The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, When It’s Not the Halls I Want to Deck

If you live with someone on the autism spectrum, I am the preacher and you are the choir.  I wrote this more for those of you not living with autism and who will – out of affection or obligation – purchase a gift this holiday season for an autistic person. (But, tribal mates, please feel free to print this out and leave it on the kitchen counter, bedside table, desk or refrigerator of who someone who reeeeeeeeally needs to get this message.)

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Ahhhhh, the season of joy and love is upon us.  I know this not so much because of holiday decorations adorning buildings and homes, or because I can get more or less anything I could ever want in pumpkin-spice flavor, or because the Hallowe’en candy is down to those gross Smarties and Whoppers.

It’s because everyone I know who parents a person on the spectrum is having the same conversation right now.  It goes like this:

Question:  What can I get [insert name] for [Christmas/Hanukkah/Festivus]?

Answer choice 1:  Nothing.  S/he does not understand/care about/have any interest in gifts/holidays.

Response 1:  WHAT!? I can’t get him/her nothing. S/he has to have something to open!

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Question:  What can I get [insert name] for [Christmas/Hanukkah/Festivus]?

Answer choice 2:  S/he likes [insert very specific thing here].

Response 2:  WHAT!? That’s lame / for babies / what I got him/her last year / boring …

Response 1 and Response 2 both need to be included in those handy lists of things never to say to autism parents.  (Or to anyone. Ever. At all.)

Here are four reasons why:

Reason the First:  I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but gift-giving is not about you.  I know – crazy, right? True story, though. The point of a gift is, funny enough, to bestow upon the recipient something s/he actually wants. If your intended recipient does not like to receive gifts, does not like to unwrap gifts (because tearing paper is a sensory nightmare or seems just plain pointless to someone who thinks concretely and logically), or is not interested in celebrating a holiday the way you celebrate it, YOU ARE MISSING THE WHOLE POINT OF THE HOLIDAY.  When you insist on forcing everyone to do celebrate your way, that’s pretty much the exact opposite of comfort, joy, gratitude, peace and all those other fancy words we toss around this time of year.

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Reason the Second:  You are insulting the person you just asked for advice.  Presumably, you asked the autistic person or his/her parent or caregiver about a gift because you thought that person would be the best source of information about what to give.  When you got the information you sought then rejected it or – worse – criticized it – you essentially said, “Your opinion is dumb.”  If you do this to an autistic person, it is insulting on TWO levels, because it rejects the presumption of the autistic person’s competence to declare her needs and wants AND because it puts your needs/wants ahead of hers.  (Please see Reason the First, above).  When you do this to a parent, we hear the gazillionth version of “you’re doing it wrong” or “you’re incompetent” when it comes to our parenting.  AIN’T NO ONE GOT TIME FOR THAT.

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This is what is happening to you in my mind while you speak.

Reason the Third:  You are not helping. The holidays can be very challenging times for autism families. Lots of changes to routine, lots of social interaction, lots of expectations … We’ve oftentimes gone to great lengths to find the right blend of celebrating the traditions we know and love and creating a comfortable environment for our autistic loved one. Asking for advice, rejecting it, then compounding that insult by reacting poorly when the gift you chose is not appreciated the way you expect is not making any of this any easier.  If you want to help, take the advice you sought. (Or, reject it silently.)

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Otherwise, you are adding to the weight of holiday pressure.  Trust me, the only weight I’m interested in adding to this season is the kind that comes with a cranberry bliss bar and some spiked egg nog.

Reason the Fourth:  There are BETTER OPTIONS, especially if you’re giving the gift more to fulfill your own sense of holiday / social obligation.  Here are some:

  • Make a donation in the autistic person’s name to a charity of your choice or one that focuses on improving the lives of autistic persons
  • Give an experience.  Not every gift must be wrapped – or even tangible – to be special and thoughtful.  Spend 30 minutes, a day, a weekend – whatever is reasonable – really honoring an autistic person and his/her interests.  Does she love Legos?  Build some together (even if that means you just sit and watch.)  Does he love only one storybook?  Read it to him (however many dozen times) to give Mom, Dad, Grandma or whomever a break.  Does she love astronomy?  Go to an observatory together or – perhaps better still – give the whole family the gift of going to the observatory together.
  • Ask an Expert.  Check out stores like Lakeshore, National Autism Resources or other vendors that specialize in educational toys, games, etc. and ask staff for suggestions. They won’t take it quite as personally if you reject their advice.
  • Give a gift card.  If you don’t want to suffer the “indignity” of giving a can of Pringles, yet another Thomas the Tank Engine video, or a Fisher Price toy made for babies to an adolescent, then give the recipient a gift card so s/he can choose on her own gift.  You get the satisfaction of giving something you find “appropriate,” and your recipient gets something her or she really wants or needs.
  • Use that Google Thingy.  One year, my brother went online and searched for “top gifts for kids with autism.”  He bought Helene the thing that was on top of the list – this cool, multi-colored, light-up ball that rotates on a stand.  He thought about her interests and her needs and chose a gift with those in mind.  Because, you know, spirit of giving and all that.

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