Finding The Right Gifts for Special Needs Children

Before Lily, our youngest, was born we didn’t really have to ‘soul-search’ when buying her older sister gifts. A “typically-developing” child, Emma hit all her milestones within a month or so of whatever date Dr. Sears and company’s book suggested she would. And if perhaps she hit some early, or some a hair late, whatever you typically gave as a gift to any other baby girl, she too would invariably enjoy. When she toddled, she enjoyed toddler toys, etc. It was one of the things that was so easy about parenting a “neurotypical” child. For the most part, things just go according to Hoyle. Buy a princess for a girl, a football for a boy, bang. done.

When our youngest was old enough to appreciate gifts, one of the things we noticed right away was her…lack of appreciation for gifts. She didn’t like any of the stuff that the other kids liked. She wasn’t captivated by the mobile above her crib. She didn’t squeeze the squeaky toys or shake the rattles. What she did was endlessly examine and discard her disposable diapers. She’d extract them from the box where they were wedged like file folders, look at them, pull at them and then cast them aside over and over and over, until a pile of diapers would surround her and the empty box that had once been filled uniformly with tightly bundled rows of new diapers.

It didn’t take long for the people closest to her to figure out that what Lily really wanted is what they should get her. Dolls would remain untouched. Traditional toys were uninteresting to her. Her first birthday party gifts consisted mostly of wrapped boxes of diapers and Lily spent the majority of her party retrieving, examining and discarding them.

Giving gifts to children, especially special needs children, is too often about the giver’s own hopes or assumptions of the recipient’s future and not what the child really wants or needs. People don’t want to hear, “Just bring diapers”, to use Lily as an example, they see future cheerleaders or chemists or astronomers or football players, and give gifts accordingly. And for a typically-developing kid…you probably can’t go too far wrong with that approach. But the microscopes and dolls and footballs that a typically developing child might enjoy would just collect dust in our home. The gifts themselves almost seemed a desperate projection of the giver’s wishes for her more than a reflection of her wishes. And they were well-meant wishes, but possibly indicated a failure to truly understand, or even accept Lily as she was.

Lily is older now and better able to communicate her desires. We no longer have to guess what she wants (as much). She wants chipmunks (as in “Alvin and the…”). So although we could buy her a Barbie doll, complete with dollhouse and car like other girls her age, she WANTS chipmunks, and ONLY chipmunks. And so that’s what we’ll give her, chipmunk clothes, toys, ornaments, animatronic decorations…anything with a chipmunk on it. And we know that she’ll enjoy her presents.

chipmunk toy

I know what you did last summer, Simon.

The difference between what we think she SHOULD want, and what she does want is often the difference between where she’s at developmentally and where the “book” says she should have been. For example, we sometimes discourage her from watching Barney (which she loves) in order to watch something more age-appropriate (Good Luck Charlie). There’s a guilty feeling associated with that push. Why shouldn’t she watch Barney? There’s nothing wrong with it (apart from the heightened annoyance factor that having it on in the background vs. having Good Luck Charlie on creates). Is it simply a question of accepting where she’s at right now versus trying to push her into a stage she’s not yet reached? Accepting her as she is means developing an understanding of what she enjoys and being okay with it.

Lily is a December baby, so friends and relatives ask for LOTS of ideas for Christmas and her birthday. And it’s got to be less about what we WANT her to want, and more about what she wants. Making peace with those wants is a process, but I think it’s one that Lily’s loved ones embrace and accept and ultimately everyone is happier for it.

This year for Christmas I expect Lily to have lots of fun opening presents. Instead of ignored toys and aimless bored wandering from “no” to “no”, I expect happy smiles and lots of playing.

And lots and lots of chipmunks.

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About Jim

Jim is a happily married father of two daughters, one autistic, one not. He writes about autism, parenting, and his busy family life at Just A Lil Blog when his busy family life allows.

40 thoughts on “Finding The Right Gifts for Special Needs Children

  1. Jim — you’ve hit a home run with this one. I really wish I had the words to articulate this in Christmases past and will definitely be bookmarking it for Christmas future!

  2. Once again, you hit the nail on the head. As you said, the people closest to us and our sons know that it’s okay to get hot wheels stuff…again…for the fourth year in a row…because that’s what my son likes and will play with. I guess I appreciate the attempts at games, books, etc but I finally just said to leave those things to me. Like you, I see the attempts at Barney versus Good Luck Charlie to be my area of nudging. Gifts from family are should be fun. Great post as always.

    • I’ve really tried to stop the nudging too. I feel like it’s my failure to “accept”. Other times though it’s more a feeling of, “I cannot watch those fucking kids sing one more song off key”

      • I totally agree on that…
        On the nudging, I meant that as a parent it’s okay for us to nudge. It’s okay to try Good Luck Charlie when we suggest it. But it’s hard when an aunt or friend is the one who does it.
        side note: I think I need more coffee to write comments that make sense.

        • Oh…we TRY lots of stuff. And I think it’s okay to push her to try new things just for my own sanity’s sake. But I think that when I’m pushing it because Barney is for “babies” or whatever, that’s when I have to just chill the hell out and say, “Okay baby, if you want Barney with your TV time, then that’s what you get!”

  3. I wrote an almost identical blog yesterday. We’ve had to learn to not buy a load of stuff K will never touch, and get her what she wants, even if it’s not something we really want to buy. Or is age appropriate. Yesterday I had an online friend find me a gymnastics Dora bc K wants it, but it’s sold out everywhere. Typical gift for a kid who will be 9 next month? No. But she asked for it, and will use it way more than a Barbie or, I don’t know, whatever other 9 yo’s get. And once you realize you aren’t actually “wasting” money anymore, it makes you OK with it ;)

  4. Great post, Jim. This really spoke to me:
    “The gifts themselves almost seemed a desperate projection of the giver’s wishes for her more than a reflection of her wishes. And they were well-meant wishes, but possibly indicated a failure to truly understand, or even accept Lily as she was.” This is the constant struggle we face, too. My son absolutely adores musical toys which are usually geared toward much younger children. I have no qualms letting him have them because they make him happy.

    • I don’t know about you, but it’s a lesson *I* had to learn. I wasn’t writing that from the perspective of “I think THOSE guys are doing this”. *I* was doing it. For sure. I try really hard not to now.

  5. I would try to nudge my kids away from Barney too – but only for the annoyance factor. May Lily’s Christmas be filled with chipmunks, and hopefully no one gives her a real one.

  6. This is so true, and it’s not something we automatically know as parents of special needs kids. It was definitely a lesson for us, figuring out that it’s okay that my son doesn’t like his presents gift-wrapped (too much tension with surprises), and to let family know that he’s not being rude if he doesn’t open their gifts while they watch. Awesome post, Jim.

  7. When my nephew was five, my sister said he wanted tape. I had a blast at the office store, picking out every size and color of tape I could find for the kid! Unfortunately, at 15, all I can do is a giftcard and let him choose. (Although with the new fun duct tapes out there, he might get one of those too!)

  8. Casey has always liked traditional toys, but never used them the right way and even still HATES unwrapping them. In fact, there’s no better gift for him than to jar take him to Walmart and let him pick out his own gifts. We now do that for every birthday. It’s not what is normal, but it’s what works for us.

    As I read this, Abby took out all of her diapers, inspected them, then discarded them. I’ll put the picture up on Instagram.

  9. Oh this comforts me – feel like I’m hearing from ‘my people’! Bec, a commenter above, said something about not wrapping presents and appreciating those who understand if our kid doesn’t unwrap presents in front of them. Yes, so true in our experience too. A year or two for holiday season, my son didn’t race to open presents that morning, he went on his computer for a while and we opened later, when there was less ‘charge’ around it. It is so okay to not wrap presents. He doesn’t need quantity, he doesn’t ask for specific things, he mostly goes with how the setup and what the grown-ups seem to be doing. I love it – no pressure of expectations not met!! Really, if I think about it, life with autism is better than the old ‘normal’!

  10. LOVE this, Jim! This explains perfectly why Easton will be getting a couple bags of cheese puffs under the tree this year. And if we could get him a bunch of strings with the plastic thingies off of window blinds, we would do that too. Thanks for this post!

  11. Perfect, Jim. Truly. I am sending your post on to all my family members, because you’ve said what I’ve tried to tell them for years, and I’m hoping that when it comes from someone else – and as eloquently as you wrote it – they will finally get it. Helene’s favorite thing right now? Collapsable measuring cups. She LOVES them. I don’t know why, but I also don’t NEED to know why. When I tell relatives that they ought to get her some more, though, they won’t WANT to buy her collapsable measuring cups, because it’s “weird,” “not fun,” “not normal” or some other such hurtful explanations. I hope your words help them see why.

    • YAY! MORE collapsible measuring cups!! I’m not going to lie to you, I find those things fascinating too. We just have one. But when my wife leaves it out…I play with it.

  12. It is so true that making that switch to what they actually want can be difficult. I, however, envy you in that she even wants anything in particular. Our little miss turned 6yrs this summer and as far as likes go…she wants to push a button and listen to a song, she wants to flip a piece of paper all day long, she wants to be silly and be cuddled. Overall, she has no desire for new things, but try telling that to friends and family. Last year’s b-day she actually showed enjoyment while opening gifts, not the gifts just the process. This year, absolutely none, complete avoidance and upset. The connection with the need for gifts to feel happy and loved just isn’t really in her. I don’t believe that her life is lacking without this need/enjoyment, but it is such a part of our culture that it feels like some people forget to just enjoy being with her instead of getting her the best gift. As far as she is concerned she already has it, she enjoys life and family now whereas just 3 short years ago she couldn’t hardly even enjoy a hug or understand and reciprocate a smile. She has come so far, but the person that she is blossoming into would rather skip the gifts and enjoy the time together instead. How do you tell that to family without sounding wrong?

    • PS: This year we have asked for educational/tactile/teaching “toys” that we may be able to put to use in therapy. Had to give them something and our house is already filled with music toys.

      • We DO try to spread the love, so to speak, buying clothes/therapy items (this year we got a yoga mat because the TSS does yoga exercises with her) and other essentials in addition to fun stuff.

        pushing buttons and listening to a song??? Lily loved her little Elmo microphone. There’s about 12 buttons on it, each one plays a different song (performed by Elmo). She would carry that thing around and push buttons ALL DAMN DAY. She never played with it like a typical kid would. She just pushed the buttons over and over and over so that the song played for about three seconds before she pushed the button that started it again.

        Thanks for commenting, Sara!

  13. Chipmunks, ponies, I’m thinking live animals would be much better blog fodder… ;)

    My 6 year old son has slowly grown to love very NT toys so it’s really not hard to buy for him anymore (one year he got plastic fruit because that is what he wanted…). He still does not use the toys as NT boys would. He spins wheels on remote control cars and holds the car up so he can look at the spinning wheels… that kind of thing. But it has been easier to get what he wants because he is better able to express his needs.

    And what’s wrong with a real chipmunk? Cleaning up after them will be so much easier than a pony.

  14. I had a very young relative once who had such a tough sensory disorder. She refused to sit down (thus, had a hard time eating) because of “crumbs” on her chair or on the table. Her big birthday gift from me that year was a very large purple feather duster. Since then she’s had sensory integration therapy and got over her terror of sticky, crumby, noisy, smelly.

    Around that time I had asked for pajamas for my gift, which she and her mom picked out. She didn’t know I knew they had gotten them from me. I squeezed the gift wrapped package, buried my face in it and inhaled REALLY HARD. “This smells just like…pajamas!???” The look of wonder on her face said “FINALLY, IT’S NOT JUST ME WHO CAN DO THAT!” was pretty awesome.

    Ya gotta meet people where they are. Great post! We’ll share it.

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