Amidst all the fun and celebration, the holiday season can also be a big source of stress for many autistic kids. Routines are disrupted and there’s a lot of sensory overload to cope with, not to mention all the extra social situations. These can all quickly add up to make this a particularly difficult time of year for some families.
One of the areas of stress that’s often overlooked is receiving and opening gifts. There are a lot of reasons why this can be an overloading event for some kids.
There’s a lot of extra visual input that comes with a big pile of wrapped presents surrounded by glittery decorations or twinkling lights, as well as sensory input from the sound of ripping or scrunching paper. Heightened excitement levels can make it more difficult to regulate that sensory input too, so it’s much easier to feel overloaded.
The element of surprise can be a really fun part of giving a gift, but it also creates this big moment of tension for the person opening it and that feeling can be really uncomfortable for some kids. The whole process of opening gifts as a family can also be very unstructured, and possibly even confusing, and some kids can be unsure what to expect or what they’re supposed to do or why any of it is happening.
Unwrapping a gift can sometimes be difficult for kids who struggle with fine motor skills and coordination, and this can be frustrating when they’re so eager to see what’s inside. It’s also hard to wait for toys that are not yet assembled or have complex instructions, and that feeling of frustration can be a difficult one for some kids to manage. Sitting still while others open their gifts is really hard for all kids, and then of course there’s the huge temptation of looking at a big pile of presents and not being able to open them all at once.
There are a lot of social rules to navigate when it comes to receiving gifts. You need to say thank you in the right way at the right time to the right person. There are awkward situations to deal with, like getting something that you don’t want or already have. And then there’s the spotlight of attention on the person opening a gift, which can be very uncomfortable for a lot of people.
No interest in gifts
There are a lot of reasons why some kids might not be excited about getting a gift. Change can be difficult or unpleasant for kids with autism, and they might have a strong preference for their current toys over getting new ones. Some might find the wrapping or box to be more stimulating or fun than the gift itself, and others might just prefer playing with things that aren’t traditionally considered to be toys.
So let’s take a look at some possible solutions to these, and ways to include everybody in the festivities in a way that’s comfortable and fun for them.
Take your time
Reduce the sensory onslaught by opening gifts gradually instead of all at once. Spread out the gift giving over a day (or two or three), and take a break in between with some downtime to play with each new gift.
Remove temptation & visual overload
Consider opening gifts one at a time in a different room away from the big pile of gifts. Put each one away out of sight once opened before opening the next gift.
If your kids feel stressed by surprises, try wrapping their gifts with them so they can see what’s inside ahead of time. You can also wrap up something familiar if they feel uncomfortable with the change that comes with receiving new toys.
Use easy to manipulate wrappings – try things like gift bags, boxes with a lid that opens easily or just sticking a bow directly on the gift itself. Make sure toys are easy to use, pre-assembled and ready to go, and don’t forget the batteries!
Add structure & predictability
Help them to understand what’s going to happen by explaining ahead of time (using visuals or a social story) and maybe practicing how to open gifts. Add some structure and predictability to the gift opening chaos by opening them in some kind of order. Give your kids something to do while they wait to open their gifts, like making them a gift helper who hands out presents, collects wrapping paper or helps others to open their gifts.
Reduce social pressure
Consider taking gifts home with you to open them in a quieter, safe environment. Role play how to say thank you, and polite ways to respond when they don’t like or want the gift. Suggest gift ideas to family members, and prepare them ahead of time for the responses or behaviours they might experience when their gift is opened.
Manage your expectations
How important is it that your kids open gifts? Does it really matter if they like the box more than the gift inside? Giving gifts is just one way of showing your love and appreciation during the holidays, so if your kids find receiving or opening gifts uncomfortable then you might need to think about other ways to celebrate with them.
Happy holidays everyone!
About the Author
Bec Oakley is a special needs advocate, writer, blogger, and a parent of two boys with autism in Australia. Autism is part of what makes her and her kids who they are, so she’s passionate about helping people understand what it’s all about. Check out her excellent blog, Snagglebox.com.