During my usual morning tour of the internet yesterday I ran into an article about “gifts for special needs kids.” This article was obviously geared for people who find themselves shopping for a developmentally-disabled child they don’t spend a great deal of time with, and -as J’s mother- I suddenly realized where people have been getting their ideas for Christmas and birthday presents past. Mind you, we do appreciate when people remember J or want to give J a present, but -quite frankly- a lot of it ends up going to his classroom for everyone to use.
IF you have to shop for a developmentally-disabled individual this holiday season, think before you purchase. Ask yourself, first and foremost, WHO am I shopping for? If you start your answer with the child’s (teenager’s or adult’s) disability, STOP!!! Put the item down! Take a deep breath and think carefully…
Over the years we have amassed a collection of wood puzzles, crafts, chunky toys…and we’ve sent them to school with J for his whole class to use. Why? Because a great deal of that is already present in the classroom and whatever we send adds variety to their selection. Why else? Because once a child identifies an item as “something we use in school” it stops being fun to play with at home. It’s as simple as that…
Shop for the person, not just for whatever skills they need to develop. Ask mom or dad “what does so-and-so ENJOY?” That’s the key…if it’s a gift, if it’s for Christmas or a birthday, the person receiving it (especially if they have to work so hard all the time to achieve what comes easily to others) should be getting a treat, not just more “homework.”
We buy J puzzles…500-piece puzzles. We buy J Legos and Playmobil sets…but it’s a family game to put them together. We buy iTunes cards so he can explore what he likes, not just what we think he will like. He has Selena Gomez hanging on his wall…because HE likes her. When J was in grade school, some schmo played Baby Beethoven for him…he prefers the actual grown-up version of classical music. It’s all about knowing your intended audience…
So, here are a few suggestions:
1) Ask mom and dad what their kid enjoys. I know I said it before, but this merits repeating. Yes, it can be awkward, but getting to know new people always has a potential for awkwardness.
2) Don’t shop for a disabled, special-needs, autistic and so forth person…shop for so-and-so who just so happens to have whatever needs.
3) Do you enjoy getting underwear or socks for Christmas or your birthday? I don’t mean Victoria’s Secret underwear…I mean basic, white cotton Fruit of the Loom stuff. Think about how you would feel opening a big box of homework on Christmas morning…apply that feeling to your selection.
4) Sometimes several small things are much better than one big thing. For example: J loves cheap wind-up toys, Slinky (of course), bubbles, balloons… Perhaps it’s best to make a little gift basket with several interesting things that won’t cost a lot, like glow-sticks, chattering teeth, koosh balls, and such rather than buy one big present that the person will lose interest in much faster.
5) If you’re thinking of buying clothes, ask the parents if there is a brand the child prefers. Many individuals with developmental-disabilities are sensitive to textures and will shun one brand because of the way the seams are constructed and how they feel on their skin.
6) Try to steer clear of objects with flashing lights and noises because these can over-stimulate the person receiving the gift and the people who surround him or her.
7) Think of the person’s chronological age and what is fashionable with their age group…J loves Tigger, but other sixteen year-old males are not walking around wearing Tigger t-shirts…
8) If at all possible, take the person with you…you will give them double the present: an item they choose and your time and company.
If you are a mom or dad of a disabled individual, I suggest keeping a list by the phone and having suggestions handy for when someone calls asking. I know they don’t often call, but if they do you won’t be grabbing at straws. If you want your child to get educational toys, say so. If you’re cool with your kid getting whatever is appropriate for the age group and your particular values, be clear about it.
Shopping for a person you don’t know can be awkward, but people feel even more intimidated when the person they are shopping for has special needs. We love that people care, we really do! Every parent feels happy when their child is remembered in a nice way, and a gift that says “I shopped for your disabled kid” is a little of a jab at our hearts. We shop for our kids, not for their disabilities although we do take them into consideration.
I’m a grown-up (obviously…chronologically, at least) and I love many, many things since childhood…but you have to know me in order to assume I’m going to enjoy getting fairy tales, a Donald Duck watch, any movie with Robby Benson or Pop Rocks and Sixlets as stocking stuffers. If you were visiting my home, which would shock and surprise me and I’d be yelling “beat to quarters!!!!!” as you headed towards the door (I told you we’re weird…that’s our battle cry…the children leap into action and the house gets straightened up in two shakes of a tail), you’d bring something “hostess-gift” like, wouldn’t you? If you’re buying a present for a disabled kid, you don’t want to give the impression that you got your idea from Google…and a call to mom and dad will make everyone, including yourself, feel a lot better.