Last Christmas, we gave Alex several gifts we thought he would like, but once he opened them, he didn’t show much interest in them. Since he rarely offers suggestions about gifts he would like to have, we use our best judgment in selecting items we think he would enjoy, based upon his interests. However, we apparently don’t always hit the mark in our choices, or so we may think at the time. After he left these gifts untouched for a couple of weeks. I put them in a plastic storage bin in his bedroom, hoping eventually he’d discover them. After ignoring them for nearly a year, he finally started pulling these hidden treasures out of the storage bin and seemed to find them entertaining, studying the trivia cards in the Brainiac Box and Big Brain Academy game, reading The Old Farmer's Almanac for 2011, and writing on the Magna Doodle he’d received last Christmas. In addition, a gift that I thought would be a big hit with him, Loopz, an electronic game that makes musical sounds, finally received the positive response I’d anticipated when I bought it for him because he has really enjoyed playing with it the past few weeks.
Similarly, this Christmas, Alex didn’t seem terribly pleased with the various gifts I had tracked down for him in hopes of getting something that he would find engaging. After giving the new gifts a cursory look, he returned to the old and familiar, eschewing the new. Like parents whose small children favor the box over the special gift that came inside it, I felt disappointed and frankly a little hurt by his reaction. On the other hand, as Ed pointed out to me, perhaps in a few days or weeks or even months, he’ll discover these gifts—as he did the ones from last year—and suddenly be enthralled with them. I’m not anticipating that reaction any time soon, though. Yesterday, he brought one of his all-time favorite Christmas gifts, a rare one in that he had actually requested it, a graphing calculator he received about ten years ago. Through the years, this calculator has been one of his prized possessions. In fact, we even used it as a way to make him behave by threatening to take away his graphing calculator if he didn’t cooperate with us, and this worked like a charm. When he brought me the beloved calculator yesterday, he told me that he needed a new one because this one didn’t work. A bit surprised by how calmly he was handling the loss of one of his favorite gadgets, I tried to reassure him that maybe it just needed new batteries. Unfortunately, Alex’s assessment was accurate; the calculator was broken and needed to be replaced. He nicely asked me to find another one online and buy it for him, knowing that he had received money for Christmas. A quick online check revealed that our local K-Mart had one just like his old one in stock, and he was delighted when I brought home the replacement, unfazed by the loss of his old calculator. He spent most of the rest of the day, entering data in the new graphing calculator and studying the instruction manual. How I wish that I could solve all of his problems that quickly and easily!
The more I think about Alex’s reaction to his gifts the past two Christmases, the more I begin to suspect that he is overwhelmed by his gifts and doesn’t know how to react, other than to withdraw from them and seek out the comfort of the old and familiar. Like many with autism, he often prefers the predictable and the routine. He can only deal with the new gifts when he is ready, sometimes saving them until he feels comfortable. Once he discovers these gifts, he finally appreciates the thought behind them or at least realizes their value as fun ways to pass time. Moreover, a select few, like the graphing calculator, become gifts that he savors over time. With that in mind, I’ll leave out his gifts of Christmas 2011 for another week, and then I’ll put them in the storage bin in his room, waiting and hoping that eventually he’ll enjoy them.
“Let all that I am wait quietly before God, for my hope is in Him.” Psalm 62:5