• Brenda Horn

A Work in Progress

Most children, and adults love to get presents. The process of having a gift, all wrapped up, that is given to you, is always exciting and fun to unwrap. Discovering what precious gift lies inside all the pretty paper. This was the case for my son (who is on the autism spectrum) for many years, more precisely between the ages of 3 – 15. During his late adolescence, we notice that during birthdays and Christmas, the process of receiving and unwrapping a gift started to create some intense anxiety for him.

Typically he would ‘tough it out’ through one or two gift unwrapping sessions, and then run out of the room and isolate himself for the rest of the evening. This was difficult for us to understand, especially because many times he really enjoyed the gifts themselves. Over the next couple of years we tried several things to try to reduce his anxiety. For example, during Christmas, when he was not the only one getting a present, we would wait until everyone else had finished opening their presents before asking him to join us. We thought with less commotion going on, maybe that might ease his tension. Nope. Not at all. During his birthday, we tried coaxing him to stay with us by reversing the order of things. Instead of birthday cake first (which he loves) and then presents, we reversed the order, thinking that having cake after opening the presents might ‘encourage’ him to stay with us, and open his presents. Nope, that was a bust.

It wasn’t until about a year ago, I noticed something interesting. It was during my birthday, that he showed interest in opening my present. There was a total of 4 presents, and 3 of the 4 were not wrapped, but rather in the gift bags with tissue (what I call the lazy way of wrapping presents). My son was completely engaged at opening my presents (even though he had no interest in the content) until the only one left was the wrapped present. At that point, he ran away to his room.

Perhaps there had been other type of incidents like this in the past where he was interested in the gift bags, but not the wrapped presents, but if so, I wasn’t paying attention and I didn’t notice. Instead of really observing him, without any pre-conceived notions on how he should behave, I was looking for a way to ‘fix the problem’. Regardless, I decided to test my hypothesis. Everyone was told for both his birthday (in October) and Christmas to only provide gifts in the gift bags. Just to really test my hypothesis, I included one wrapped present on each occasion. Sure enough, he enthusiastically tore into every gift bag, excited, and engaged in what was contained in each, and when the wrapped gift was the only one left on the table, he gathered up all his other presents and ran off to his room.

This experience makes me wonder how many other little clues I have missed over the years. Even though he is verbal, he was unable to tell me that there is (apparently) something about the experience of ripping paper off a box--something that creates significant anxiety for him. But it took me several years to figure this out. What else am I missing? What else is there in his life where a simple change could make his experiences so much easier?

Much like he is a work in progress, I am also, as a caregiver, a work in progress. I am glad that he can now again enjoy his birthday and Christmas, but I continue to work on doing a better job of looking, listening, watching, and observing how he interacts with the world, to see if there are other simple things I can do differently for him to make his life easier.

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