Wide eyes, a bright smile, an excited squeal.
It’s what we hope our children will experience when opening up a present, right?
However, for many different reasons, this might not be the reaction you receive. I want to give you ideas on how make gift-giving (and receiving!) a fun experience for everyone. Keep reading to get specific ideas on how to bring a big smile to your child’s face.
The first place to start is your Why. Why do you give a gift? Most people are giving a gift because they want to bring joy and happiness to someone else. If this is your reason, be sure to keep this in mind throughout the whole process of gift giving.
The process of gift-giving?
Yes, it is a process. You first decide what gift the receiver would like, then you present the (wrapped) gift, the gift is opened and, hopefully, appreciated. So let’s break it down and discuss ways we can make this a great experience by addressing doable strategies in each step in the process.
Choose the right gift
Give your child a gift your child will like.
Think about what your child will enjoy and not necessarily what you want to give. For instance, you might remember how much you loved unwrapping a big present to find a scooter or massive coloring set. You might be thinking, “But I really think s/he would like it if they tried it.” If your mind starts wandering to these types of thoughts, remind yourself of your Why.
The gift is about your child.
Children with autism usually have strong interests in particular topics or activities. If your child loves to shred paper, why not buy them their own shredder! Or, if dinosaurs are their interest, find puzzles, socks, books, backpack, sleeping bag, … or anything dinosaur related.
Presenting the (wrapped) gift
Are you wondering why I put wrapped in parentheses? Typically, when we give a gift, it comes wrapped so it is a surprise when we open it. This can be problematic for children with autism for 2 reasons. One, many times individuals with autism have fine motor difficulties. I’m sure you have opened a present or two when the gift giver used what seemed like a whole roll of tape. It can be a bit frustrating. Frustration is the last thing we want to cause when opening a present! A second possible problem with a wrapped gift is the “surprise” aspect. Have you ever opened a gift that you thought was going to be one thing, and it turned out it was something unexpected -- that you didn’t really want? Typically, most people with autism like routine and predictability. Opening a gift can cause a lot of anticipation and anxiety.
Ideas for wrapping
1. Choose wrapping that will interest your child. Attending to an activity (even opening presents) can be challenging for a child, so by bringing in their interests can help bring them into the activity. Using the theme of dinosaurs, why not wrap the gift in dinosaur wrapping paper? Think about the Why! Even though dinosaur wrapping paper might not “go” with the rest of the presents, isn’t it about making your child happy?
2. Make it extremely easy to open the present. Use gift bags instead of boxes. If you are wrapping a box, use a small amount of tape and leave off ribbons and ties.
3. Don’t wrap the present.
Say whaaaaat???? Yep, if wrapping the present will cause anxiety, worry, confusion, or frustration - why wrap the present? It will still bring your child joy when they see you bring out the gift.
What could possibly go wrong here?? Ummm, just a possible sensory overload meltdown! Lots of people, sounds, smells, social rules, and overall chaos. Think about your child’s needs and abilities and have a plan. Some possible ideas:
1. Instead of a free-for-all opening of the gifts, make it more orderly.
Write down who is opening presents in order:
2. How many gifts can your child handle opening at a time. If it’s just one present, let it be. If there are many gifts for your child to open, figure out times throughout the holiday season that your child can open their presents. Make a schedule and share it with your child. For example:
Christmas Eve - open present from grandma & grandpa
Christmas Morning - open present from Santa
Christmas Afternoon - open present from nonny & papa
3. Have the gift in a “ready to go” state. Some items are tied down in the packaging to the point where even Houdini would have difficulty getting it out! Take the items out of the package, put the batteries in place or set up other pieces and then wrap the gift.
Saying, “Thank you”
I am all about teaching manners and showing appreciation to others, however, because of the difficulties some of our children have with understanding social norms and learning social skills, I do think we should be aware the best time and place to teach these skills. Talk with family and friends ahead of time to explain why expressing thanks might be difficult for your child. Hopefully this will end the unsolicited advice on how you should parent your child.
Possible ideas to show appreciation:
Whichever holiday you celebrate in the winter season, it is usually filled with a variety of activities and traditions. I want to help you enjoy the holiday and share what you love about it with your child.
So, I ask you -
What is the one thing that would make you happy this holiday season?
Watching your child open up a present by the tree Christmas morning?
Going to church/synagogue/mosque with your whole family?
Decorating the tree together?
Lighting the candles in the menorah together?
Instead of trying to tackle all of your plans and hoping things will turn out how you want, or giving up on your usual traditions and assuming your child can’t handle it, I encourage you to pick one activity that you would like your child to participate in that would also bring you joy.
Once you have chosen the activity, think about how you can structure it to make it manageable and enjoyable for your child as well. It might look different than what you envisioned and that’s okay.
Here is an example.
Decorating the tree together
If this is what would make your heart sing, think about ways to structure this activity so your child can participate and enjoy the experience. Adding structure to an activity provides a child with lots of information. Let’s say your child has a short attention span and doesn’t seem to have a big interest in the tree. Make sure you have the basics set-up before asking your child to join. This would mean that the tree is already in the stand, the lights are placed on the tree, and the ornaments are ready to hang. Give your child a specific job. Put the ornaments you want your child to hang on the tree in a separate container so they can visually see when they are done. If you have placed 8 ornaments in the container, your child is finished when the 8 ornaments are on the tree.
Other things to consider - do you usually listen to Christmas music while your decorate the tree? If you think this could cause too much stimulation, maybe this year you don’t listen to music while decorating. Or, does your child like one particular song? Then maybe you play this song on a loop as you decorate the tree. It’s called, pick your battles!
Choose a motivator - decorating a tree might be very fun and rewarding to you, but it might not be to your child. Use First/Then to help motivate your child. First - decorate the tree; Then - eat 2 Christmas cookies (or open 1 present, or play with Legos).
Holidays provide us with hundreds of moments to create special memories. To help you enjoy the holidays with your child, remember the words from Winnie The Pooh…
“Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in our hearts”
Winnie The Pooh