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Whether you’re shopping for Christmas, Hanukkah, or any other holiday, finding the “perfect” gift for a child with autism can be hard, given the range of sensitivities and needs a child may have. Because autism spectrum disorder (ASD) includes a wide list of symptoms and affects each child differently, it may be best to ask the child’s parents or guardians for some guidance. Avoid gifts with surprising sensory inputs like moving robots, toys with swirling lights, or toys with strong scents without consulting the child’s parents. Consider asking about the child’s sensory needs, as that can guide the types of sensory toys you can gift. Are there any triggers you should be aware of? Any sensory inputs the child particularly enjoys? Also, ask about the child’s cognitive and motor skills level, to find a gift the child will love. Finally, don’t forget about the gift of an experience - sometimes, in lieu of a toy, the gift of time together may be the perfect present.
Here are 10 suggestions to get your holiday gifting started!
If you’ve traveled together with the child, or if you’ve gone on a special outing together, an album book full of pictures can be a sweet gift. You can go with a handmade option, or print and bind the photos online. If you arrange the photos in chronological order, the child and you can practice retelling and sequencing the day’s events together. Either way, this is a gift that will be sure to inspire more adventures.
2. Noise canceling headphones + a special playlist
One common effect of autism is an extreme sensitivity to sound. For some kids, they struggle to filter out background noise, or some sounds may be perceived as extremely loud or distorted. As a result, noisy environments can be anxiety inducing. Noise canceling headphones can be thoughtful and useful gift. Add a heartfelt card and a special playlist with recommended, age-appropriate songs for a personal touch.
3. A basket of sensory toys
Curate a basket of sensory toys, customized for the child’s needs. These colorful handy scoopers are great to use with manipulatives, sand, or water, and can help strengthen a child’s motor skills. Or, consider this space sand as a fun, creative way to engage the senses. For kids who need more tactile inputs, the popular fidget spinner can be great for stress relief and for finger dexterity. Other options include soft stuffed animals, play dough, or kinetic sand. Assemble the gifts together in a basket with the child’s favorite snacks for a delightful gift!
The classic, but always popular option - Legos. This open-ended, creative building toy is great for kids to play on their own, and for siblings to build together. It might be a good idea to ask about which size is most appropriate for the child in question. Beyond just for play, pediatric neuropsychologist Dr. Daniel LeGoff has created resources on how to use Lego as therapeutic tools to teach social and emotional skills.
5. Games and puzzles
Games and puzzles are another great option for the tactile learner. Consider games that are both educational and fun, such as this 2D to 3D matching kit, these wooden cube puzzles, or this dynamic building blocks and app set.
6. Bouncy trampoline
If you’ve got a young child on your list, this foldable trampoline with handles is great for the energetic kid on your list. It packs away when not in use, and is easy to set up both indoors and outdoors.
This inspiring list of illustrated children’s books (curated by The New York Times) might give you some ideas. Or, go for a blended tech option with the Link4Fun books masterpack, books that reveal surprises through the iPad app as you turn the book’s pages. Whichever book you choose, this will be a gift that kids will return to. For bonus points, offer to host a read-together and enjoy the new books together along with the child’s favorite snacks.
8. A shared experience
If a shared experience is more of what you’re looking for, consider gifting a membership to a local science, art, or children’s museums. Inquire about interactive exhibits designed for kids to touch and play without parents worrying about their children breaking something. Or, your local parks may host outdoor movies or concerts in the spring, great for kids who can’t stay still for extended periods of time. If you know the child’s favorite food, perhaps a meal at their favorite restaurant could be a suitable present.
9. Sensory aids
Sensory aids can make a big difference in a child’s day-to-day life. This weighted compression vest can help kids with sensory processing issues focus and feel more secure and calm. Or, this cute, vibrating turtle cushion is soft, cuddly, and soothing for children with autism.
10. Play date
If you have kids of your own, offer to host a play date. Not only will you give the child’s parents a bit of a break, you’ll also give the child a chance to practice his/her social skills. Some popular options for play dates include a crafts day (make homemade play dough, paint, or create beaded jewelry) or a baking day (make cookies or roll out pizza dough). Be sure to ask about any food sensitivities ahead of time.
Hopefully, these ideas will inspire gifts for all the children on your list this year. Happy holidays!
Sophia Chung is a Masters of Education candidate studying at Harvard Graduate School of Education, focusing on Technology, Innovation, and Education. She is passionate about learning through tinkering, advocating for inclusive education, and storytelling with kids.