Darren Sush Psy.D., BCBA-D

All the Pieces

Holiday Gift Guide for Parents of Children with Autism

Most of the time, the best gifts are the ones that are not always wrapped.

Posted Dec 18, 2014

Confused about what to get your friend or family member who has a child with autism or special needs? Most of the time, they just want what any other parent would like – a gift from the heart that shows that you really care. But, if you feel like you still need some guidance, I’ve worked with Shannon Penrod, host of Autism Live and proud mother of an eleven year-old who has been diagnosed with autism, to compile some go-to gifts that are sure to please.

#1 The Gift of Being There

I often get questions during the holiday season about the “perfect gift” for parents of children with autism and special needs: “What new product or gadget can I buy that will help make their life easier?” The truth is, most of the time, the best gifts are the ones that are not always wrapped.

In my practice, one of the most common concerns I hear is that parents of children with autism and special needs are looking for support and guidance from friends and family; they want a caring ear to talk to when they need to vent. Because of that, one of the most important things you can do for a family influenced by autism, is just be there to listen.

Although it is important to remember that every child is different, learning more about autism can be a great help for families impacted by a diagnosis of autism. Not only will learning more about autism help to spread awareness and understanding, but it will also demonstrate your support for your friends and family during a time of the year that tends to significantly increased stress. Learning more about the diagnosis, and leveraging that knowledge to become a resource for support and understanding, can be extremely helpful to parents of children with autism or special needs. 

Once you have that knowledge base, make yourself available to listen. Like with many people, if you ask how they are doing they will say they are “fine.” If you wait for them to call when they need help, they won't. Call them up and let them talk - even if it's not about autism, or things like IEPs or target behaviors. Just having someone outside of the house to listen, without judgment and without comparison, can be the best gift of all. Don’t tell them what they “should” do or how they should do it; in fact try not to offer advice unless they ask for it. Just be there, and they will be thankful.

What to Wrap: A card with some caring words and letting them know you are there is great way to share the gift of listening. Or, if you want something to wrap, try gifting a pack of personalized “call cards” good for a 15 minute conversation whenever they need someone to talk to.

Price Point: The gift of listening is free for you and priceless for the parents! 

#2 The Gift of a Date Night

Often times, “date” and “night” are not words that parents of children with autism hear in the same sentence. The gift of alone time with a spouse or friends can help parents de-stress and reinvigorate themselves and their relationships.

Shannon Penrod offers the advice: “Just don’t forget the child care!” Offer to babysit yourself, or ask the family who they normally use (just try and do it in a way where you keep the gift a surprise – maybe ask for the contact information for friend!).  If the family doesn’t have a regular sitter, look to a service like UrbanSitter.com that allows you to search a database of caregivers in your area to find an appropriate babysitter. They even feature sitters who are trained and have experience with autism and special needs.

Just be sure to combine this gift with a little extra bit of patience. Many parents of children with autism may not be ready to jump up and take a night out, even if they really want one. They might need to prepare themselves to be away for a few hours, and may also want to help prepare their kids to have a successful night without their direct support. Children and parents influenced by autism often find comfort and strength in maintaining a routine. Breaking that routine, even for a short night out can be a daunting proposition. Combining your “date night” gift with a few practice runs that build up to the big night, can not only help the children feel more comfortable with their parents being away, but also can help the parents feel more willing to take a little time for themselves.  

What to Wrap: A gift basket with movie tickets, gift cards to a movie theater or a gift certificate to the parent’s favorite restaurant (gift cards are a great option for those parents who may not be able to make the commitment to a specific night out, this way they can use the tickets when they are ready) and child care services is a great start! Then, either offer to babysit yourself or add in a gift certificate or cash for a sitter.

Price Point: Restaurant gift certificates can be any amount you desire but typically should cover an appetizer, one round of drinks and dinner, and dessert for two at the restaurant you choose. If not sitting yourself, sitter costs should be researched in advanced – either by contacting the parent’s regular sitter or looking on the subscription site.

#3 The Gift of an Even Cleaner House for the Holidays

Shannon suggests the priceless gift of a clean home “Having someone else clean your house is the height of luxury for many special needs parents,” she says. There are companies like HomeJoy.com that offer the ability to book online for easy access to multiple cleaners at most any time. Plus, you can choose the option for “green clean” if the child has any allergy or aversion to any smelly cleaning products.

What to WrapFill a basket with some green cleaning products and include a gift card for cleaning services to be used at their convenience.

Price PointTypically, cleaning services can range between $20-$50 per hour, but it definitely depends on the city where you live. If you are gifting outside of your town, check online or ask the cleaner how much they charge for a full cleaning so you know how much to gift. Green cleaning products can range from $3-$12 per product, so you are likely looking at a gift that is at least $50-$100.


#4 The Gift of Lovely Family Photographs

Most parents would love to have a beautiful photo of their entire family to keep and share. However, it is not always possible, and may actually be extremely stressful, for parents of children with autism to sit through the typical family photography session. Many times, when the perfect scene is set, the parents are behind the camera putting everything together! Finding a professional photography service to catch those lovely candid family moments can help to capture some amazing memories that will last beyond the holiday season.  

What to Wrap: Look for a photographer in your area who either specializes or has experience in photography for children with autism or special needs. Ask if they can provide a gift card or allow you to pre-pay for a family shoot. Wrap the card with a cute frame they can use to display their favorite photograph. 

Price PointPhotographer prices vary dramatically so typically you should be able to find one who fits your budget. If you are on a budget, try discount or dollar stores for the frame.

#5 The Gift of a Play Date (with Food!)

Shannon notes, “Friendships can be tricky waters for children with autism to navigate, so play dates are often few and far between. Inviting your friends around to play with your kids or offering to meet at the local playground can be a really welcome way of providing safe and rewarding social interaction for them.”

After the playdate, have the family over for dinner at your house. But, be sure to make it easy and safe for your friends to come and visit. Ask about dietary restrictions and favorite foods, what their kids like to play with and the shows they like to watch so everyone will feel more comfortable when they visit. Also see if they have any visual supports that they use at home that you can replicate at your place (like a sign to show where the toilet is, or a task chart with the steps for washing hands), and whether there are any safety requirements (like door locks) so your parent friends can relax during their visit.

What to WrapWrap a toy that your children could play with together during the playdate and include a card that explains the playdate and dinner at your house.

Price PointThis is a great gift because it can range from free (just the playdate) to inexpensive (playdate and dinner at your house) to even more extravagant when you include the toy your children can share at the playdate. Make this one your own and include what you can – no matter what, your friend and their family will be very grateful! 


#6 The Gift of a Mini-Makeover

“Special needs parents spend so much time taking care of others they often forget how to take care of themselves,” Shannon says. “Spafinder.com has a gift card that parents can use at participating spas near them. The card allows you to pick services you want so if you are in the mood for a massage or a facial, you can choose.”

Other great ideas from Shannon include: 

  • A Wardrobe Shopping Spree: “Every special needs parent could use a wardrobe update because we so frequently put off our fashion needs at the bottom of a long list of necessities,” says Shannon. She suggests stores like Macy’s because they offer personal shoppers by appointment who can help a stressed and frazzled parent to enjoy their shopping experience.
  • Gym Membership – “Every special needs parent knows they need to be taking care of themselves so they can take of their child. But the reality is sometimes difficult. Having a gym membership that allows for sessions with a personal trainer is the key to insuring the parent not only gets a workout but gets the most out of it,” says Shannon. She suggests gift cards to gyms like 24 Hour Fitness because they offer an array of personal trainers to ensure the right fit.
  • Mini-Makeovers – “Sometimes all a special needs parent needs is a mini-makeover to give them a lift,” she says. She suggests trying a gift card for a haircut/color to a top rated salon or even a blow-out from somewhere like DryBar. Manicure/pedicures are a great option too!

What to Wrap: Try wrapping a candle with a soothing scent or a pair of cute slippers with your gift card for a little extra oomph! 

Price PointThe nice thing about gift cards is that they come in almost every denomination to meet every shopping budget. Whatever amount, your friend will just be grateful and happy to know you thought of their own needs. 

#8 The Gift of a Family Friendly Outing

Does your friend's child have a particular interest such as Disney characters, animals, trains, aviation...anything? Check out local attractions and see if the family would be interested in attending a themed event together. Whether it’s an amusement park, music lessons, a sensory friendly movie showing or family friendly festival, it can be a wonderful way for the family and you to share in the child’s world. Local events can be searched on sites like RedTri.com and do a great job listing a ton of free events as well.

If your budget is a bit higher and the family lives close to an amusement park, look into season tickets. While pricey, season tickets take the edge off having a “perfect” experience, because even if you end up having to leave after an hour in the park, you can return at any time. 

What to Wrap: See if you can find a write-up about the event and print it out to present with the gift. Or wrap the tickets in a festive gift bag and include a frame to house a family photograph taken at the event so the family has a special memory. 

Price PointMake sure to your research because you can definitely find events at almost every price point that would suit any family. 

#9 The Gift of Not Having to Make Dinner

Time-saving gifts are perfect for parents of children with autism or special needs. And dinner is one of those things that takes A LOT of time…especially when you include clean-up. Even simply delivering take-out or a gift card to a family’s favorite restaurant is a great gift option. Ask if there are any dietary restrictions, or if your friend’s child has any food preferences or expectations for preparation. Letting a family have a meal when all they have to think about is how they are going to spend their time together can be a welcome, and probably rare change of pace.

What to Wrap: If you are delivering, the food is the gift! Just put a bow on the bag and its easy as that! If you are providing a gift card, try pairing with a bottle of wine or dessert that the parents can enjoy with the takeout. 

Price Point: It’s really all about where the family likes to get dinner, so allow enough on the gift card to cover a meal for each member of family and some dessert (if you’re feeling generous!) 


#10 The Gift of Gift Cards

The truth of the matter is that having a child with autism or special needs can be very expensive. Cash or gift cards that can be used like cash are always welcome. Plus, you know that what is bought is actually important to the family and not sitting in a closet somewhere not being used.  

What to Wrap: Wrapping something small such as a stuffed toy, would be a great way to present the gift card to the family…and provides some instant gratification for the child. 

Price PointAs we mentioned before, gift cards are great because they come in any denomination and can suit any budget. 

Dr. Darren Sush, Psy.D., BCBA-D, specializes in therapy for parents of children with autism and special needs. His office is located in Los Angeles, CA. For more information, visit www.drdarrensush.com 

Learn more about Dr. Sushdrdarrensush.com




More Posts