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Holiday Shopping Tips for Those on Autism Spectrum from Behavioral Expert

Parents and other loved ones who provide holiday gifts for children with autism spectrum disorders and other intellectual and developmental challenges may or may or may not know that there is special care that can be taken when making gift choices.

According to Mary Jane Weiss, Ph.D., Director of Programs in Applied Behavior Analysis at the Van Loan School at Endicott College, advises that those with children or relatives on the spectrum follow a few guidelines when shopping for their little ones.

Dr. Weiss says the first tip would be to check with the child’s parents, who know the child best and can tell you what they like and what they may have an aversion to or what makes them uncomfortable.

“Often, children with autism have very distinct interests in a certain topic,” said Dr. Weiss. “If this is the case, books and toys that relate to their interests may be a hit, as long as they don’t interfere with a child’s individual fears or triggers – which could include surprises, loud noises, overly bright colors.”

Dr. Weiss says some children, and even teens, with autism may have difficulty with unexpected events and some sensory experiences, and they sometimes have significant communication challenges that might limit or prevent them from expressing dislikes. Some calming items, like noise machines and lights with tranquil sounds and images, can be enjoyable for some children. Similarly, some individuals with autism like items with weight, like heavy blankets and weighted vests, or even a weighted lap dog/stuffed animal.

Other gifts that might be helpful are those that build social skills while engaging in a fun activity. Simple games like Connect 4, memory card games, and blocks/LEGOS can be used to teach turn taking skills. In addition, some board games can be excellent at building attention and stamina for social games. Some board games aim to teach or reinforce social skills directly. Examples of these are the Hidden Rules Game, What Should I Do Now? and the Socially Speaking Game. There’s even something called Social Skills Bingo, which individuals who like bingo might enjoy.

There is a lot of individuality, so it is important to ask the parents/teachers about interests and preferences. With planning, great gifts can bring much joy and some new skills to these learners. 

About Dr. Weiss

Mary Jane Weiss, Ph.D., BCBA-D has been at Endicott College for the past eight years and directs the Department of ABA, including the master’s and Ph.D. programs in ABA. Dr. Weiss also does research and training at the Melmark agency. Dr. Weiss has worked in the field of ABA and Autism for more than 35 years. She received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Rutgers University in 1990 and she became a board- certified behavior analyst in 2000. She previously worked for 16 years at the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center at Rutgers University, where she served as Director of Research and Training and as Clinical Director. Her clinical and research interests center on defining best practice ABA techniques, exploring ways to enhance the ethical conduct of practitioners, evaluating the impact of ABA in learners with autism, teaching social skills to learners with autism, training staff to be optimally effective at instruction and at collaboration, and maximizing family members’ expertise and adaptation. She serves on the Scientific Council of the Organization for Autism Research, is on the Professional Advisory Board of Autism New Jersey, is on the board of Association for Science in Autism Treatment, is a regular contributor to the ABA Ethics Hotline. She is a former member of the Board of the Association for Professional Behavior Analysts, and a former Vice President of the Board of Trustees for Autism New Jersey.

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