Why Getting My Non-Verbal Son’s Christmas Gifts Right Means So Much

Buying presents for my non-verbal son with Autism has always been one of the most challenging aspects of having a child who doesn’t use words or point to commercials with excited fervor. Since he was born, Lucas’s presents were a game of trial and error.

There were some sporadic successes like the parachute just like the one he loved at school. There were some shocking failures like the orange scooter…just like the one he loved at school. The only guarantee is that there are no guarantees.

The truth is, Lucas’s presents used to come down to searching the “Autism” sub-section of Amazon’s category list. The stuff always looked cool, but nothing seemed like something he would like. It’s a pity. I personally would want to order 200 Squishies. Him – not so much. I know this.

Often, I would return to the TV shows he likes and base my gifts on that. I would end up standing there shell-shocked on another Wiggly Christmas, holding up purple shirt Wiggles doll in his disinterested face and pleading, “Come on. You like Jeff Wiggle. Right? It’s Jeff. Yay!” Nada.

This worked for electronic gadgets too. He loves music but Bluetooth puppy dog dolls and DJ Lance’s dance pad never worked either. They checked all the boxes that a friend or family member would grab from a wishlist. The problem was that you never really know.

As the year have gone by, though, I have made finding him the perfect gifts my personal mission. I want both of my children to be happy on holidays and birthdays. When my daughter happily opens whatever present she had been able to vocalize her love for ahead of time, I want my son to be able to do the same.

This year, I nailed it. It was, as they say, a banner year for that. Every time I talk about how this year’s Christmas was to someone, I mention it. He has never had such a good gift year. For the first year, I really knew what to buy. It was less guessing nervousness ahead of Christmas and more excitement over his eventual reactions.

monkey 2

Lucas got his little chirper back. That was one gift I knew would nail it. Years ago, he had a toy monkey that would bang together cymbals and then chirp three times before repeating it all over again. My son had a connection to this musical doll that I can’t explain nor fully understand. I just know that he has something with it that just connects.

He watches as the cymbals are played and sometimes claps along. Then, when the monkey chirps, he leans his forehead against the monkey’s forehead, almost staring it down like Hulk Hogan vs. Andre The Giant. He did this every time for so long his little furry friend broke. I always laughed because it is so unexpected and kind of adorable.

This year, he got a new one and, after not having it for about two years, he immediately stared it down again as if no time had passed. At some points, he picked it up and took it with him so he could watch it go on location. It warmed my heart and I thought, “Well that was a no-brainer.”

There was another no-brainer in the singing bus that does “The Wheels on The Bus.” I first bought that toy for him years ago because the commercial looked like computer graphics. Its mouth moved in a way that seemed magical and I refused to believe that this bus could look so cartoony in real life. I purchased it almost out of cynical spite, ready to return it when it was an obvious let-down.

It wasn’t. This Cuddlebus looks like a cartoon. The mouth has angled motions and everything. It’s great and Lucas loves it. He will press the flap, lean back, and listen along to the music, sometimes letting it “bite” his finger as it sings. It’s like his Moment of Zen. So, again, I kind of cheated with this gift too.

I bought him the Old MacDonald’s Farm one. It was the same thing, only in green. Of course, he loves it. No duh. Still, it counts towards the overall victory.

The two spinning tops count too – one old school metal one with a train inside, and the other the ball-dropping variety. There was a classic ball-drop toy and a hand drum that’s well, awesome. It’s a hand drum, what’s not to love? They all seem kind of like layups, but still, his happy response to a Christmas had me reeling with holiday cheer.

The big one, though, is what made the year stellar. It was the gift that if my life was a reality competition show about buying presents for your non-verbal child would make the judges say, “This was a bold move, but it paid off.” The last reality-winning present was a Hail Mary pass that I threw based on just knowing my son as a person. He bought him a ball pit.


He’s kind of a gigantic kid, so I couldn’t get one of those toddler things. Instead, I went with the inflatable pool and half-a-million playballs…with another half million on the way. It was one of the riskiest moves yet. It was something we had when he was tiny and, truth be told, his sister was more apt to jump in and wreak havoc. Towards the end, we got rid of it when he started going through his “flip stuff over” phase. He was the little Hulk with Ballpit Rage.

So, when he and his sister came downstairs on Christmas morning, it was sitting there waiting. Excitedly, they both jumped in. It was perfect. The entire day, he kept sitting it it. Sometimes, he laid down on it like a ballpit bed and I just watched him; my heart filled with love over his heart filled with love. Christmas Spirit, ho-ho-ho, and all that jazz. I thought back to waving Jeff Wiggle in his face a few years back and how much I would have given for this moment now. It is here now and, in recognizing it, it makes me feel so proud.

This holiday victory says so much. It shows that he expresses himself better now than he ever has. Sure, he might not be able to say, “Yo. Hook me up with a football.” He can, however, react to certain things in a ways that let me know, “Oh. He likes this. Add it to the list.”

It also shows me that by finding the right presents for my little guy, I am learning more and more about who he is as a person. There was a time when I feared I never would. I feared it more than anything. By figuring out some of his wants, not needs, ahead of time shows that I am starting to do that. It’s more than just gifts. I know him. I really know him.

For some that happens at different times. With Lucas, I feel like he had to settle into his own sense of self too. Just like most kids quickly approaching ten, he’s starting to figure out what he really likes. He has favorites and those favorites are less about branding and more about function.

Above all this, I know one thing for certain. I can’t just pat myself on the back and declare that I will forever know exactly what he wants. My daughter has words and I still don’t exactly know what she wants. Tomorrow might come and I might be standing there with the third toy bus in the series and wondering, “How do you not like this? It’s like the other buses!” Ultimately, he decides and, any other needs notwithstanding, ten-year-olds change their minds on stuff.

I’ll take the victory this year, but also know that next year’s victory is never assured. It was a good year for him. It was a proud year for me.

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