Fredericksburg Families

Amy Umble writes about family issues and kid-friendly events.

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Buying gifts for children with autism

This year, I bought my 15-year-old son and my 4-month-old daughter the same present. I didn’t think twice. I know that they will both love the Baby Einstein Take Along Tunes.

A few years ago, I might have cried while buying the duplicate toys. When Xander was 8, I burst into tears in the toy aisle of Target. I looked at all of the toys I knew he’d love and saw that they were for toddlers. I looked around me and saw 2-year olds reaching for the same toys I was getting ready to buy. It was a stark reminder that my son is not like other kids.

But now I just think of what he will enjoy, not what he’s supposed to enjoy.

And that is one of the do’s and don’ts in Parents Magazine’s blog post on shopping for gifts for children with autism:

DON’T pay attention to age-appropriate suggestions on boxes or grade level reading on books. When buying anything for kids with autism, it is absolutely critical to think about developmental age rather than chronological age.

Click on the link above for more do’s and don’ts.  It is definitely a challenge. My sons are both on the autism spectrum, and holiday shopping is always a struggle for me. Especially for Xander, who is severely autistic. He doesn’t play with a lot of toys, and the toys he does play with are loud and babyish.

And this tip is definitely important:

DO think about the parents’ sanity. If you purchase a toy with some kind of music or talking—please make sure there’s an on/off switch. PLEASE. And if the toy or game you purchase requires batteries, you may want to include a pack with your gift, just in case.

The tip list also suggest iTunes gift cards, which are a great idea. Xander has an iPad, a generous birthday gift from his grandparents. We put a speech app on it, to help Xander request items (he loves to ask for “ice cream sandwiches” all day long now, thanks to this app), and the app cost $200. There are several other apps that he loves, which are cheaper but those costs do add up. Xander wouldn’t care about unwrapping a gift card, but if I wrap it with a KitKat bar, he’ll think it’s the best gift ever.

One thing that does help is that kids with autism often have a strong interest. Xander loves music, so that’s always a good choice. But that goes both ways. My younger son was obsessed with street signs when he was younger–and his Christmas list one year included one of those exit signs you see on I-95.

Also, when you’re shopping for a child with autism, think about sensory issues. Some kids have trouble with certain fabrics or with tags on clothes. And some find loud noises to be difficult (although for Xander, the louder the toy, the better). It’s always a good idea to check with the parents. Also, some children with autism are on special diets, so definitely ask about that before you buy treats. also offers helpful tips, like:

  • The parents will appreciate if you don’t get anything that’s noisy. No air horns. No trumpets. No kazoo’s. Parents of autistic kids hear plenty of noise all the time and they don’t want their kid having some new Christmas present that adds to the craziness. Plus, some children with autism are sensitive to noise.
  • Don’t get anything messy. Give paint kits to the other kids you gotta buy for. Let them make the messes. Autistic children make plenty of messes without the need for a new “Mess-Making Kit” at Christmas time. Ever heard of smearing feces? Uh huh. They don’t need anything to encourage them to write the letter “B” in poop. However, if you know the kid is an artistic autistic you might consider a good drawing kit of some sort.

Buying a present for a child with autism can be challenging, but when you get it right, you’ll  be rewarded. When my younger son was 3, he was obsessed with the alphabet and an aunt gave him a metal “B.” His face lit up and he was thrilled. That letter sits on his desk to this day.

But, even if you don’t get a gleeful reaction, your present may become a cherished object. Xander doesn’t usually react much to presents–in fact, for years he would cry if we made him open gifts. But later, after the wrapping paper has been thrown away and the relatives have left, he will pick up the toy and play with it. And play with it some more. Pretty soon, that toy will become his favorite possession, one he drags out to the store, on walks through the woods and to the pool. I’m pretty sure, that’s exactly how the Take Along Tunes toy will go.




  • Sallie Roberts

    Amy, this is a wonderful post. I’ve passed it on to my dear friend who is the director of Autism Pensacola. Thanks for sharing.