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Autistic Lens

The Autistic Person’s Guide to Receiving Gifts

November 30th, 2023

Terri Hopkinson

For Autistic Adults and Allies

For most gift-givers, watching a loved one’s face light up as they open a handpicked present is a source of joy. However, if the person receiving the gifts happens to be autistic, their reaction may naturally look a little different.

The expectation to react in a certain way to gifts can be very stressful to autistic people and even causes some to prefer not to receive gifts at all.

Here are five tips for how to receive gifts while autistic:

Communicate Ahead of Time

For the people in your life who a) know you are autistic and b) usually give you gifts for specific events, it may be worthwhile to have a conversation with them about gift-giving. You could discuss the stress you experience while opening gifts and discuss possible solutions such as opening them in private, only buying items from your wish list, or forgoing gift exchanges altogether. You could also discuss why the situation is stressful for you and help them anticipate your natural, unmasked reaction. In all likelihood, if someone wants to give you a gift, they also want you to enjoy the experience. Working together can make it better for both of you.

Open Gifts in Private

When someone gives you a gift, you can arrange to open it later in a few ways. If you’re uncomfortable with sharing your diagnosis or simply don’t want to get into it, you might let the person know that you prefer to open gifts at home, on a particular day (in the case of an early present), or to wait until you have all your gifts at once. If the gift giver really wants to see you open it, they’ll let you know.

Plan Gift Alternatives

If you prefer not to receive gifts altogether, you can let your friends, family, coworkers, and anyone else know ahead of major holidays and events. When planning an event, you can put “no gifts please” on the invitation or propose a charity guests can donate to. If someone in your life loves to exchange gifts, suggest another activity to do together instead. Experiences make great gifts, and it’s something you can decide on together ahead of time, eliminating the surprise factor. Another option is a “white elephant” gift exchange, a game that can take the pressure off. Players select and swap gifts from a pile. Since the gift you receive could have been for anyone, you are less expected to react a certain way.

Remember Gift Etiquette

One of the reasons autistic people experience stress around receiving gifts is that it can be challenging to know how to act during the process. Understanding the “rules” of gift etiquette can help alleviate some of that stress. Here are some of the unwritten rules for receiving a gift:

  1. Say a brief thank you when someone hands you a gift or points it out.
  2. Look for a card and open that first.
  3. If there is a gift card, cash, or a cheque in the card, set it aside for a moment and return to it after reading the card.
  4. Read the card, say thank you, and/or comment on the card.
    Examples:
    “What a pretty drawing on the front.”
    “That’s so funny.”
    “What a sweet message.”
    “I love you, too.”
  5. Unless it’s very personal, hand the card to someone else to read and pass around.
  6. Open the gift.
    Note: Some groups tear open wrapping paper, and some remove it carefully and set it aside. If you’re unsure which to do, open it carefully unless someone encourages you to rip the paper.
  7. Say, “thank you,” immediately. You can also choose to say something about the gift.
    Examples:
    “It’s my favourite colour.”
    “I’ve been wanting one of these.”
  8. Ask the giver a question.
    Examples:
    “How did you know this was my favourite?”
    “Where did you get it?”
    “What made you think of this?”
    “Is this handmade?”
Practice Your Reaction

If all else fails, practice your reaction in the mirror or with someone close to you. In an ideal world, everyone would appreciate and accept neurodivergent reactions to receiving gifts. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes less energy to mask your way through a situation than it is to make someone understand why you might react differently than they expect.

Your unmasked reaction might be taken the wrong way if you use monotone speech and flat facial expressions, forget to say thank you, or share a blunt opinion on the present — all common autistic traits. Remember, none of these behaviours are wrong. They just might be interpreted differently by neurotypical folks.

How do you feel about receiving gifts? Let us know on social media. In the meantime, check out our other holiday blogs below to help you prepare for the season.

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