Autism & The Holidays: Receiving and Opening Gifts
Autism & The Holidays: Gift Giving
Most of the discussion around autism and gifts seems to be about selecting appropriate toys for kids, but there’s so many more aspects to gift giving that can create stress for autistic people.
One area that’s usually overlooked is receiving and opening gifts. These two activities can both be really overloading, so let’s understand why and what you can do to include everybody in a way that’s comfortable and fun for them.
WHY IT CAN BE HARD
The sensations of rustling wrapping paper and tearing can be really unpleasant for some people and super exciting for others. There’s usually a lot of extra visual input and noise too. Heightened emotions and excitement levels can make it a lot more difficult to regulate that extra sensory input, so it’s much easier to feel overloaded.
Unwrapping a gift requires a lot of fine motor skills and coordination and this can be a challenge for many kids, especially when they’re so eager to see what’s inside. Toys that are not yet assembled or have complex instructions can also be frustrating, and frustration can be a difficult feeling for some autistic people to manage.
Sitting still while others open their gifts is really hard for all kids but especially those who struggle with waiting and impulse control, and then of course there’s the huge temptation to open all of the gifts at once.
Tension and uncertainty
Many autistic people hate the feeling of tension that comes with a surprise, which is essentially what a wrapped gift is. The process of opening gifts at large family events can also be very unstructured, possibly even confusing, and some kids can be unsure what to expect or what they’re supposed to do or why any of it is happening.
There are a whole bunch of social rules to navigate when it comes to giving and receiving gifts. We need to say thank you in the right way at the right time to the right person, and respond with tact if the gift is something we already have or didn’t want. That can be another source of stress for those who are still developing the social understanding required to do all of that without offending anyone. And then there’s the spotlight of attention on the person opening a gift, which can be really uncomfortable for a lot of people.
No interest in gifts
There are a lot of other reasons why some people might not be excited about getting a gift. Change is difficult or unpleasant for many people with autism, and they can have a strong preference for their favourite things over getting new stuff.
Some kids might find the wrapping or box to be more stimulating or fun than the gift itself, and others might just prefer playing with things that aren’t traditionally considered to be toys. This can be disappointing for parents and family who are expecting a different response, and that only adds to the social stress that can surround gift giving.
WAYS YOU CAN HELP
Take your time
For kids who get overloaded or find the change difficult to cope with, spread out the gift giving over a day (or two or three) and take a break in between with some downtime to adjust and play with each new gift.
For those who feel stressed by surprises, think about whether you need to wrap their gifts or opt for clear wrappings that show them what’s inside before they open it. For kids who enjoy unwrapping but feel uncomfortable with change and new stuff, try including a favourite toy for them to open.
Choose wrappings that are easy to open - gift bags, boxes with a lid or just sticking a bow directly on the gift itself. Pre-assemble toys so they’re ready to go, and don’t forget the batteries! If impulse control is an issue, try opening gifts one at a time in a room away from the big pile of gifts.
Add structure & predictability
Explain what’s going to happen ahead of time (visual supports or a social story might help), and maybe even a little gift opening practice. You can add structure and predictability on the day by opening gifts in some kind of order. It’s a good idea to give kids something to do while they wait to open their gifts, like making them a gift helper who hands out presents, collects wrapping paper or helps others to open their gifts.
Reduce social pressure
Have some practice time to role play how to give and receive a gift, and polite ways to respond when you don’t like or want the gift that someone has given you. It might be a good idea to take gifts home with you to open them in a quieter, safe, low-pressure environment. Suggest gift ideas to family members ahead of time, and prepare them for the responses or behaviours they might experience when their gift is opened.
Families sometimes feel hurt or disappointed when their gift is met with disinterest, or have specific expectations about what the gift-giving part of their holiday should look like. If this is something that you’re struggling with, remember that giving gifts is just one way of showing your love and appreciation during the holidays.
Is it important that you share gifts? Does it matter if the kids like the box more than the toy inside? The goal of the holidays is to celebrate, so if someone finds receiving or opening gifts uninteresting or uncomfortable then think about other ways to celebrate with them.
Happy holidays everyone!
Want more tips for the holidays?
Head over to the Downloads page to grab this free guide to planning autism-friendly celebrations
It's packed with over 75 pages of tips about lots of things that can make the holidays challenging for autistic people -
- sensory challenges
- routine disruption and change
- gift giving
- holiday food and decorations
- visiting Santa
- social pressures
- keeping kids safe