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Social Expectations of Gift Giving for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder

The holidays are a wonderful time for many of us. A time when we think about others and appreciate the things that make our loved ones special. We thank them for what they do for us. One way we show this gratitude is by buying gifts to say that we appreciate them. Picking up on these social norms may be second nature to many of us, but for some people on the Autism Spectrum, gift giving is a confusing and overwhelming task. Therefore, it is a great opportunity for me as a therapist to guide teenagers and adults on the spectrum through the social expectations of gift giving. So here are a few tips to lend a hand to your loved ones with Autism gain perspective taking this holiday season.

  1. Help the person with Autism identify the things family members, friends and staff do for them throughout the year. List the ideas out on a white board or on their lap top. Give them examples if needed, such as. Does you care-giver take you to your appointments, help you with services, transportation and financial assistance? Explain that these are voluntary acts of care. For people with limited verbal language skills, Yes and No questions can help the person think about what others do for them. An example is answer/circle yes or no, “Does Mom take you to your medical appointments”?

  2. Have the person identify their thoughts and feelings surrounding important people in their life.

  3. Utilize Social Stories to provide perspective taking regarding why people engage in gift giving. Illustrate that gift giving is a two way street. I like to use the example of playing a game of tennis; you need two people to hit the ball back and forth that is what makes for a fair match. One person cannot play tennis. Usually, this is the same for gift giving, you receive a gift and a gift is expected to be given. 

  4. Explore and gently challenge rigid beliefs about gifts and gently challenge any idea that gifts are only about receiving. Rigid beliefs may originate from confusion or lack of understanding about what others might like. Don’t naturally assume disinterest in gift giving is a lack of caring.

  5. Help the person become a social detective to help them think about what people in their lives would like. Encourage the person to study their love ones habits, so they can start to generate ideas about what they might enjoy. Give them ideas to get them started, what stores do they go to? What hobbies do they have? What gifts have been memorable? What do they like to talk about? What things do they not like? If the client requires extra support, family members can create a list of five things they would like and then the person with Autism can pick one. This still adds anticipation and excitement to the act of giving.

  6. Shopping online can also be a great option for people with sound, crowd and social difficulties. They can purchase the items they need without having to confront the sensory challenges that come along with shopping at the mall. They can also track the packages for those individuals that might get anxious about when the gifts will turn up.

  7. I also ask the person with Autism to record the person’s reactions and guess their emotions when they unwrap a gift, it can be a fantastic way to build anticipation, facial connection and relationship building. It can be wonderful to capture these moments with video footage and photos.

  8. After the holiday, I ask the person to share the experience of gift giving with me to help the person connect to the emotional element of the holidays and to reinforce was has been learned. Then we use this as a base to generalize gift giving for birthdays and other celebrations. I also ask them to think about their own reactions to gifts they received. How did they react? Did they use the appropriate social responses to thank loved ones? Did they respond politely when they got (as we all do) gifts they did not like.

  9. When we encourage these activities, the person with Autism will have the opportunity to engage in perspective taking skills, problem solving and emotion sharing.

  10. This is very important, so listen up…….Have a fantastic holiday season!

Nicky Palmer, M.S LMFT is director of ASD Consultancy. An agency that specializes in helping people with Autism and their families lead happy, fulfilling lives. She can be contacted at: 562-298-0603

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