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Navigating the Holidays with Autism: Part III: Gift Giving and Surprises

nav holidays p 3In Part II of this series we discussed children and adults with autism’s need to know what to expect. They crave and thrive on routines. Being uncertain about what to expect, even if it is only what to expect in the box, can be a strong source of stress. Many people like to be surprised when opening a gift, but it is likely that for the autistic person in your life, surprises can cause anxiety.

What Should I Buy a Child with Asperger’s or Autism for Christmas?

Likely the best answer to this question is, ask them. Help them to make lists (with pictures) of their wants whether it be for family members, or in a letter to Santa. Lists that include pictures helps clear up confusion, and many times allow an autistic child to express their desires even when their words fail them.

Christmas Morning Anxiety

Christmas morning—a time of joy and excitement for most people, but for those on the autism spectrum the uncertainly can be stressful, and the excitement overwhelming. There may be too many lights, too many gifts, and too much to look to take in all at once. If your autistic child is easily overwhelmed by too much stimuli, or for instance, is unable to focus and choose a gift to open first, try to introduce them slowly. A big pile of Christmas gifts under the tree can be exciting, or very overwhelming.

A Need for Control

Sometimes an older child or adult may seem to want to micro-manage your gift buying. My son in particular will make me a list, complete with pictures, prices, and places to purchase the items. Then he will go online and actually put items in my Amazon shopping cart, and check up on me to see which items I buy him. He needs to know when they arrive, if ordered, and what wrapping paper they will be in. Granted, this tends to be on the extreme side, but it demonstrates his need to control his environment and circumstances. When he does not know what to expect, he gets stressed, which displays itself with anxiety and stimming.

Are They Ungrateful?

Brutal honesty—that is likely the kind of feedback you will receive from your autistic child when opening gifts during the holidays. It is not that they are ungrateful, or that they are mean, only that their honesty is all they know. It likely will never cross their mind to be “nice” or even that their comment about not liking a gift from Aunt Susan was rude. She asked after all, didn’t she really want an honest answer?

When deciding what to buy the person you love with autism gifts, ask them when possible. Try to keep surprises to a minimum, or at least don’t over-react when you receive a completely honest response. Many times the anxiety that goes along with opening gifts from other people is a learned response. The child often was yelled at, or chastised when giving feedback—making faces, exclaiming the sweater is ugly—and consequently become fearful of wrapped boxes with undisclosed contents.Navigating the Holidays with Autism: Part I: Thanksgiving with Picky EatersNavigating the Holidays with Autism: Part II: Family GatheringsNavigating the Holidays with Autism: Part IV: Holiday Shopping TipsNavigating the Holidays with Autism: Part V: Beyond Gift Shopping—GroceriesNavigating the Holidays with Autism: Part VI: Grocery Shopping Online

Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert, contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, on the autism spectrum.


  1. Thank so much for this! But how about a post about coping as adults?

  2. Pingback: Navigating the Holidays with Autism: Part III: Gift Giving and Surprises | Appalachian aspie part two.

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