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How Not to Shop for Autistic Children

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Updated December 11, 2009

Yes, it's the holiday season -- and autistic children, like all other children, deserve a special gift or two. But there are some gifts that just won't fly for kids on the autism spectrum.

1. Anything Made with Lead or Mercury

No child should get a gift with lead or mercury. That sounds like a no-brainer, but it's something you may have to be extra careful about ensuring, since plenty of toys from abroad are made with the toxic metals. This may be extra important when considering a gift for a child with autism, since he may mouth objects even longer than other kids -- putting him at additional risk for ingestion.

2. Cheap Knock-Offs of the Real Thing

Kids with autism have fabulous visual memories. They will not be "bought off" with an "Elmo-like" doll, a "Thomas-like" engine or a "Barney-like" dinosaur. Either go for the real deal, or find something completely different. But don't expect a child with autism to be fooled: Elmo is Elmo, and there's no just-as-good substitute on the market!

3. Toys That Are Age-Appropriate But Unwelcome

Yes, you're right, a ten-year-old is probably "too old" for Thomas the Tank Engine. But Christmas is the wrong time to insist on age-appropriate tastes. When your autistic niece unwraps that gift and finds not a favorite toy but an "age-appropriate" item, that she never asked for, you're in for a melt-down. How would you feel if you were gifted something you didn't want, but was "good for you?"

4. Toys That Absolutely Require Social Interaction or Verbal Skills

There are plenty of toys out there that are intended to build the skills autistic kids need most. There are social games, verbal games, games to teach reading, games to teach sharing... and all of these are terrific tools for teaching. But the holidays aren't about teaching --- they're about fun. If your gift absolutely requires a child with autism to find a partner, verbalize thoughts and take turns, chances are he'll use it once and never again. Instead, choose a gift that can be used interactively (building blocks, puppets, etc.) but don't have to be used with others. That way, a child with autism can enjoy them alone, or learn new skills when you play together.

5. Toys That Require Advanced Fine or Gross Motor Skills

Kids with autism may be very active, and they may adore trampolines, swings and slides. (In fact, indoor versions can be terrific holiday gifts). But most kids with autism also have at least some fine and gross motor delays that make more complex athletics difficult (and thus not much fun). Unless you know the autistic child in your life really wants them, avoid toys like jump-ropes, hackey-sacks, juggling scarves and the like. They may be attractive, but they'll probably wind up in the junk drawer when your autistic loved one finds they're just too tricky to manage.

6. Toys That Trigger Sensory Overloads

Many kids with autism have sensory sensitivities that make certain toys and arts and crafts materials very tough to take. Examples of what to avoid include sticky stuff like "slime," Silly Putty, paper mache kits, and the like, as well as stinky stuff like certain markers and plastics. Depending upon the child, you may also want to avoid toys that make a great deal of noise, flash brightly, or otherwise assault the senses.

7. Foods That Encourage Breaking a Special Diet

Quite a few kids with autism are on special diets. Most such diets exclude gluten (wheat) and casein (dairy). That means a gift of special cookies could become a serious issue: kids love 'em, but mom and dad may object. The same goes for any gluten-based or casein-based holiday treat. Before gifting food, check with Mom and Dad about special dietary issues; submit a list of ingredients before handing over the treat.

8. Toys That Encourage an Obsessive Interest

There's a fine line between obsession and passion, and kids with autism often cross that line. Yes, they may be thrilled to receive a special baseball card. But if the card becomes the central focus of their day, resulting in counting and sorting of an entire collection of cards for hours on end, it's not really a positive gift to give. Before choosing to give a toy that supports a perseverative interest, check with Mom and Dad. Perhaps there's a better time than the holidays to give that gift. When things are less hectic, you can take time out to talk about the gift, the interest, the collection, and help to turn an obsessive interest into a true, shared passion.

9. Items That Require Solitary Play or Use

While it's tough for a child with autism to interact for long periods of time, it's far too easy for most to disappear into their own worlds. Toys like hand-held video games, MP3 players and the like are specifically created to help people to disappear into their own worlds. While they do have their place in the life of a child with autism, better options might be X-Box or Wii games that can easily involve several players; CD players that allow everyone to listen to and comment on musical selections; and so forth.

10. Anything That Will Drive Parents Nuts

Parents of kids with autism have an awful lot on their plates. As a result, you can't blame them if they can't muster up extra patience to deal with a toy that makes an annoying sound, for example. Even if you think it's funny, try not to give a child with autism a toy that's likely to say the same things over and over, or a toy that's likely to wind up in a thousand pieces on the floor.

In fact, if you really think a child with autism would just love a wild, loud toy, the very best present you can give is to take that child - and that toy - outside, where you can have crazy fun together...out of earshot of the rest of the family.

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