Buying a present for a child with autism this Christmas? 

Here are a few tips to help you.

What are they into?

A lot of autistic children will have a special interest. They may be totally absorbed by one topic and want to devote much of their time engaging with it whether it be dinosaurs, castles, trains or something more niche like hoovers or even feet! To those looking on it may seem like these special interests are unhealthy obsessions. You may find yourself reluctant to collude in obsessional behaviour by buying yet more special interest paraphernalia. You'll have to decide what is right for you.

When Edward was little his main love in life was dinosaurs. For years every Christmas and birthday we bought him dinosaur related products  - he loved them all. One year I spent hours and hours hunting down a rare plastic blue plesiosaur on ebay - it was his most prized and cherished present.

Often times friends and family would generously buy him non-dinosaur presents to try and expand his interests - it was a good idea but actually these gifts mainly just gathered dust. If you want to be sure of giving a present that will be appreciated your best bet is to stick with the special interest. (If you need more persuading about why this is a good idea read my post Lovely Obsessions.)

Don't be restricted by age appropriateness

If a child is really interested in a toy or game which is usually marketed for a much younger child, don't let that put you off buying it if you know it will be well received by both the child and their family.  My 15-year old son Edward is highly academic and doing very well at school, but this Christmas will be the first one where I haven't bought him any wooden building blocks - the kind that are usually marketed for two-year olds. Edward has spent hours of his life playing with his bricks - it's been a great way for him to unwind and so I have never minded buying him "babyish" things.

On the other hand if you’re buying for a child who has a special interest they may already have become quite an expert in their chosen subject so you might have to get them something which is normally marketed for older children or even adults. Edward is a maths whizz so once he'd worked through the usual kids maths books we moved on to books by Martin Gardner with baffling titles like "Hexaflexagons, Probability, Paradoxes and the Tower of Hanoi" which were probably not written with 12 year olds in mind.

To wrap or not?

Some autistic children find the unknown stressful. Having to unwrap a surprise present especially if they have to do this in front of an audience can be hugely pressurizing. For some kids they would much prefer to receive an unwrapped present so that the stress of having to deal with the unknown is removed. Edward does not get stressed by having his presents wrapped but I thought he might prefer them unwrapped - it is after all more time, cost and energy-efficient this way. I am wrong - it turns out that for Edward the wrapping does add a certain something!

Being thanked

In my experience autism comes with a large dose of honesty. If you buy a present they love you'll know about it but equally if you buy a present they don't like you'll really know about it. Learning how to thank someone for a present requires quite a high level of social communication especially if you don't particularly like the gift! Autistic kids are probably going to take a few more years to get the hang of saying thank you than their peers so don't be offended if you don't get a decent thank you.

My brother lives in Australia so my kids don't see him very often. One year when he was over visiting he gave my kids beautiful wooden key rings, each one with a different Australian animal. Leila, Seb and Ivy all took their key rings and said "thank you". Edward took his key ring and stared at it silently for quite some time before asking his uncle, "Why did you get me this?"

"I thought you might like it,” replied my brother.

"It's a key ring. I'm 10 and I don't have any keys. I don't know why you thought I would like it,” said a genuinely confused Edward.

"Fair enough." sighed his jet-lagged uncle.

Edward is now able to say thank you when he receives a gift regardless of whether or not he likes it.  It took us a long time to convince Edward that he was thanking the person for giving him a present and not simply for the present itself. He remains concerned that if he says thank you for a gift he doesn't like that he is being disingenuous and also running the risk of receiving further unwanted gifts from the same person in the future. You've got to admit these are valid concerns.

I hope if you are buying a present for an autistic child this Christmas these tips have helped.

Lynne is a Speech and Language Therapist and a mother to 4 children. Her eldest son is on the Autistic Spectrum. Lynne has a blog full of funny tales of family life dotted with little nuggets of wisdom, that was recently nominated for a Bloody Awesome Parents Award (BAPS). Read more of Lynne's blogs here