Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | December 8, 2012

An Autistic’s Holiday Survival Guide, part 5: Gifts

This post is part of my ongoing series “An Autistic’s Holiday Survival Guide“. Other posts in this series can be found here.


“Gifts” and the holiday season have been admirably tackled by a number of bloggers already, and much of what I have to say mirrors their experiences. This post from Aspie Writer covers a lot of ground, and has a lot of interesting ways that her family navigates the holiday gifts conundrum.

Giving and receiving gifts is a traditional part of the holiday season that has baffled me for a very long time. On the giving side of things, I’ve never been able to figure out what people would like, so I’m a terrible gift giver. When I give a gift, I put a ton of thought into it, work my butt off to make it happen, and then the person doesn’t actually like it, and I feel like an idiot, because I put so much effort into something, and it came out so wrong. On the receiving end, I have some amazing friends who are very good at gifts for me, and a few people in my life, who keep insisting on buying me jewelry and other fancy things I don’t use or really ever want to think about. While I’m not sure that the whole ritual of exchanging gifts at a prescribe time of the year makes any sense, nor do I buy into the idea of a relationship that is based on the quality of present one can give to another, I do have a few tips that I’ve learned over the year to share, either as an autistic person buying a gift, or as a person looking to buy an autistic friend or loved one a gift.

First, don’t hesitate to ask what someone wants. This goes both ways – I’m terrible at gauging what someone wants. I have a lot of trouble seeing past “well I would enjoy this, so the recipient will too” trap that leads to awkward, un-appreciated and un-wanted gifts. The intention is there, but the follow-through doesn’t work out. So I have learned to ask what I can get someone, and the words “surprise me” don’t come up terribly often, and when they do, I say “I need a little more to go on than that” and it usually works quite well. The friends I would consider giving gifts to are those who understand and appreciate me for me, and thus, are more than willing to go against the social idea that “if you were really my good friend, you’d get me the perfect gift without ever having to ask me”. I think this is pretty bogus anyway, because how can someone know everything about another person? So err on the side of caution. If the friend is offended that you asked, then they’re probably not as close as you thought they were. (As a side note, if you have to buy a gift for a superior, like a boss or equivalent, try asking what a coworker is doing, or suggest all pitching in to get something from “all of you” – the amazing thing about group gifts is that someone else can decide, or you can decide by committee, and you don’t have to worry about all the stress of figuring out the gift all on your own.)

The same rule applies if you’re giving me a gift. I prefer things I can use, things I need, rather than frivolous things. Though, when in doubt, I love stuffed animals. Anything plush is pretty awesome. But that’s not my point here. My major point, is that I greatly appreciate it when someone decides they want to give me a gift, and while I don’t mind surprises, and love it when someone finds something that is “perfect for me”, I am also quite happy if someone asks what I would like. I always have practical things I can appreciate and actually use. For example, this year I asked my mom for an ice cream scoop. Why? Because I’ve been pining after one (my spoons only work so well), and I want a really nice ice cream scoop. However, I have spoons, and they work, so it’s not something I would buy for myself. It’s something my mom can pick out herself and surprise me with exactly what it looks like, but it’s something I’ll treasure and use for years. Unlike the many pieces of jewelry I’ve accumulated over the years, most of which hasn’t ever seen the light of day. (And yet I can’t give it away, of course…) In past years, I have asked for shirts, underwear, and printer ink. All things I would have to buy anyway.

These rules are pretty simple, but sometimes hard to follow. I want to do something nice for some people who really helped me out with rides earlier this term when I was on crutches, and I can’t figure out something to do for them. Though this would be a non-holiday gift, but rather a “thank you” gift, so I suppose it somewhat falls outside of the “holiday” category.

Something else that seems to bother people is the idea of giving an autistic person a “non-age appropriate” gift. What does “age appropriate” mean anyway? My understanding of “gift” is that it is meant to make someone happy. It is supposed to be a way of showing your appreciation or fondness or love for a person, and it is something that can make them smile. So what if what makes your 6 year old smile is something that would make a 4 year old smile. I’m 23, and the thing that makes me smile the most is stuffed animals. There’s a time and a place for “age appropriate”, and giving gifts is not one of them. Give the autist in your life something they will enjoy and love, regardless of the age on the label.

And when in total doubt, gift cards and cash are not bad gifts. They take the choice out, and give it to the receiver to choose. They’re not the easy route, but rather a way of saying “I want to get you something, but I don’t know exactly what you like. So I’m going to get you this giftcard, because I know you like this store. Go buy yourself something that you want.” – to me, this is the definition of respect. When in doubt, give something functional.

And every once in a while, I get lucky and manage to give a gift that someone really loves and appreciates. That is definitely the best part of all.

Happy Gift-Giving!


  1. I love giving gifts, but I’m rubbish so always ask or check wishlists. This year my son has new hoodies and trainers because his foster dad told me he needed them (R can’t really speak so I can’t ask him).

    Stuff age appropriate! I’m 39 and I’m not sure that a typical 39 year old female wants Doctor Who toys and stuffed purring Tribbles to throw at people. I’m a dork and I don’t care 🙂

    • Dr. Who toys and Tribbles? Awesome!!

      I also think gift cards are a great way to go and not the lazy person’s way out.

  2. “When in doubt, give something functional.”

    I love this!

    E, you definitely need a quotations page. You are so good at encapsulating in a few simple words things which can be so complex (well, they are for me)!

    PS: I am 38, female and also love Doctor Who. You are not alone, Missus Tribble.


  3. I’m a very practical gift-giver, I want to give something that will be used and appreciated. BUT I’m also a very silly gift giver, because sometimes practical just doesn’t cut it. Toys Rule!

    Meanwhile, on the subject of Xmas, I just don’t do it. Yep, I gave up Xmas years ago. If people would just relax and be happy gathering together for food or drinks, that would be one thing.
    But people lose their minds at Xmas! They have to rush here and rush there; they have to go into ridiculous debt to buy obligatory gifts and receive obligatory gifts; everybody’s so stressed out, I very rarely see anyone actually enjoying the holiday.

    So several years ago, I finally said “No” to Xmas. The holidays are much more fun now.

    The only gift I’ll buy is the $10 gift for a Dirty Santa game my cousins like to play. We get together before Xmas, eat some food, then each take turns picking a mystery gift from the pile of presents. And, for example, if I’ve unwrapped my gift, but you want it, then you get to take it from me, giving me your unwrapped gift in return. And I get to “trade” for a gift from someone else, if I choose. It sounds silly, and it is, it’s absolutely silly fun.

    Birthdays are different – birthdays are special and I love buying someone a gift for their birthday, or just because I wanted to. 🙂

    • 🙂 Thanks for your comment. I definitely appreciate the “practical or silly” gifts… though if something makes me happy, then that is serving a practical purpose, after all. 🙂

  4. These suggestions could be used by anyone for anyone-autistic or not.

    • Exactly! It’s just that there are so many people out there who think that gifts have to be a certain thing, and they don’t. Especially parents of autistic kids – they get so upset when they can’t get their kid something that they might give a typical kid. When really, everyone has different likes/interests. The point, is that a gift should make someone happy.

  5. I have that experience with Christkind gifts (sorta like secret Santa except you give every week during the Advent season- you have the option to reveal who you are in the end) for several years now. For me, I buy a variety of gifts in rummage sales throughout the year whenever possible… usually I have a few spare (which will add on to the following year). Then, when I draw out whoever I am giving the gifts to, I will ask my mom for advice based on the available gifts I bought during the year and who (an individual or a family) I draw.

  6. I was thinking about this post recently when I had to buy a gift for my autistic son – it wasn’t his birthday but, as you may know, here in France ‘Saint’s days’ are sometimes celebrated (every day of the year has a patron saint, and when it happens to be the saint who shares your name, some people offer you a small gift. But I digress.) and it was his ‘Saint’s day’ a couple of weeks back. And as often happens, I had no idea what to offer him.

    But then I remembered your comment, “a gift should make someone happy.”

    My son is happiest when he is stimming, twirling and untwirling (is that a word?) a ribbon or a piece of string around his finger – so I found a lovely long, stretchy, colourful ribbon – which was immediately adopted as the new “twirly”.

    Thank you, E, for showing me that I don’t need to get my son something he wouldn’t enjoy as it wouldn’t be for *him* – it would be a present for a typical kid. I’m pretty sure his new twirly is a great present because, for once, it’s for who he is, not who some third party thinks he should be.

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