Buying the Perfect “Autism” Gift

I love Christmas.  I love coming up with the perfect gift for my teenage daughter.  There are so many great things I can find for her.  My son, however, is another story.  He is almost 19 but has interests similar to a 2 year old.  He loves sesame street, veggie tales, and yes, even Barney.  Ugh, how I hate buying these toys for my adult son.  But what to do?  As a person with autism, he has very narrow interests, none of which are age appropriate.  In addition, most of the things I buy for him he really could care less about it.  So, a few years ago, I just decided I would not buy him anything for Christmas.  The problem was I had done way too good a job teaching him how to open presents.  He said, “open present” that Christmas morning, and the scramble was on.  We all scoured the house for anything we could wrap up, that he may like.  It was not easy.  Ever since that disastrous holiday, I  find myself searching for anything he may like.  Usually, my “finds” fall flat.  He opens what I think is the perfect gift, only to never play or look at it again.  UGH!!  I am sure there are so many other parents out there in my shoes.  It is so difficult to find gifts for our kids who are significantly affected by autism.  So, I thought I would share my “finds” for this year in case there are other parents out there looking for that elusive gift their child MAY POSSIBLY be interested in.

Because he seems to like things that light up, I got:

night buddy

Night Buddy $12.90 Amazon

He also likes things that make music (plus I can use it as a decoration!) I got:


Hallmark Singing Snowman $17.95

Oddly, he has a weird affinity for yo-yo’s (oh, and it HAS to be green)….


Yo-Yo $6.49 Amazon

For the sensory side of him, I got these (accidentally bought a dozen of the spiky balls; that should last us a while!)

spikey ball

Light up spiky ball $4.69 Amazon

stretchy ball

Stretchy ball $4.64 Amazon







Over the past 2 years he has really started to love to draw.  Of course it is hand over hand, which makes me wonder if it is the drawing or just the undivided attention from Mom.  Either way, I got these which I think he may enjoy (while probably giving me a headache):

scented markers

Scented Markers $6.48 Amazon

Finally, a 5 pound bag of treats from Sams.  That may last a few day.

gummi bears

I am not sure if this will help anyone else out there or not.  While shopping online, I am always searching under the keywords “autism toys” but rarely come up with something that really fits the interests of my son.  Please comment below if you have any great finds you would like to share.  I may just steal them for myself 🙂


Why I Teach Social Studies

There seems to be barely enough time in the day to fit in all the required material that the school district throws our way.  On top of that, imagine being in a class with students who have the most significant disabilities in the school, and it can be a recipe for pure survival mode.  But, even during my most challenging years, I still made time to teach social studies.  Although the subject matter was not on any state wide assessment, I still found it a valuable use of instructional time.  Here is why I did it.

1.  Content

Many of my students with autism, even those most severely affected, often had pervasive or narrow interests.  Sometimes, these interests fell in the area of history, politics, or other social study fields.  For these students, it was easy to come up with lessons and activities to keep them engaged.  In addition, on more than one occasion, I discovered a hidden interest in this content area that a student had which I had not realized before.  This gave me more opportunities to grow and use prior knowledge and interests in other subject matters.  Finally, the content I was teaching is what their peers in the regular education setting were being exposed to.  I strongly feel that ALL students deserve to be taught and exposed to grade level material.  It may not look the same, or even take as long, but the core of the content should be very similar.

2.  IEP Goals

As with all subject areas, there were plenty of opportunities for me to target and work on individual IEP goals while teaching social studies.  While working on my presidents unit, I made a few file folder activities where students simply matched identical pictures of presidents.  They may not have known who the picture depicted, but we would review them daily as they worked on the IEP goal of matching identical pictures.  I also created many sorting tasks so students could manipulate the content in that manner as well.  It could be as simple as sorting pictures that were different types of homes to a more complex task of sorting the duties of each branch of government.  Lots of differentiation took place to target the multiple learning levels in my class.

3.  General Classroom Skills

As with any content, there are opportunities to practice basic classroom skills such as sitting and listening to the teacher, using a communication device, asking and answering questions, participating in classroom discussions and activities, collaborating in small groups, and more.  For students with significant disabilities, especially autism, these skills need to be practiced often across many different people, settings, and content.  In elementary school, I felt an obligation to strengthen these skills prior to the kids going to middle and high school where there would be an expectation of more independence and collaboration.

Of course, I tried to find the most relevant social studies material I felt was worthy of their classroom time.  Some topics I liked to cover were:

  • Maps and Globes
  • Geography and Landforms
  • Government
  • Citizenship
  • Colonial America
  • Native Americans
  • Community
  • Presidents
  • Careers/occupations
  • Transportation

I always tried to incorporate as many hands on activities as possible as well as a book or power point I would write to accompany the content.  Overall I felt it was a very successful addition to the day.  Most of my students could only handle a 15-20 minute block of instruction so there were lots of blocks of time to fill during the day.  Social studies was often one of those blocks.  Structured time and consistency were critical for the success of my students.

I have several social studies units available in my store that I used in my classroom every year.  Grab them by clicking HERE.  Each unit includes a book covering the content in a simple manner, activities, communication aids, and assessments.

Best of luck in your social study adventures!!

Teaching Students to Open Presents plus a FREEBIE for You

Remember how excited you would be Christmas morning as a child?  All those presents under the tree just waiting to be unwrapped.  Just as excited were the family members who had carefully picked out the perfect present for you.  They waited anxiously to see your excited response when you would reveal the treasure under all that Christmas paper and ribbon.  Sadly, that often is not what happens in families who have a child with significant autism.  These kids often do not want to open their presents, and when they do, they either have no reaction or have a negative reaction to what is inside.  Extended families, especially, can be confused or disappointed.  The more they pressure the child to open the gift and explore what is inside, often makes the situation only worse.  So, what can you, a special education teacher, do to help this situation at home?  After talking it over with your students’ parents, read below to find out how to incorporate a present unwrapping routine in your classroom.

1.  Set a consistent time

What ever type of class scheduling system you use, make sure there is a clear and consistent time set aside to work on this skill.  I liked to start in the beginning of December, and even my most affected students made significant progress by Christmas.  However, you may choose to start earlier if you feel your students will need more time.  This consistency is critical for minimizing anxiety for your students around a routine that may have some historically negative feelings attached.  In addition to this set time, make sure there will also be time after the present is opened for the student to engage with the item that was wrapped.  That may mean playing with a toy, watching a video, or eating a small snack.  The immediate reinforcement will be very important to learning this skill.

2.  Use high interest

When I did this program with my own child, I began by wrapping up his favorite things.  I found things like books and toys around the house and would wrap them up.  There is no need to go out and purchase new items, just use things you know your student REALLY loves.  I also used food, but this may be more difficult at school.  It is critical in the beginning to only use things you KNOW your student will want to engage with immediately once he or she unwraps the package.

3.  Use hand over hand prompts and fade

Find the least intrusive level of prompting necessary for your student at the beginning.  You need a prompt invasive enough to ensure there is no anxiety, yet still allows as much independence as possible.  Do not unwrap the present for the child, however.  When working with my son, I had to start with hand over hand prompting.  He hated unwrapping presents.  Years of too much commotion, noise, people, and expectations had led him to have a very strong negative reaction to opening presents.  So, I would help him open the present by taking my hands in his and ripping the paper off as quickly as possible.  After a few days, I could tell he was building up confidence that there may be something good under that paper, and I could quickly fade to simply pointing and gesturing.

4.  Keep it realistic

My personal preference is to keep the wrapping minimal, but realistic.  You want your students to be able to open a present that most people will give them.  That means using tape and some sort of bow.  If you start this at the beginning, it is one less step you need to teach later.  I also sometimes used boxes, and sometimes I did not.  If something comes in a box, that is just one more “task” the child has to complete before the “job” is done.  It is good to practice with and without boxes, so the child does not simply stop once the box is revealed.

5.  Making it intermittent

Once you find your students are easily opening their presents with little to no prompting, you need to start varying the level of desirability of the item.  There are two main reasons for this.  One, not every present they unwrap will be of high interest to them of course.  This is especially true when gifts are coming from people who may not know the child very well.  The second, and more crucial reason, is that intermittent reinforcement is the strongest form of reinforcement there is.  Proven again and again through research, we know a person is more likely to persist in a task for a longer time when they occasionally get reinforced rather than every single time.  Every gambling institution depends on it!!  So, slowly introduce items that the student is not averse to, but may not be of peak interest to them.  This will ensure they will not  get tired of opening presents before Christmas morning is over.

Finally, I would provide the following tips to  your parents, who should then share them with extended family members and friends:

  • Limit the number of presents.  Go for 1-2 fun things; don’t worry about all the kids getting the exact same number of items.  That is not fair to anyone involved.
  • Give the child time to open the presents on their own schedule.  My son loves opening presents, but I still find I need to space them out, and give him time to play with the items in between.
  • Remove all unnecessary wrapping.  If they toy is shrink-wrapped, then remove all the packaging before wrapping the item.  This was hard for some of my family.  They loved how it looked in the box, and did not want to remove it before wrapping.  However, more often than not, my son lost all interest before someone found scissors strong enough to cut through all the security wrapping.
  • Put batteries in ahead of time if needed.  For the same reason above, you want the child to enjoy the toy immediately when unwrapping it.
  • Keep it simple.  Encourage parents and family to buy favorite snack or drink items and wrap them up.  It may seem silly wrapping up a snickers bar, but the reaction is likely to be 100 times better than wrapping up a pair of jeans.

So, that is my helpful hint for this week as we enter a crazy holiday season that is so challenging for our special learners.  At least this can be one fun part of your day.  Now, my son will open anyone’s present when I am not looking!!  I think I did too good a job 🙂

Here is the FREEBIES I promised.  Click on the images below to grab them from my TPT store.

Slide1                                  Slide1

I have other December units available as well to enhance your special education classroom.

Slide1     Slide1     Slide1                           Slide1                        Slide1