Christmas on the Spectrum: 5 Tips that will UP your gift-giving game

It’s gifting season!

I have never not appreciated a gift given to my son with autism. But what I have done is nervously watched him open the gift and whisked it away from him as invisibly and politely as possible with the full intention of never letting him see it again.

I know that’s not the response you’re hoping for as a giver.

If you have something in mind already, you’re probably thinking, this is a total rockstar gift. I absolutely found the perfect thing; she’s going to love it. That might be true. But, as the parent of a child with autism, I beg you to hear a family member’s perspective. This is not about parents having to endure a repetitive and mildly annoying song coming from a toy over and over again, like most parents.

The wrong gift can actually cause damage to an autistic child’s desperately hard-earned progress.

So, even if you are more confident about the gift you have in mind than anything you’ve ever been confident about ever, please read.

Christmas on the Spectrum collage

Over the years, my immediate and extended family has totally mastered the art of giving gifts to my spectrum kiddo, but it took some time and some uncomfortable conversations getting there. I’d love to spare you those talks, so please bear in mind these 5 guidelines when buying for a child with autism.

1. Talk to the parents, and respect their wishes 100%. 

When William was a toddler, it was toy vehicles.

We asked that people look for other things to buy, even though he expressed such interest in vehicles. But it wasn’t because we had too many or because they annoyed me. In fact, he even loved being given these types of toys.

But every time he used to get a new toy vehicle, he would lose at least half his social skills. He couldn’t walk away from it. Instead of working on learning a game with his sister, or being tickled by his grandpa, or even doing something as simple as sitting down to eat his lunch, he would lie on the floor and spin the wheels and push the buttons over and over. Even if you managed to get him away from the toy, he couldn’t focus on anything else. Sometimes it would take days to get him back.

This is not a “look how much he loves it!” scenario. This is bad. This is very bad. And it would definitely continue in this way until we hid the toy.

Thankfully, that anti-truck season of our lives is over for the time being. These things can and do change–another reason it’s important to talk to the parents, and to do it every time.

2. Appeal to his strengths–not his obsessions. You might find your mind wandering to things that he gets a kick out of. Those things are usually obsessions, like William’s vehicle problem. So try this.

Think about what you’ve seen him do. Does he find music soothing? Does he know how to tie his shoes? Does he color and draw well?

Buy a cd, get a pair of fancy lace-up shoes (no light-ups, please), pick up art supplies or a coloring book.

Believe me–a child with autism is often very, very frustrated because she feels like she can’t do things that are easy for everyone else. If she has an activity she can work on that she’s good at; if she can practice a skill that she actually has, you might really see her perk up.

It’s beautiful. Truly.

3. Look for problem-solving toys. Puzzles, games, building blocks, Legos, engineering kits like this one…all of these are good ideas. You might not get the same “Wow, awesome!” reaction when she opens it, but this type of gift is more of an investment–a toy the child ends up having a longer relationship with. Sometimes it can take up to a year for a kid to really love an unfamiliar toy or game. But ultimately, toys like this can create a love for engineering, or build them a much-needed hobby like puzzle working. And there is no shortage of challenging puzzles in the world.

4. Depending on the child’s current skills, consider pretend-play toys. This is an incredibly crucial skill that therapists work on with almost all kids, because it ends up being a social skill. Pretending is hard for people on the spectrum, because many of them tend to be very literal. Melissa and Doug is a brand I love, and I would highly recommend products like this house-cleaning pretend set, this set of pancakes, a pretend mailbox, or this adorable fire chief dress-up set that we got as a gift (and it gets used all the time, years later).

5. Don’t forget sensory and body-engaging products. Swings, trampolines, slides, sit and spins (this style or this one), wobble decks like this one, tunnels, and chew jewelry have all been known to calm and increase focus in kids with autism. Which one will be effective depends on the kid and his specific needs, so ask the parents what their child might like.

6. Talk to the parents. Again. Are you sure? I mean I already did this, and I really understood them. Yep, I mean this with my whole heart.

What this does is it gives the parent veto power without having to simultaneously deal with their child’s reaction. There may be an exception they didn’t think to mention in your last conversation, or maybe something changed in their child since you talked.


Take it from me–these considerations will make you a superior gift giver. The child will maintain his progress, he’ll love the gift, and parents will thank you.

And really, that’s all we’re after, anyway.


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