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The Gift My Autistic Son Truly Needs for Christmas

“What should we get him for Christmas?”

Another year, same phone call.  It’s not an unusual question to get from grandparents, whether your kid is autistic or not.  With my neurotypical boy, the answer’s easy:  anything Power Rangers, Lego, Spider-Man, Harry Potter or Black Panther-related is going to be a hit. With my autistic boy, though?  That one’s a little tougher.

My wife and I weren’t even sure what to get him this year. Our usual fall-back, Disney DVDs, were no longer an option in a Disney+ world.  Then we thought maybe one of those digital cameras that print off Polaroids.  He recently learned how to use the camera app on his iPad and has become quite the little shutterbug.

However, that idea went out the window when we had a bit of a crisis situation. His iPad ended up getting dropped in just the right way to shatter the screen. Keep in mind that this gadget is his most cherished possession in the world.  Gollum never loved the One Ring like this child loved that iPad. Thankfully two hours later, his uncle decided to provide a new one that very quickly became even more precious. (My brother had already decided to get him an updated one. Fortunately, he understood the importance of letting him have it early.) Problem is that he’s fallen so in love with it, and is taking new and even better pictures with it, so buying him another camera at this point would be pretty pointless. Maybe for his birthday.

So where does that leave us, the grandparents, and anyone else trying to get their autistic loved one the perfect gift this holiday season? With the realization that you need to adjust your idea of what the perfect gift might be, or the perfect holiday for that matter.

Depending on the child, you may be dealing with a little one who’s wild about the holidays, or completely oblivious.  You may have a child who can go into great detail about the exact item that will make their holidays brighter, or you may have to find yourself playing guessing games to see what might draw any kind of response.

Here’s the thing I try to keep in mind: the holidays are about what you give, not what you receive. This is true whether your child is autistic or not. We all have pictures in our minds of what we think the perfect holiday should be. Thing is, that might not match what our kids consider perfect.  Holiday gatherings can be rough on our autistic loved ones. Large gatherings, noise, social pressure and food aversions can be overwhelming. We want so badly for them to join in and enjoy the holidays with us that sometimes we forget that what works for us may not necessarily work for them.

Does that mean we shouldn’t try to include them in the festivities? That we shouldn’t get them some cool toy we think they might love? Absolutely not. That’s how we show we care.  However, we do an even better job of caring when we give them what they really need this season: understanding and acceptance.

Let them enjoy the holidays on their terms. If they need a break from the huge family crowd, let them have it.  If their idea of the perfect feast is chicken nuggets and hash browns, let them dig in. If this season’s hot new video game doesn’t excite them as much as the Sesame Street toys most wouldn’t find “age-appropriate,” ask yourself this:  “Am I buying them what I would enjoy, or what they would enjoy?”

More than any other time of the year, this is when we can show our loved ones how much we treasure them, what gifts they are to us.  We all have different ideas on what that actually entails, neurotypical or autistic. I think the key is recognizing that the best gift you can give someone is doing everything you can to make their holidays merry and bright, in whatever form that may take.

That epiphany is the best gift my boy has ever given me.

This story originally appeared on Fatherhood in the Trenches.