Do you enjoy buying gifts for your child/ren? Do they tell you about things they’d want for their birthday or Christmas? And do they open their gifts with a face of excitement, which shifts to joy when they see what’s inside?
For me, the answer to the first question above is yes, but for the other two, it is no. Penguin doesn’t come up with ideas of what he’d like for his birthday or Christmas, and he’s not (yet) able to answer us when we ask him about it. And when receiving gifts to open, he will usually keep quite a stern face on throughout, as if it’s a job he’s got to do and he’s dealing with it. When he was younger, he would often become overwhelmed and kind of lethargic, or he’d get up and walk away from it all (and get upset if he was held back). We learnt that opening presents was a stressful thing for him, so we changed our expectations and the way we did things: Not more than one or two gifts at the time, let him open them when he feels like it, don’t put any pressure on.
However, in the last year or so, Penguin’s relationship with opening gifts seems to have changed slightly. I can see some excitement in his body language, and he will quite happily open several presents at once. I’m sure his improve motor skills and hand strength plays a big part in this, making it a quicker and less frustrating process. But also the fact that he experiences less stress and demands, not only around the situations with presents, but in life overall.
Recently, Penguin had his twelfth birthday (12! Jeepsters, only one year before he’s officially a teenager!), and as usual during the weeks leading up to it, we were racking our brains trying to figure out what he might like to receive as gifts on his special day. When your kiddo won’t (can’t) give you any clear ideas on what they might like, how do you decide on what to get?
A lot of the things that would be suggested as perfect gifts for a 12-year-old are not of interest to him at all. Being autistic means that he perceives and processes the world differently, thinks differently, plays differently, learns differently… Penguin also has developmental delays, which quite a few people on the autistic spectrum have to some degree, while others have no such delays at all. (Something which is quite typical for autism is what is sometimes called ‘an uneven profile’, meaning that levels of abilities vary greatly within one individual. For example, someone might have amazing memory for details and knowledge in things that interest them, while struggling to cope with very basic cooking skills, or even remembering that they do need to eat sometimes. Explaining about this more in detail would be its own post though, so I’ll leave it at this for now.) The term ‘age appropriate’ is of no help whatsoever to us, and nor is the way many shopping sites categorise their toys, games, books etc based on age groups.
Basically what I’m trying to say is that it can be really tricky to know what will be a great gift for our boy, and I know that this is something that many parents (and extended family etc) find difficult. I wouldn’t say it is a struggle, because after all it is a luxury to be buying gifts at all, and there are many other things in life for which the term ‘struggle’ is much more deserved.
But this is an issue which pops up quite regularly in facebook groups and other forums where parents of children with similar differences to our Penguin hang out. So, having now used the first part of this post for explaining and raising some awareness of why and how buying gifts is different and in some ways difficult for us, the second part will be more inspirational (hopefully!), as I share a few things that Penguin got for his latest birthday and why we chose them. I feel that I’ve learnt a lot through our experiences over the years (good and bad), and that sharing about this might be of help for others.
A little caveat before we continue: Everyone is first and foremost an individual. You’ll find when you read on that I’m not trying to say that what has been a successful gift for our kiddo will be one for yours too. And you will also see that most of the things I mention here can be fab presents for kids without any kind of disabilities too, of course! For some children, these will be fantastic at pre-school age, while others will delight in them as tweens, teens or adults.
Oh, and don’t expect anything too extravagant now, our budget has been very reasonable. Actually, that’s one of the things we’ve learnt from experience: Be careful about breaking your bank to buy something ‘amazing’. If you can really afford it, then by all means go ahead! But if it puts a real strain on your finances, the frustration you’ll feel if your child shows no interest in that ‘star item’ will be doubled by the fact that it’s also left a gaping hole in your wallet…
Right, on to the fun things now! The first rule for me when I think about what to get for Penguin is ‘Will this make him feel happy in the moment, on his day?’ He lives very much in the NOW, so although something like a voucher for a fun day out would eventually bring him great joy when used, opening a present containing something like a voucher would be about as exciting for him as receiving an envelope with a sheet of toilet paper inside it. So no, not a great gift for him. So I try to think of things which will have an immediate appeal, in one or more of these ways:
- Special Interest
Gifts with SENSORY appeal
Penguin is in many ways a ‘sensory seeker’, meaning that he finds great joy in playing with things that strongly stimulate one or more of his senses. One of his favourite things since a while back is a mermaid cushion, with sequins that are of a matt gold colour when turned one way, and silver on the other side. He finds it really pleasing and relaxing to move the sequins back and forth, and we can also interact around it by taking turns, for example I make lines or a letter or shape on the cushion and Penguin then puts it ‘back in order’, as in all sequins facing golden side up. For his latest birthday, I found a large snake (for £9.99) which has the same mermaid effect on top, and he really likes it.
If you’ve followed us for a while, you’ll know that playdough is one of our favourite things, so that has become an almost obligatory gift for our Penguin. For his latest birthday, as well as for Christmas, he got one of these sets with 20 tubs of Play Doh in it, which at £11.99 is great value for money in my opinion. Although we love making our own playdough as well, he really enjoys the shop-bought stuff now and then, too.
Playdough is nice and squishy without being sticky, and that fits well with our boy’s sensory preferences. For his latest birthday, we also found something else with similar appeal, in this Squishy Human Body from Smart Lab (£13.67). I wasn’t 100% sure what it would be like and if Penguin would take to it, but it has been a big hit! And it comes with a booklet and a sheet for organising the body parts onto, so it’s brilliant for hands-on biology lessons, which of course is perfect for us as we home ed (homeschool).
Obviously not all kids will have the same sensory preferences! So think about what kind of ‘sensory profile’ the child who you’re buying for has, and seek out things that match it.
Gifts based on SPECIAL INTERESTS
These presents are based around stuff that the child in question already has a great interest in and probably spends a large part of their day on, in one way or another. In our case, Penguin’s interests are very much his favourite tv series, as well as some characters from favourite children’s books. So an obvious choice is DVD’s featuring his faves, such as this Shaun the Sheep Pizza Party DVD (£3) that he got on his birthday.
To expand on from that, we also like to look at books and games with the same characters, and most recently that resulted in us buying a Shaun the Sheep Baa-rnyard Games book, which is exciting to Penguin because of Shaun the Sheep, obviously, but also is great for learning literacy, counting, turn-taking etc as it has games in it for us to play together!
Other similar gifts in recent years have included a ‘Big Cook, Little Cook’ activity book and a Teletubbies Annual, to give a couple of examples. Think about what your child’s favourites are, and don’t forget to look at places like ebay too, as even second hand books and games in good condition can make great presents!
Another thing which is a keen interest of Penguin’s is letters (not the ones you send by post, but those you find in the alphabet). He learnt the order of the alphabet very early, and still enjoys his magnetic letters, and sets like these wooden beads he got at Christmas.
So take some time to think about what the child you’re buying for is passionately interested in, what really makes them tick, and build on that. Don’t forget to keep sensory preferences and aversions in mind, as well as safety (such as choking hazards, which is always something we need to keep an eye on ourselves since Penguin likes to bite on things). Also try to weigh up whether the gift you have in mind can realistically be enjoyed by the recipient or if it requires a significantly higher level of motor skills, communication skills, etc than the child is currently at. We’ve had a few less successful examples of that ourselves in previous years.
Gifts based on FAMILIARITY
I’ve hesitated to put this one as a separate category, as most of the things that I’ve already mentioned could fit under this headline as well. But familiarity is important to many autistics, and it really is a big deal to Penguin, and hence a significant aspect to weigh in when buying presents.
Our boy knows what he likes, and he will be delighted to receive a copy of a dvd which he’s had previously but which has got worn out, broken (or lost). Some already familiar favourite edible treats will also be a great hit, while trying new things are very hit and miss (and more often the latter).
So this years presents included two replacement DVD:s (this Sooty one, and another with Shaun the Sheep) and a little box of selected goodies, such as Curly Wurlies, Smarties, Dark Chocolate Digestives, and dried cranberries.
I hope that these insights into what we’ve chosen for our Penguin, and the thoughts behind our choices, can be of some help and inspiration for you! And if you have any questions or added suggestions, please feel free to share those with us in the comments. Thank you for stopping by! x
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