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Autistic gift giving

Receiving Gifts - An Autistic Experience

Dec 07, 2022

A guest post by our inTune Pathways Team member, Deirdre


In the 3 years since we found out my youngest, and subsequently, my husband, myself and my eldest child are all autistic, I have had well-meaning therapists and friends present us with social stories at this time of year, intended to prepare our children for the process of gift exchanges at Christmas. 


I quite like the use of social stories. But only the way I write them; Factual. Non-cohersive. Non-threatening. Providing clear, precise information on how a process is done and why each step of a process is done. It was literally sanity-saving with setting up a bedtime routine for my kids. A social story that explained why we brush our teeth, why we put washing in a washing basket, why we wash our bodies and our hair and why we go to sleep at night. I’ve never read one made by someone else that didn’t have at least one thing that made me uncomfortable. 


But a social story for gift exchanges in particular just felt SO icky for me. I thanked those who gave them to me, though I never used them. Not fully understanding why I was so uncomfortable. You see, when I was a child, Christmas was a (mostly) glorious day that started with the excitement of waking up to stockings at the end of our bed. A clever plan by my parents to get an extra half an hour of sleep in while we all opened our stockings and ran between each other's bedrooms to check out each other’s loot. My eldest sister would have us form a line, always eldest to youngest. I was in place 2 of 4. Which always left my brother at the end who would often spy on Santa’s pile while we were meant to be tip-toeing, eyes closed to my parent's bedroom to begin the gift opening altogether. I’ll never forget the year he shouted “SANTA BROUGHT US ALL BIKES!” with such excitement as we were about to enter our parent’s bedroom to pounce on them. 


I have distinct memories of when we no longer believed, in opening gifts, and if I didn’t like it I would say “Thanks Mam, but I don’t like the colour of this, I’m going to take it back if that’s ok?” There was NO expectation to pretend, aka mask, my true feelings. My opinion was valued. My parents took joy in seeing their children being themselves and expressing their thoughts and feelings openly and honestly. We were accepted for who we were. 


So 3 years ago, when I was presented with a social story, with the intent to teach my children how to accept a gift and then how to explicitly hide their own feelings about their gift in order to protect the gifter’s feelings… I was genuinely shocked that people think this is actually ok. Did they understand that they were training their child to fawn, to put someone else’s needs over their own? To suppress their true thoughts and feelings in order to be liked? Did they know they are teaching their autistic children and clients to mask? Did they know the impact that masking can have on autistic people?


For some autistic people, receiving a gift can be extremely stressful, for this exact reason; the expectation to put on a fake smile and say thank you when you hate what you have received. But there can also be other reasons why an autistic person, especially a child, may not want to receive a gift. They might be feeling dysregulated by all of the noise around them, there might be too many people chatting, glasses clinking, children screaming, paper ripping, Christmas carols playing, lights flashing, people laughing, and people taking photos and videos. There is an expectation to engage in this performance with all of that going on. We watch young children with delight hoping to see their eyes light up and a huge beam on their faces. NEWS FLASH!!! This performance is about us, reliving our own childhood experiences of Christmas. What WE want. It’s not about the child. 


So if you have a little one in your life who struggles with gift receiving, talk to them about what they want. Set the boundary with family members on their behalf. Say no to gifts. Say thank you on their behalf and let them open them in private later. Ask for money instead. If your family doesn't get it… well, you have some difficult decisions to make. But putting your family member’s needs before your child’s is detrimental to your child’s emotional well-being. And these are the fights worth fighting. 


I’ll be forever grateful to my parents for making our Christmases so magical and filled with love and acceptance. And for allowing us to speak our truth. Always. Even when they didn’t love what they were hearing. 



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