Suggestions for Gift-Giving

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 that 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 need to keep in mind not only 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 bad 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 eight-year-old girl with autism might be much more attracted to a Peppa Pig present than a Taylor Swift-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 that the child can use by themself– 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 for building, matching, and sorting materials are endless and available at all levels with various 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. Various items are available for the child who likes to touch everything, such as touch-n-feel toys that provide tactile experiences. Vibration and massaging toys are also popular in this category. Soft blankets and stuffed animals can also offer a variety of textures. Consider a projector, bubble columns, or toys with flashing lights for the child who appreciates exploring the environment visually. For the child who enjoys listening to music or sounds and noises, consider mp3 players, noisemakers, instruments, or perhaps chimes. Toys with repetitive motions and actions are also very popular (e.g., race car sets). An exercise bike for indoor movement can be great (and not so expensive if purchased used).

Keep in mind, too, that children with autism may rip anything that is made of paper or cardboard. Attempt to purchase a toy that is sturdy and can withstand 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, such as building sets and puzzles, which are gifts often well received by children with autism.

Like 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-out and developmentally appropriate toys may not be a big hit. If the gift is ignored and untouched, do not take it personally. Even if you keep these recommendations and thoughts in mind, there is still no guarantee that your chosen gift will be perfect. But hopefully, it will increase the likelihood that the recipient will enjoy your gift. In the meantime, happy shopping!

Board Certified Behavior Analysts from The Birchtree Center can be hired through Birchtree’s Outreach Program to provide consultation to families who are looking for help preparing for holiday celebrations, birthdays, and other family activities. More information about Outreach consultation for families is here.

Legal Disclaimer: Information provided on this website is for informational purposes only.  You are responsible for the choice of any treatment or therapy option for your child.  Specific treatment, therapy or services should be provided to an individual only at the direction of the individual’s doctor, caregiver or other qualified professional.