Help! I have no idea what to buy as a gift for my child with autism. Often, I have searched for and found what I consider to be the perfect (or at least an adequate) gift, only to discover that my child has no interest in the gift. Any suggestions?
This is a great question – and a common question. Parents of children with autism frequently encounter the challenge of finding birthday and/or holiday gifts which will actually be used. As a starting point, there are a few considerations to keep in mind. First, the age listings on packages are only recommended guidelines – and these guidelines are rarely an accurate match for children with autism. You not only need to keep in mind the developmental level of the child but also the common interests of the child. For example, a 10-year-old child with autism might be extremely interested in Sesame Street toys – toys that are typically at the recommended age for toddlers and preschoolers.
A gift is intended to bring pleasure to the recipient. Do not feel badly about giving an older child a gift with a theme originally intended for a much younger child. Receiving a gift that captures their attention is much more likely to result in happiness than choosing an age-appropriate gift with a theme unknown to the child. For example, your 8 year-old girl with autism might be much more attracted to a Blues Clues present than a High School Musical-themed present. You also want to buy something that is at the child’s current learning level – not beyond it. Otherwise, the child will simply become frustrated and will not find pleasure in the gift.
Children with autism often love to play alone. You might hit the jackpot if you find a toy which the child can use by himself – or perhaps a toy that can be used alone as well as with a social partner, such as a train set or building blocks. The possibilities are endless for building, matching and sorting materials, available at all levels with a variety of themes. For example, there are many toys and objects available that have letters and numbers on them – a great attraction to many children.
A child’s sensory preferences can also inform purchase choices. That said, certain colors and textures can be appealing to one child while aversive to another, so pay close attention to the likes and dislikes of your child. There are a variety of items available for the child who likes to touch everything such as touch-n-feel toys that provide tactile experiences; vibrating and massaging toys are also popular in this category. Soft blankets and stuffed animals can also offer a variety of textures. For the child who appreciates exploring the environment visually, consider a projector, bubble columns or toys with flashing lights. For the child who enjoys listening to music, or even simply sounds and noises, consider CDs, noise makers, instruments or perhaps chimes. Toys that offer repetitive motions and actions are also very popular (e.g., race car set). An exercise bike for indoor movement can be great (and not so expensive if purchased used).
Keep in mind, too, that children with autism often rip anything that is made of paper or cardboard. Attempt to purchase a toy that is sturdy and can handle rough handling. Also, avoid items with too many pieces. Any parent appreciates not having to put together a gift with many pieces, and this also prevents the loss of items from a set. In addition, items with small pieces can be choking hazards. Exceptions to this exist, of course, such as building sets and puzzles which are actually gifts that are often well received by children with autism.
Just as you would any other child, consider the gift possibilities according to categories and do not rule out the traditional stand-bys. For the child who enjoys art, consider basic art supplies. One can never have too many paints, markers, crayons and construction paper (except for the child who rips everything!). And, we all know that many children enjoy an endless pile of books (durable versions can be great long-lasting options). I-Spy style books have been noted to be especially attractive to many children with autism.
Remember, however, that even the most well-thought and developmentally appropriate toys may not be a big hit. If the gift ends up being ignored and untouched, do not take it personally. Even if you keep these recommendations and thoughts in mind, there is still no guarantee that the gift that you choose will be perfect. BUT, hopefully it will increase the likelihood that the recipient will enjoy your gift. In the meantime, happy shopping!
Sandra Pierce-Jordan, PhD, BCBA-D
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