With two children on the spectrum, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to buy presents for them over the years. Some of those presents have not always been successful and as a result I’ve learnt some of the things to think about in order to bring a little bit of Christmas magic to our children.
Special interests – try to follow the childs interests not what is in fashion or what his or her age group are playing with. It is quite common for an autistic child to have an interest that is unusual or different to that of his peer group. Interests can vary a lot and can range from dinosaurs and vehicles to a favourite DVD or cartoon character. I’ve even known a little boy whose main interest was lifts. Focusing on a child’s interest may seem odd, particularly if its an unusual one, but it is much better if you can provide a gift that will be enjoyed by the child.
Contact the parents - if you are not familiar with the interests of a child, think about contacting the parents. Whilst it may feel daunting, many parents will not mind giving you ideas of the sort of things their child is into.
Catalogues - lots of stores now publish catalogues. It is worthwhile getting hold of these so you can look at them in the comfort of your own home. They can also provide a way for a child to tell you what sort of things they like. My son and daughter now cut out pictures from the Argos catalogue to make a list of the things they would like.
Age related toys – don’t be set on selecting toys that are aimed at the child’s age group. My son often wants to play with things that are aimed for younger children. This is perfectly fine because even though my son is 13, he is emotionally much younger. Consider the child’s development rather than their actual age.
Quality – try and pick a well made product that is resistant to rough treatment as autistic children are prone to tantrums and meltdowns. There is nothing worse than buying a poorly made toy that breaks or doesn’t work which can be very difficult for an autistic child to deal with. As we experienced recently, when the xbox broke our son struggled with the disappointment and had a meltdown. We were lucky enough to get a replacement quickly and avoid a protracted meltdown but nevertheless it was still a stressful day. I appreciate we can’t always anticipate such events but we can try and buy a reputable product that can minimise such upset.
Safety - as with all children, we need to be mindful of safety, but with autistic children in particular their sense of danger can be poorly developed. My son was once given some magnetic pieces (aimed at his age group) but unfortunately he used to put them in his mouth due to sensory issues. As there was a risk of him swallowing these things and causing internal damage, we had to take them away from him. If in doubt about the safety of something, please check with the parents.
Other benefits - you may want to think about whether a toy can help in other areas – sensory, social, fine or gross motor skills for example.
Sensory needs – many autistic people are either under sensitive or over sensitive to things. My daughter loves touching fluffy things and was so happy when someone bought her a huge fluffy pillow and rug for her birthday. This may sound an unusual present for a ten year old but she was happy with it which is what counts.
Fine motor or gross motor skills – many autistic children have difficulties in these areas. You may be able to get a toy that also develops these skills. For example, playdough, painting, jigsaws and lego can help to practice fine motor skills whereas toys such as ball games and bikes are good for gross motor skills.
Social skills – you could also think about games that encourage the development of social skills and turn taking. There are a wide range of games available ranging from simple ones such as snap to more sophisticated ones such as Monopoly.
Caution about gift cards, vouchers or money - these don’t work for my autistic children as it means visiting a shop and making a choice which my children find very stressful. Often it results in meltdowns made worse by the heightened emotion of Christmas time.
And finally, think about how many presents you give to an autistic child. Some children like my son can become easily overwhelmed by too many things so one big present is preferable to lots of small ones. Alternatively you can spread out the presents over a few days at Christmas. Also consider whether you want to tell your child what they will be getting in advance. My son can’t cope with surprise presents so we tell him what his present will be. We still wrap it up and he still likes to unwrap it but knowing what he will be getting helps him cope with the excitement and anticipation.
So with all that, happy christmas shopping everyone.
But before you go, here are some websites that give ideas of the type of toys that can be beneficial for special needs children.
Ebay – special needs – autism - toys and educational products.
The Early Learning Centre - a range of toys, games and educational resources for younger children.
Hawkin’s Bazaar - great for gadgets and unusual presents. There are also ideas for fidgety children and those with sensory issues such as squidgy balls.
The National Autistic Society - a useful list of toys and games that autistic children may enjoy.
TTS Special Direct – mainly educational products but some great ideas for special needs plus a website with free downloadable resources.
Toys R Us - the US site provides some useful information on toys for special needs children.