I stopped buying gifts for my autistic daughter when she was 10. And I have requested, with family members and well-meaning friends, that they kindly do the same. Had I thought about it sooner, maybe I would have stopped buying gifts sooner.
Not just for Christmas.
But for her birthday.
Or for Easter.
Anytime of the year.
Just please, don’t do it. I know that the intent is good, but it’s really not necessary.
Did I really stop buying gifts for my autistic daughter?
But why, you may ask? Why would I deprive my daughter the simple joys of getting a gift?
Partially because, for several years, she just didn’t get it. She didn’t understand why (on this particular day), she was receiving a gift.
And, quite honestly, I wasn’t prepared to explain to her. I didn’t have the resources readily available to me on how to explain Christmas, a birthday, or Easter. I’m sure, if I had put more time and effort into the endeavor, I could have developed a strategy or plan.
I could have found a way or method that worked.
But I didn’t.
Eventually, she started to understand her birthday and she started to understand Christmas. She started to understand that this was a present. That she was meant to unwrap it.
But, she still didn’t quite fully get it.
Looking back, I realize that there was so much more I could have and probably should have done. But could haves and should haves won’t make a difference now. I can learn from those experiences and that’s what I’m doing.
I can help her better understand the concepts behind a birthday or Christmas. I can help her better understand the concept behind receiving a gift.
But there was still a time, in the not so recent past, that I stopped buying her gifts or even bothered to get her a card.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not haven’t given up completely. I just don’t go crazy with buying her gifts. I don’t buy her an abundance of things. We aren’t materalistic people to begin with. And she could give a crap less about the latest fashion trends. She has very specific interests.
And to be honest?
A lot of them haven’t changed since she was younger.
I’ve learned, instead, to stockpile toys that she has an interest in. We buy Cookie Monster toys in bulk. Or we buy Slinky toys in bulk. Or we buy her favorite style of shoes or boots, in bulk.
I splurge on the sensory friendly clothing because to us? That’s not extravagant. That’s not beyond our means. It’s clothes that she is comfortable in and that she will wear.
We don’t buy new things every year.
We buy a lot of batteries.
We buy iTunes gift cards.
And we make sure that our WiFi is always working.
The year we tried Christmas the Traditional Way
One year, when she was 4 (so this was 2005), I sat down with her and we looked through a Toys R Us catalog together. In fact, we looked through all of the holiday toy catalogs together. I had gone through a similar process with her older brother (he was 7) and while he understood the concept of making a list and looking for presents; it was lost on her.
It was one of those things that I was (mildly) looking forward to. Maybe if I had acknowledged to myself that I was depressed, I may have enjoyed the experience more.
But it wasn’t supposed to be about me, anyway.
It was supposed to be about the kids making a list of toys that they could bring to Santa Claus. Or writing a letter to Santa Claus.
She simply didn’t care about the “hottest toys” of the year. She didn’t play with Barbie dolls or Cabbage Patch dolls or My Little Pony. She may have had a passing interest in Dora the Explorer at that time but she didn’t care. She wasn’t interested in those things. She wasn’t obsessed with those things.
She loved the Wiggles, Blue’s Clues, Bear in the Big Blue House… and she still does.
So I opted out of shopping for the hottest toys. Instead, I went to eBay and purchased gently used lots of toys for her (some of which she still plays with as a teenager). I may not even have wrapped some of her toys that year. But she didn’t care.
She didn’t care about the wrapping paper and when I think about it? Sometimes all of that fancy wrapping, tape, and ribbons — it’s too much for her.
All of the freaking Christmas traditions that just didn’t work for her
I grew up watching my mom make Christmas cookies. And it was one of my favorite things, to watch her and to help her when I could.
After having my daughter, I had visions of us in the kitchen together. Maybe even going so far as wearing matching aprons, with little smudges of flour on our cheeks as we baked cookies or decorated a gingerbread house.
That would never quite come to fruition.
As it turns out, I’m probably too much of a control freak to let a child help me bake cookies. And with my autistic daughter’s tendency to mouth everything, the spatula or whisk was the next potential chew object or agent of stimming.
So, very quickly, baking cookies together was ruled out.
Her paternal grandmother would also buy her a special Christmas dress. She did the same for Easter. And so her father and I felt a little obligated to get pictures taken. That, was a nightmare.
I don’t think we got any pictures of her by herself because she wouldn’t sit still. And that’s fine. To be perfectly honest with you? I’m not a huge fan of getting my picture taken, either. Maybe for different reasons than her but I’m just not a huge fan. None the less, we tried.
And then there was the visit to Santa Claus.
She cried. I cried. I can’t even remember if we purchased a picture. It was just not a pleasant experience.
We did have a Christmas tree, I think. It may have been a small one but it wasn’t decorated much.
With my parents, we used to decorate the tree together. We had special ornaments. I still have some of the same ornaments from my childhood on the Christmas tree every year.
Christmas dinner, nope. She is selective about the foods she eats. But if mommy ate it, then it was safe for her to eat. Or at least that’s how I think it worked. I had to model things for her and encourage her to try them. However, between you and me? I can’t stand the texture of cranberry sauce so I will not eat it. Maybe I deprived her of that because I would turn up my nose and make a face. And then she would laugh at my expression.
For the record, neither one of us have ever had cranberry sauce.
We also tried Midnight Mass and that was another disaster. So instead, we left early and hung out at our in-laws house until the rest of the family came home so we could open presents with them on Christmas eve. That at least went over fairly well. Though, once again, my daughter was more content to be on her own or with me. I don’t think she cared much about the tree. She liked playing with the curled ribbon but she was happy to stay in my lap for the whole ordeal.
I was her comfort zone. I was her safe space.
I am still her comfort zone, I am still her safe space. Somethings will never change.
I finally let go of the picture perfect Christmas
So maybe it’s not so much that I stopped. Or that I stopped trying to bother.
More like, I stopped trying to make her fit into my “picture perfect Christmas” — and I made it more about her. Because that’s how it should be. That’s how I could make Christmas work. We have a minimal Christmas for her. And her Christmas stocking is filled with practical things. With plenty of Slinky toys, the occasional new fidget spinner, and some Chewlry.
That’s how we approach so many other things.
It’s not about making her fit into the world.
It’s about making the world fit her.
We still celebrate Christmas. We just do it in a way that’s easier for her.