Tips for Giving Gifts to Children and Teens with Autism

If you are a parent or family member of someone who has autism, buying gifts for the holidays may bring additional stress. Many children and teens with autism have limited or restricted interests or play repertoires, which can make it difficult to find new toys and activities that interest them. Many families spend hours researching gifts, only to end up feeling deflated when their child does not show interest in the activity.  Here are some shopping ideas and tips for present opening to help make the holidays less stressful for your child with autism and your family:

1.      No Need to Go Big

Just because a toy is on a Top 10 list or has lots of bells and whistles is not a guarantee that every child will like it. You are free to ignore the top toys of the season list (do you remember last year's top 10? Nope, neither do I!).  If a box of little trinkets makes your kid smile, go for it. That hard-to-find retro toy on eBay- why not? I encourage families to think in thirds: make one-third of the presents toys that are age -appropriate or socially beneficial and that your child knows how to play (or is close to knowing), one- third things you want your child to learn to play with (and are willing to invest teaching time into), and one-third things that they are uniquely interested in to make sure they enjoy their holiday gift experience.

2.      Think Outside The (Big) Box (Store)

Not every child wants traditional toys from major toy stores. Think about craft stores, party stores, specialty toy catalogs, and websites and magazines for educational supplies (such as the “Fun and Function” and "Spectrum Toy Store" sites which features toys for children with special needs), or even teacher supply catalogs and stores.   

3.      Consider Toys That Make You Move and Explore

In our increasing world of sedentary leisure options (I'm talking to you electronics!), toys that allow children to engage in physically active play are a great idea. Tickets to local events, such as local theater, local sporting events, or local play centers may also be a welcome activity for those weeks off from school.

4.      Including Gifts That Allow Choice Will Please Older Kids and Teens  

Gift cards that allow children with autism to make their own choices could provide them with a source of independence and valuable opportunities to make choices. Subscriptions to a magazine or two to peak their interest in a new activity could be helpful. 

5.      Look For “Errorless” Toys for Kids Who Have Limited Leisure Skill Repertoires

These can include sensory toys that there is no “wrong” way to play with. One example of a hot toy this season that can be played by most children ages 8 and up is “Soundmoovz” bands (CRA-Z-Art, MSRP $69.99). They attach to your child’s wrists or ankles and then based on the sounds you choose on their corresponding app, they make sounds. Clay and dough toys can be explored in a variety of ways, and watching “lava” lamps or a disco ball is something many kids enjoy. Toys such as these help all kids to play and blend socially while they build up their play skills for new toys.

6.      Toys That Help Channel Stereotypic (Repetitive) Behavior into Appropriate Leisure Skills

Consider the type of sensations your child enjoys, is there a toy that matches their need? For example, if your child likes vibrations, consider a drum. Do they like spinning around? Try a sit and spin toy.  The toy retail chain “Toys R Us” has a guide to buying toys for “Differently- Abled Kids” that you can find here. It was created in conjunction with the National Lekotek Center which has guidelines and play suggestions in their “Able Play Toy Guide”. 

7.      Books!  Books! Books!

For young and old, no matter the level of reading ability, books are almost always a great idea. Nowadays there are books that provide sensory input of almost every kind- tactile window or texture books, scratch and sniff, even books that play sounds and music. For students that have difficulty with decoding or comprehension skills, consider comic books or graphic novels which provide a visual backup to the story. A subscription to a site such as can be a great gift for reluctant readers.  For students who like to use electronics, consider a digital edition of their favorite book that can go with them everywhere they do via their favorite reading app. You may also consider making your own book as online digital photography sites allow you to  easily create custom books of all lengths and sizes. A book full of pleasant memories, favorite people, even favorite toys and interests may be just what makes your child happy. If your child has a favorite grandparent or relative they love spending time with, have that person record their favorite book for them and surprise them with it (there are plenty of free recording apps available for tablets and phones).

8.      Don’t be afraid to ask

Sometimes the best information about which toys and activities meet expectation comes from other parents, so don't be afraid to ask other parents what they are getting their kids for the holidays.  While every child is unique, other parents may have experiences (positive or negative) that help steer you in the right direction. Use the power of your local moms' social media group to get recommendations and ask questions as well. Your child's teachers may have valuable input as well and can give you suggestions for toys that match your son or daughter's interest and ability level. 

9.      Show Them How It’s Done

To help your child know what to do with a new toy, consider making a video model of you (or someone your child enjoys watching) playing with the toy. Research supports the use of video modeling (Leaf, Oppenheim-Leaf, Leaf, Courtemanche, Taubman, McEachin, Shelden & Sherman, 2012) to encourage new preferences for children with autism. There are also lots of videos on the internet showing how the toy looks and works before you buy it (Hint: search for the toy name with the word “unboxing” after it), which can serve as a video “story” of what your child will receive. It’s okay to show this to your child a few days before they get the present if you think it would help them adjust to it, Santa won’t mind!

10.   Look for Quiet Time to Introduce New Toys

Toys introduced in overstimulating environments may become paired with those experiences, which may lead to your child pushing it away when it is presented again. Consider giving “tried and true” toys during family time and save the new toys for quieter moments.

11.  Space Out Gift Giving

Space out your toy giving if your child is easily overwhelmed with the “unwrap it, play it, repeat ten times” routine.  You can give one toy a day, or even every couple of weeks if you think it would benefit your child and help them accept new toys.

12.  Lower Your Social Expectations Temporarily

Research (Pierce-Jordan & Lifter, 2005) has demonstrated that when children with autism engage in new leisure activities while also being asked to perform non-mastered social tasks, the quality of both play and social skills decreases. Save higher social expectations for mastered and familiar toys and games, and focus on simply teaching the new toy or game by itself first.



Leaf, J., Openheim-Leaf, M., Leaf, R., Courtemanche, A., Taubman, M., McEachin, J., Sheldon, J, & Sherman, J. (2012). Observational Effects On the Preferences of Children with Autism. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 45(3): 473-483.

Pierce-Jordan, S & Lifter, K. (2005). Interaction of Social and Play Behaviors in Preschoolers With and Without Pervasive Developmental Disorder. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 25(1): 34-47.


*This content should be used for informational purposes only, and is in no way a substitute for professional advice specific to your child and/or situation.  Please refer to your personal clinician to see if and how these strategies can be adapted for your child." 




Donna Thiele