We assume that everyone enjoys receiving a gift, especially kids. Yet many parents report that getting a gift causes fear and anxiety in their children with autism. Simply put, it just is not fun for them. Rather than bubbling with excitement, they face increasing anxiety over the unknown. They fear opening a gift when they don’t know what’s under the paper. They truly hate surprises, even good ones. They may be uncertain about how to respond to the gift. Or they may worry about disappointment if the gift isn’t their one desired item. It’s more than enough to push our kids on the spectrum over the edge to a meltdown.
Holidays, birthdays, and celebrations … all represent a challenging change in schedules and environment. Do we really want to add more anxiety just because gifts should be wrapped, we want our loved ones to be surprised, or because that’s what tradition dictates? If your child shows stress and difficult behaviors over receiving gifts, maybe this is the year to explore new options. Rather than following traditions or expectations, let’s find ways to help kids with autism learn to enjoy getting gifts. Here are a few ideas to get you started. Use your well-honed parent radar to judge how each idea may/may not be suitable for your child.
Don’t keep secrets.
Let your child know what gifts he is receiving. This may be quite difficult as parents want their children to experience the magical joy of the holiday season, which includes delight as they open unknown presents. However, you can remove a lot of anxiety by telling them what gifts to expect. Giving hints without being specific may be enough for some children, and it can be made into a game. For example, let him guess which “category” a present is from. Simply knowing he’s getting a cartoon-related action figure may be enough to put his mind at ease.
Create a picture board showing the gifts.
Get a large piece of poster board in a color that fits the season or occasion. Cut the poster board into a fun shape, such as a large heart. Print or copy online images of the gifts she will receive and tape or glue them onto the poster board. This visual reminder of what gifts she can expect will remove fear of the unknown. Keep the picture board as a way to build memories and as a tool to remind her of the fun. PS. Surprisingly, some moms who tried this said it did not make their children want the presents right away. They were content to wait for the big day as long as they knew what to expect.
Find alternatives to gift wrap.
Skip the gift wrap or use gift bags without tissue paper. If you do use wrapping, don’t wind ribbon around the box, making it more frustrating to open. Instead of wrapping paper, use a card, picture or even simple shapes cut from construction paper and tape them on the gift. They won’t cover and hide the gift, but they’re fun and give the illusion of being wrapped.
Proactively discuss gifts with family and friends.
Don’t leave the door open to random gifts. Give people a list of items you know your child either likes or expects. Explain about your child’s special interests and assure them it’s ok to buy yet another train, dinosaur or whatever your child collects.
Prepare your child for unexpected gifts.
Write a social story teaching him how to respond and role play until he’s comfortable. Be prepared to deal with resistance to telling socially accepted “little white lies” about gifts he doesn’t like and work together to come up with responses that are truthful yet kind. Talk about what he can do with a gift he doesn’t like.
Consider their interests.
This seems like obvious advice, but holidays and birthdays often become prime time when family and friends think it’s “fun” to experiment with new gifts. While we all want to expand our children’s interests, high-anxiety occasions are not the best time to introduce new topics and toys.
Don’t forget unique events.
It’s easy to overlook the potential anxiety associated with typical yet infrequent events, like various holidays. Be sure to prepare in advance using picture cards, social stories, and schedules.
-Selection reprinted with permission from the 2010 revised edition of 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism or Asperger’s, by Ellen Notbohm and Veronica Zysk. Future Horizons, Inc., publisher.
This article is taken with permission from autismdigest.com, where readers can go online and, by signing in, can access free copies of the magazine’s eGuide, which is packed full of more information on holidays and gift giving for children on the spectrum. Article amended to fit any gift giving season.