Frozen Yogurt Bark

    • Kirsty says:

      It can be tricky but it’s so much better when you have a good idea of how the child may react to certain situations!

  17. Eldest pretty much has to know what he’s getting. He will tell people if the gift is rubbish and that’s not good for anyone! Thanks for linking to #spectrumsunday
    Rainbows are too beautiful recently posted..Madeupmilestones: Upside Mum and the school show

  1. December 27, 2016

    […] of being a fun and joyful time, receiving gifts can be a source of stress and anxiety for many kids with special needs. For some kids, it can be […]

  2. December 18, 2017

    […] shared before the challenges we face when it comes to Christmas as an autism family. Gift giving can be a minefield, sensory overwhelm can derail the most longed-for outing and the traditional […]

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