By Robert Naseef

Holidays and birthdays are times to enjoy our children. No matter which tradition you celebrate, holiday shopping can extract much of the joy and excitement for many people. Parents of children with autism struggle with what gifts to buy and dread that nothing will work out.

When I sit with parents as a psychologist, the emotions are the same for birthdays and holidays. Most parents typically envision their excited child having fun with new toys, yet many parents of children with autism are confronted with celebrations marred by meltdowns and disappointment. The frequent behavioral challenges can make for gritty and unwelcome moments. By knowing what is realistic to expect and being prepared with coping strategies, families can sidestep many problems and enjoy their time together as much as possible.

A thoughtful mother I know learned to be “realistic” now that her son is four. Instead of buying an “age appropriate” remote controlled car, she bought him some toys that he would enjoy even though the label said “30 months.” She will enjoy his fun and still hope and work for him to develop further by having fun interacting with the rest of the family.

I know a father who got past his own grief and bought his 16-year-old son the Sponge Bob t-shirt he requested. These parents have found a measure of acceptance. It takes time, but most people do move toward acceptance. Children with special needs teach their parents and others to cultivate patience and appreciation of what they can do.

Another father was very disappointed that his son didn’t like playing catch with the football. He came to the conclusion he should look for a two-player video game he could play with his son. You may want to consider various apps that promote learning and interaction. There are many reviews available, such as at https://www.lifewire.com/ipad-apps-for-autism-spectrum-disorder-4114202.

If you need help thinking through your choices, the National Lekotek Center is an excellent resource. Check out their recommendations on the “10 Considerations When Buying Toys for Children With Disabilities”. Toy evaluations and ratings for various toys are also available at www.ableplay.org. Your child’s teachers and therapists can also be good sources to consult with for ideas.

Overall, think about what will put a smile on your child’s face.

There are three key issues to carefully consider:

§ Does the toy fit the child’s developmental age or stage?
§ Does it reflect the child’s interests?
§ Is there potential for interaction?

Children with autism are first and foremost children, so understanding each child’s individual characteristics is the key to enjoying holidays and birthdays. It may not be what you imagined, but you can still offer your family the love and warmth that really matters. As opposed to wishing and pushing for things to be “normal”, understanding and accepting your unique child, is the best way to plan and enjoy your time together. An important lesson that all children can teach us is that parents’ time and attention is exciting and wonderful. Try not to get caught up in the consumer-oriented rush. Let’s connect with family and friends with mind and heart and enjoy our time together.