Christmas gift giving can be difficult, stressful, even emotionally painful, for friends and family of a youth with autism and/or developmental disability. A giver wants to please the gift recipient, and feels badly if the response to the gift is not a happy one. Most kids love presents, then there is N. My son typically does not want to have anything to do with a present. We have to practically trick him into removing the wrapping paper, and often he does not fall for the trick. Many times I end up opening it, and N won’t even look at it. I feel badly for those who went to the trouble of trying to find something N would like. And the truth is, I don’t think he ever will like Christmas, or presents. I think it is important to warn people that they can expect the unexpected when giving N a gift – in a range from complete disinterest to terror.
There are a few reasons for the negative reaction of N to his Christmas gifts.
First of all he does not like surprises and a Christmas present is a surprise in a box covered with busy shiny colourful and unfamiliar paper. A surprise is by definition a deviation from normal routine. A dislike of surprises, even good ones, stems from his need for structure, routine and sameness in order to function. To add to that N does not like the surprise arrival of gift givers at the house. He does not understand the change in his people environment, the presence of family and friends to celebrate the season. We try to prepare him verbally and with pecs, “Uncle D is coming today” but he does not really know why or when. So the arrival of gift givers also can upset him, adding further disappointment for the gift givers. Gift giving is driven by social rules and cultural expectations which N does not understand. He does not have the ability to show gratitude when he does not feel it. Although, he can say “thank you” if prompted.
Secondly, the sensory deluge brought on by Christmas makes it harder for him to participate. It is the perfect storm of sensory overload: there are too many twinkling lights, too much shiny paper, sparkling tinsel, decorations, music, scented candles, food smells, trees in the house, people, hugs, kisses, rich food, excitement. It is too much for N to process all the sensory experiences let alone open his presents. For N, Christmas is SO NOT the most wonderful time of the year.
So don’t sweat the gift. He might not want to open it – that is OK – he will open it later when there is less going on. He might open it with your encouragement, and then quickly throw it away, or even flee – because of his limited abilities in the circumstances. It is not that he does not like the gift, but rather he is overwhelmed.
With those caveats in mind I have found a few simple rules for giving presents to those like my son N at Christmas. I summarize them as the Top 5 Christmas ideas for a youth with autism/DD:
- Less is More. Christmas will be easier for my son if there are fewer presents under the tree. With our other kids we try to do “equal number of gifts” because they are aware of who got more and who got less. They may or may not grasp who got the most money spent on them, but the key is perceived equality so that there will be peace on earth. N however has no concept of equality relative to his brothers, and no awareness of how much money we spent. He just does not want surprises, so less is more.
- Focus on Single Sense or Preferred Sense Gifts. N’s preferred sense is “smell”. He also now likes smells with tactile properties. So this year he is getting a collection of hand creams from Bath and Body Works. Not “cool” for a guy? He doesn’t care and neither should you, the giver. What matters is, which sense is most appreciated. Often it is music. When it is – then life is easy – give iTunes gift cards and they will love you forever.
- Avoid Traditional Toys. We don’t buy toys for our son based on developmental age. While he may be developmentally 18 months he is actually 14 years old and it is not reasonable to expect him to want to play with “Fisher Price Go Baby Go Crawl Along Snail”. I have noticed that there are too many developmental assumptions already built into toys, even for the youngest babies. For whatever reason, these assumptions are incorrect for my son and I suspect we are not alone.
- Simplify. A bag full of rocks is more interesting than a bag full of riches. You don’t really need to go shopping for a Christmas present. You have things in your house that would be pleasant for a youth like my son to explore. You could put a collection of shiny objects from around the house in a shoebox. What a great present!.
- Give Practical Gifts. A gift that can be related to daily life is more likely to be appreciated than an abstract gift. So where the other boys on your list don’t want clothes, your autistic kid relative probably would be pleased to find a shirt or pants inside the wrapped box, because he would understand what it is.
Good luck with your gift giving to the autistic youth on your list. Remember – think outside the box, always keep an open mind, don’t judge or take anything personally. Remember that we all do not see from the same set of eyes and therefore there is no incorrect response to Christmas.