By: Catherine H. Knott, Ph.D.
Are you stuck trying to figure out what to give your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) for a birthday or holiday gift? Wondering whether if you give your child more gifts related to his or her passion, you are just enabling traits causing trouble for him or her in school?
Relax. Birthdays and holidays are not the time to try to fix other people. These celebrations are all about unconditional love – appreciating people for who they are regardless of the world’s expectations. s parents we all know how to do that, because no matter how difficult or problematic our children appear to others, and no matter how exhausted we are at the end of the day, we still love our children just the way they are.
So, take a deep breath and do something that may prove surprisingly rewarding – give them what they ask for, as long as it is age-appropriate, within your budget, and represents positive rather than negative values (e.g. don’t give video games which glorify violence). Most importantly, give them the gift of your time and understanding, because even your teenager will appreciate it.
Ideas for Choosing the Best Gift for your Autistic Child
In the case of a child with autism, gifting can be more challenging than with other children. You need to meet them on their own ground –show them you care and support their special interests .
“What?” says the overburdened parent, “I don’t have the time or energy to learn about dinosaurs, the architecture of Medieval Europe, crocodiles, or computer technology ( whatever the passion may be). This is the opportunity to make time. A chance to learn and speak your child’s language and show your support for him or her.
When Monty Roberts (author of The Man Who Listens to Horses) talks about gaining the trust and affection of a horse, especially a difficult or untrained horse, he talks about observing the horse, learning his language, which he calls “Equus. ” Then he speaks that language back to the horse through nonverbal communication that is meaningful for the horse. Our children are more complex beings, but similar to Monty Roberts’ challenging horses. hey need extra support to build trust and affectionate bonds with others. Because children with autism have a harder time reaching out to others socially, they need someone to reach out to them. Someone who can speak their language and understand what is most exciting to them. A parent is the very best person to fill that need.
Tuning into Your Autistic Child’s Interests
This task is not as daunting as it may seem. Think about your child’s passion for a while. Chances are you will find some of your own interests in a different form. For instance, if you are an artist, you might paint landscapes for the dinosaurs, or pictures including medieval architecture. If you are interested in languages, then you can learn how computer languages differ from languages we speak. Or perhaps you have a collection of stamps or coins or travel souvenirs; you could focus on collecting these items from countries where different types of crocodiles live–did you know that there are 23 different crocodilian species? Be creative and have fun sharing interests.
Imagine your twinge of happiness when you see the delight in your child’s eyes once they open a book of medieval cathedrals, crocodiles of the world, or whatever his or her passion may be.
“Now I can learn more about what you know so much about!” You can say with genuine interest.
Finding your own aspect of his interest to appreciate is important. The bright child with autism will see right through any pretense. Then take the time to develop this interest alongside your child, sharing your aspect of this interest with him by making time for conversations, collecting materials relevant to the shared topic, proposing field trips, or even watching documentaries on the subject together.
As you share your enthusiasm with your child, his or her interests may broaden to include yours. Even better yours may broaden to include his or hers! In either case, the quality of your interactions will improve while sharing a growing mutual interest. You might learn a lot, not only about the subject, but also about your child.
Embracing your child’s fascinations may reveal hidden agendas!
One child was fascinated with horses at an early age but seemed averse to riding them. It turned out that he had a strong aesthetic sense of the beauty of horses in motion. He later became a gifted artist. His family supported and encouraged his development as an artist because they understood the true nature of his interests early on.
An older teenager developed a passion for learning about trees. At first, his parents didn’t know what he loved most was the peaceful solitude and lack of criticism he experienced when he was alone in the forest. Studying trees when he couldn’t be in the forest was a way to reconnect to that powerful, peaceful experience. His family might have tried to create a more peaceful environment at home or been less critical of his social behavior if they understood his interest better.
Discerning true needs and wants: giving the right gifts to your child and yourself.
How should you discern the true nature of your child’s passionate interests, before you go shopping? Spend time, even just fifteen minutes a day, sitting near your child and quietly observing how he or she spends time pursuing these interests. What does he or she focus on? Remembering that children with autism are often visually oriented. Be alert to visual images which seem to please your child. If your child likes cars, for instance, and uses the computer to access images, is it the mechanical design of the cars, comparing their relative speeds in races, or the landscapes that the cars travel through in video games that are most exciting?
Sometimes the passionate focus seems to transfer inexplicably from one interest to another. By observing your child, you may see what is similar between the different interests. For example, a child successively interested in dinosaurs, crocodiles, sharks, and medieval knights might really be most interested in fierce defensive behavior and protective armor. A teenage girl interested in Queen Elizabeth, National Velvet and horseback riding, and women explorers and scientists might be seeking stories of female empowerment.
Remember, you can always ask your child directly what he or she most wants. Children with autism like life to be predictable, especially during the chaos of the holidays or other special times.
Don’t Forget You Own Needs
If time for solitary relaxation and creative self-expression are high on your list, perhaps you can connect with your child by using your art to create images related to his or her interest areas . If you need to get out more, schedule some field trips to explore your child’s passions. Just planning trips can be a source of conversation and contentment. Finding time to browse in a bookstore enabling each person to choose a favorite book or two is a cherished activity in our family. Take a few moments, allow your thoughts to settle, then write your needs. Prioritize them. What gift can you give yourself that is also a gift to your child?
Remember: he real goal of birthday celebrations and holidays is opening the channels of unconditional love, and to share that love through communication and understanding.
Catherine Knott is an anthropologist and educator specializing in education, community, environment, and agriculture. She received her Bachelor’s Degree from Yale University, and her Ph.D. from Cornell University.