7 Keys To Gift Giving For Special-Needs Families

sitemgr_photo_2000249285Published: 11/29/2013 by Elaine Hall

“What should I get for my nephew who has autism?” asks my girlfriend Katie.
“What does he like to do?” I query.
“My sister says that right now he just likes to play with Tupperware.”
“Great! Get him that.”

I remember one year, one of my son’s caretakers wrapped up two sets of Tupperware – the lids separate from the boxes – and I still recall the joy on his face when he unwrapped each one!

Finding the right gifts for our children with special needs can be easier than we think. All we have to do is tune into what they enjoy and get them that. Are we spoon feeding their disability? I think not. Part of gift giving for typically developing children is to give them something that they desire, that they love, and that may or may not always be practical. Why not the same for our kids with special needs? Following are guidelines for holiday gift giving times, and throughout the year.

  1. Observe what children enjoy doing in their down time, when they are not in any one of their myriad therapies. If your elementary school-aged child is passionate about dinosaurs, bring them books, DVDs, or figures of dinosaurs. If you know that your neighbor with cerebral palsy enjoys watching Disney movies, ask their parents what movie they would like on DVD. My son, Neal, loves downloading songs, so an iTunes card is the perfect gift for him!
  2. Accept that children with developmental delays might enjoy gifts that you might not think to be age-appropriate. Don’t judge this. I know of a teen who loves Sesame Street characters. Well, so do I! Sesame Street has wonderful values of inclusion, accepting differences and being a good friend. The Sesame Street Workshop website offers tool kits to explore all kinds of experiences.I especially like the “Little Children, Big Challenges” series that helps children cope with stressful situations. Neal has always been fascinated with bees and flowers. Some may call this an obsession. I like to think of it as passion or preferred interest. Today, Neal has a job in an organic garden. You never know what preferred interests can lead to!
  3. Sense that children with special needs may process the world differently than other children their age. Sensory toys that are calming make wonderful gifts. Some of my favorites are the weighted bear, the weighted turtle, and the weighted blanket, seen on the show, Extreme Makeover. Fidgetland creates these fabulous “fidgets” that are wonderful for individuals with ADD or ADHD.
  4. Join the child and their family in their interests. Parenting a child with special needs can be extremely costly. Extra activities such as therapeutic horseback riding, swimming, sports lessons or music classes can sometimes be financially prohibitive. Rally family members or a group of friends together and contribute toward a class the child would like to take that parents otherwise could not afford.
  5. Include the family. Invite the family with autism over for your holiday dinner. Yes, you recall that your neighbor’s child is prone to outbursts, that he eats with his fingers, and he can’t sit for very long. However, you don’t know how much your invitation could mean to a family. Before founding The Miracle Project, www.themiracleproject.org where we celebrate holidays and special events with other families, there were times when Neal and I had to spend holidays alone. Holiday times can be very lonely. People don’t usually want a whirling dervish in their home. But just once, take a risk. Put away your fine china, bring out the paper plates, and enjoy! Even if the family declines, you are giving them the greatest gift of all by inviting them.
  6. Give your time. Offer to watch the child with special needs so that the mom or dad can do some holiday shopping, or so that the couple can have a quiet meal together and regroup. Holidays are stressful for everyone. Imagine having a child with extreme sensitivity to lights, sounds, people and places. It can be next to impossible to take the child to a crowded mall, especially during holiday times. Being available for the family is one of the best gifts you can offer. If you are at the mall shopping and see a mom or dad with a child who is having a difficult time, ask if you can help. Even if the parent declines your offer, the mere gesture can help the parent feel less stressed and embarrassed. And we all know that when a parent is less stressed, the child will be more relaxed. If you are in the front of a line and see a parent with a child with autism in the back of the line, offer them your place. Your generous offer can make a world of difference to that family. One of my favorite gifts this year is the ‘ZenWatch’which reminds us that the only time we really have is NOW.
  7. Give your unconditional love. The most important gift you can give to a family with special needs is your unconditional love and support. This is the gift that will keep on giving throughout the year.

Many blessings to everyone, and may your holidays and New Year be full of love, compassion, and Joy.

Elaine Hall is a thought leader; motivational speaker; inclusion activist; founder of The Miracle Project, profiled in the HBO film, Autism: The Musical; author of Now I See the Moon (HarperCollins) and 7 Keys to Unlock Autism (Wiley); and creator of an arts enrichment and religious education program at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services.

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