Let’s talk about autism gifts for adults and teens with autism and neurotypical gifts for adults who don’t have autism.
Or better yet, let’s don’t assume anything based on whether someone is autistic or neurotypical, and let’s talk about gift giving in neurodiverse relationships. Because, gift giving is super important. In fact, for some people, receiving gifts is their love language.
But it’s not easy, is it?
Buying a gift for someone wired differently than you is hard. Buying a gift for someone who wants/needs things you may never want/need for yourself can actually be confusing.
And it goes both ways.
If you’re neurotypical it may be hard to choose gifts for someone who is autistic. Just the same, if you are autistic, it may be challenging to find the right gift for someone who is neuortypical.
Sometimes my kiddos ask me for something, and I think, “Who would want that?” I have also found myself saying to them, “No way am I going to spend money on that,” only to decide on reflection that even though whatever they want is outside of my experience, it’s really important to them. I know they feel the same way about me.
The good news is that just like with holidays in general, with a little bit of planning, gift giving in neurodiverse relationships can also be FUN.
(To read some tips for enjoying the holidays with autism, check out my post, “Short and Sweet List of Suggestions for Surviving and Thriving with Autism during the Holidays.”)
GET AWAY FROM GENERIC GIFT GIVING
I’m sure we’ve all done it in a pinch.
You know, you walk into the store and head to the “Gifts for Her/Mom” or “Gifts for Him/Dad” section. Sometimes there are a few gems in those sections, but more often than not, they contain ugly ties, slippers, drinking-related items, more types of shaving razors than anyone could fathom and probably a few calendars or coffee table books.
I do use these types of sections to even out gifts between kids or my parents. I also use them when I am at a total loss for what to buy someone. For me, they serve as a backup.
Autism Gifts for Adults
In prepping to write this article, I searched for the types of gifts people suggest for autistics, specifically autistic adults. What I found had me a little confused.
Other than a nice looking weighted blanket and gift cards, not one of the lists I looked at had items I would buy for myself or my autistic relatives.
The items somehow all seemed related to fidgeting, lights on the ceiling, soothing noises, sensory issues, and therapy.
Doesn’t every autistic want to open a pile of gifts on Christmas morning that scream autism from the puzzle piece wrapping paper and tags to the medical alert bracelet that is clearly meant to save our life?
Um, well, not all of us.
Just like not all dads need a new tie, not all moms need a new set of potholders, not all teachers need coffee mugs, etc.
(Though if that’s what someone wants and has asked for, awesome!! In fact, just the other day, I asked one of my girls for a new set of potholders for Christmas this year as I haven’t had any new ones in a few years!)
And I would guess the majority of folks are right there with me (about not wanting a pile of generic gifts, not about my desire for potholders this year!)
So why do these departments/lists exist?
The Rewards of Giving Great Gifts
Because giving gifts can be HARD.
But giving right gifts can also be REWARDING. One of the best rewards? RELATIONSHIP-BUILDING.
So let’s talk about some ways to find the RIGHT gift for that differently wired person in your life – whether that person is autistic or neurotypical.
HOW DO I FIND THE RIGHT GIFT IN A NEURODIVERSE RELATIONSHIP?
1. KNOW YOUR GOAL
I bet you have often thought about buying a gift because you know it is expected, but how often have you stopped to consciously think about your goal in giving a gift in general and, more specifically, a particular gift?
Whether it’s for the special person in your life, a parent, child, or business associate, finding the right gift can demonstrate to the person receiving the gift just how important they are to you.
And that can change relationships.
For my birthday, I received presents that looked no different that those any other person may receive:
- Tickets to a professional hockey game.
- Tickets to the upcoming Nutcracker ballet.
- A wreath for my front door.
- Bath towels.
My daughters’ goals in giving me these gifts?
- Spend quality time doing something we enjoy doing together.
- Spoil Mom with some new towels and spruce up her bathroom.
- Make Mom smile every time she comes home to the warmth of a friendly wreath on the front door.
There are as many possible goals as there people to receive gifts. Don’t limit yourself in setting your goal, but do take the time to set it.
Maybe when you first start shopping you don’t have your goals narrowed down this specifically, but taking time when you begin to think about whether your goal is entertainment, education, exercise, together time, etc., can help narrow down your ideas if you have a lot or come up with ideas if you don’t have any.
Even a basic goal can help you get started. If needed, you can narrow down your goals while you shop.
Interestingly, when I set my goals before I shop, I spend less, which I love.
Because I find the RIGHT thing rather than many sort-of-right or flat-out-wrong things. It naturally focuses my shopping on quality (right gifts) rather than quantity (many gifts).
2. SHOP FOR OTHERS, NOT YOURSELF WHEN BUYING GIFTS
Growing up, people would tell me to try to think of something I would like to receive and then to buy that for someone else. While that may SEEM like a good idea, it doesn’t work here for a several reasons:
What the other person wants may be outside of your experience.
As a tiny tot, I circled every toy in the Sears Catalog hoping to get all of them for Christmas. But, as I approached adolescence, I asked for things like baseball cards, baseball card books, supplies for my collection.
In fact, pretty much everything I asked for related to this interest. While the individual items didn’t seem out of the ordinary, that all of the things I wanted were in this category didn’t set well with the parents, who refused to buy me only things related to this hobby (yes, I said “hobby.”)
It was outside of their experience that a kiddo would have such limited interests and that it would be okay for a kiddo to get items of such a limited variety, and so, to that end, I got a few of the items I wanted and more items they chose for me.
Likewise, I have been in relationships where others have asked me for gifts that I could not understand and so purchased something else for them. Something that made sense to me.
Just like I was disappointed and confused as a child on Christmas, so were those who received the gifts I chose that made sense to me.
What the other person wants may not be something you would ever want.
While this point probably seems a lot like the one above, they’re different. Here, I’m talking about something that is within your experience, but you wouldn’t ever want it.
So, for example, consider face masks. It is within my experience that there are people who love a good face mask.
In fact, my girls love a good face mask.
Me, not at all.
Why would you want that gunk on your face? Does it really make a difference? Is it worth it? Why would you spend money on that when you could have a nice new heavy blanket??
And yet, every year I find myself buying face masks for the girls for their stockings.
I’m pretty sure they feel the same way. Could anyone really need more blankets? YES! I just love them!!!
So face masks for them, blankets for me.
When you know your goal, it is easier to overcome this challenge. I don’t buy gifts because I want them, I buy them because I think the recipient wants them, because I want to show them I care about them, because I want them to feel happy, spoiled, like their needs have been met, etc.
What the other person wants may not feel like a gift.
I have a nephew who loved, loved, loved dry erase markers. While dry erase markers felt like an office supply to me, I took a chance and got him a new set with lots of colors.
He loved it. Would I want a set of dry erase markers for Christmas?
But he did.
What the other person wants may be a repeat present.
By “repeat present” I mean that it is the same thing you buy them every year. Remember my nephew? He loved the dry erase markers so much I got him a set. Every year. For years. After a while, I worried that it was no longer a good gift.
Once I checked in to make sure he still liked getting them, and he told me that he wanted the next set to have a yellow marker. Huh. I hadn’t noticed, but the set I bought each year lacked yellow. Go figure.
If you can get past these factors, you may learn something about the other person and expand your own horizons as well.
3. ASK THE OTHER PERSON WHAT THEY WOULD LIKE
Seems simple, and yet, because of the fact that sometimes people ask for things that are outside of our experience or because their reason for wanting an item may be different than our reason for wanting the same item, this can prove harder than you might think.
Before I knew what all we were up against from a medical and mental health perspective, I often found myself discounting the requests my daughters or other family or friends made and buying them what I THOUGHT they needed or wanted.
How arrogant of me!!!!
I still cringe every time I think about it!
How did I think I could know people better than they knew themselves.
Turning on my listening ears and listening with the intent to hear and understand transformed gift exchanges from disappointment (theirs AND mine – how could they not like the gifts I knew they wanted?) to success!
So know this, if you do ask someone what they want, be prepared to hear and accept their answer – most often without tweaking it.
Even more, ask clarifying questions if you don’t understand what they’ve asked for – whether it is that you don’t understand the thing they asked for or the reason they want it.
Knowing WHY someone wants something can really help you pick the right thing.
A blanket, for example can serve the purpose of temperature regulation, compression, decoration, etc. If someone just asks for a blanket or quilt, digging a little deeper will help you choose the right one! Likewise with facemarks. Who knew they all do something different to your skin!?! Everyone but me apparently….
Most often, my goal in giving gifts is relationship-building. Taking the time to understand a person’s wish list moves this goal waaaaayyyyy farther forward than just going out and buying a requested item.
Notice here, that I’m probably sacrificing a little of the element of surprise – or maybe a lot – because to me the relationship-building component is more important than the surprise component. I do try to add in a gift or two that I have come up with on my own to show that I do listen and hear the things that others talk about, are interested in, etc.,
But odds are good that neither you, nor the person with whom you are exchanging gifts are psychic. So talk it out! As an additional bonus, these talks are relationship-building in and of themselves, and you can really learn a lot about those around you if you choose to have them.
(If you’re uncomfortable about giving up some of the element of surprise, don’t do it! YOU get to choose the goals that are right for YOU!)
We’ll come back to communication in just a sec, but I wanted this point to be a stand alone because I think it’s that important.
4. HOBBIES (YES, SPECIAL INTERESTS)
Because it seems no conversation about gift giving and autism would be complete without mentioning special interests, Ima gonna mention it!
Notice, I labeled it “Hobbies,” because that’s how I choose to think about “special interests.”
Right after my diagnosis, I came across a post by a mom with autistic kiddos who was considering giving her son NOTHING related to his special interest for Christmas or a birthday, I don’t remember which.
My jaw dropped.
Someone else asked her this question, and her answer was that she wanted to help her little guy expand his interests and do some new things.
Points to the mom for knowing her goal. I’ll give her that.
Nothing in her writings back and forth with people demonstrated anything other than a loving mom. Her intentions seemed positive.
I imagined her son, however, opening his presents and his total dismay at receiving nothing related to the interest that was most important to him.
Is it good to want to help others discover new things? I think it probably is.
But let’s think back on my baseball card example above. My Christmases growing up were a struggle. No one understood why I wanted the things I asked for, and that I would be happy with those things. I remember my parents once telling me that they would not give me presents that did not include something I could play with.
Had they known I was autistic, I think they would have realized that I the time I spent sorting, valuing, trading and selling those cards was playtime for me. It was much more rewarding to me than playing with toys, in fact.
They weren’t unsupportive of my hobby, but just like the mom I mentioned above, they wanted me to have a variety of things.
The problem? I didn’t want a variety of things, and I spent a lot of time wondering why my sisters got what they wanted for Christmas and why I got what my parents wanted me to have.
Likewise, in buying gifts for others, I am probably too narrow in my present selection. I like to buy things in complete sets and buy too many things per interest.
I had a daughter who liked scrapbooking so I bought her supplies in quantities I would have liked had it been my hobby. Now, I think it overwhelmed her. She would have preferred receiving a few scrapbook supplies and a variety of different types of other gifts.
When I was married, my husband loved NASCAR. He kept asking for NASCAR gifts, but not tangible gifts, he wanted tickets to races. He also wanted to go on this weekend driving experience. While he wanted one of these each year, I only bought him tickets once. They were so expensive. I think he probably felt slighted that I bought him a number of smaller gifts rather than the one big gift he really wanted. I just couldn’t get my head around spending THAT MUCH on something that held no interest for me.
So are hobbies a great target for gift giving?
Of course, but in proportion to the person’s interest to the hobby. Judging this interest can be hard when people attack their interests with different levels of intensity, so take time to determine what that level of intensity really is and shop accordingly.
Have you ever met someone who thinks that if they stare longingly at an item at the store others should notice and purchase that gift for them?
What about the person who drops lots of hints about what they want without ever referring to it specifically?
In all relationships, but especially neurodiverse relationships, it is SOOOOO important to talk openly about gift giving.
In my family, we talk about how “much-ish” we are going to spend (some years we can afford to spend more than others), specifically what we would like, what the rules of gift giving are, etc.
We talk about it all. Out loud.
With the caveat that the person buying the gift always has the right to buy whatever they want, we go in with clear expectations and understandings of where everyone is at.
We return very very little, no one is disappointed, and we have FUN.
I used to think the best gifts were those I thought up myself. Now, I realize that the best gifts are those the recipient has thought up.
In order to avoid disappointment in neruodiverse relationships here are a few things you may want to discuss before your gift exchange:
Ask each other what you want.
(I covered this above, but I can’t very well have a “Communicate” section without mentioning this point here.)
Set expectations around the size/expensiveness of the gifts.
If you know that certain gifts that have been requested are beyond your budget or willingness to purchase, it may be best to disclose this prior to the gift exchange – especially if the other person is super hopeful that they are getting that particular gift.
Give the person receiving the gift permission to dislike it.
Give yourself permission to not take it personally if they don’t like it. If your goal is like mine, relationships-building, even a disliked gift can be an opportunity to grow the relationship. Finding out why the other person didn’t like it, what they would have liked better or spending time together returning it and picking out another gift all have HUGE potential to move the relationship forward. AND a healthy response to a disliked gift can BUILD TRUST which is AWESOME!
Discuss when and where the gifts will be given.
Giving everyone time to prepare for this sometimes intense social interaction can pave the way for success!
(I talk more about the setting expectations for the holidays in my post, “Autism and the Holidays: Make This Year Joyful!”)
If, for example, it is your first year exchanging gifts with a significant other and their tradition is to open gifts on Christmas Eve, where yours is to open presents on Christmas morning, you may find yourselves in a last minute jousting match about the right time to celebrate.
6. KNOW YOUR BUDGET
Giving gifts that are beyond your resources may be fun at the moment of the gift exchange, but they are not so fun when trying to manage without resources you needed later (while repaying debt, or cutting costs because of lack of funds.) Stay within your means when choosing gifts.
The challenges of working out all of these issues prior to a gift giving holiday or event are worth the effort. After all, gift giving is important. Getting someone a gift they love can make them feel loved and can make you feel good about yourself and your efforts.
For those reasons, and so many more, giving right gifts is also important, maybe especially in neurodiverse relationships where everything isn’t always smooth sailing.
So go ahead, ask others what they want for Christmas. And go ahead and answer others when they ask you!
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