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Girls With Aspergers and Processing Disorders: What Constitutes an Appropriate Gift?

Updated on August 19, 2014

I recently saw an article discussing what was, to me, a very interesting issue: What are appropriate gifts for kids with Aspergers? The conclusion was that, while kids sometimes do request things that are simply not appropriate, Christmas was a time to celebrate who a child was and not try to meld or mold her. A time to indulge special interests? Yes!

The issues raised in the article hit home. I didn't have AS, but I did have some traits. I had narrow, obsessive interests and liked repetitive activities.

Kids with AS are sometimes described as having unusually 'stable, strong preferences'. Oh, my, yes! If something filled me with pleasure when I got it, chances are that three years later, it still filled me with that same pleasure. It didn't matter that I should have outgrown it or that it had gone out of style.

When I started high school, I looked physically about three years younger than my age. I had a mixed set of skills. I was in honors English but took PE with the students in the mental retardation program. I liked it when people gave me things that matched my interests -- not their notions of what the typical teen would like or what would challenge my intellect. I didn't want Christmas to be an opportunity to make me over.

Many parents lament that their kids always want the newest or latest fad. But others see that their kids aren't in synch and want to give them those fads, to place what is cool right smack in their hands! As if that right accessory would make things work. But it doesn't work that way. I remember...

I'm dipping back into my girlhood memories to write this. I am writing about who I was in the years between ten and fifteen, and what I liked. I'm also pondering what I've heard from other former girls about who they really were and what they really liked during those tumultous preteen and teen years.

Painting by Number: Repetition and Flow Time

I enjoyed paint-by-numbers kits up to about age fifteen or sixteen. It wasn't because I couldn't create my own art or because I lacked confidence. Repetitive activity induced flow time and gave me a sense of pleasure on a deep neurological level. Flow time... it's a concept I've been thinking a lot about.

I never had the experience, as a girl, of anyone saying that I liked those "by number" art activities because I lacked confidence in my ability to create art or because I lacked confidence as a person. But as an adult, I've heard people express the opinion that lack of confidence was the reason children chose to color instead of draw... and that it was the reason that some people (like those with autism-related disorders) chose rote activities. Ah, not always! I say let's hear it for the "by number" kits -- not because they're art but because they induce pleasure.

My favorites were animals -- they are popular with a lot of girls!

Dimensions Needlecrafts Paintworks Paint By Number, Daydreaming Raccoon
Dimensions Needlecrafts Paintworks Paint By Number, Daydreaming Raccoon

There are a lot of nice sets. This one appeals to me partly because of its sweet face. It's not too juvenile, but it's not the most difficult either. It's acrylic, which is easier to coordinate and clean up after than oil (and doesn't require as much patience).


Issues Around Gift Giving

So what does constitute an appropriate gift? In the eyes of this author, there are just a few basic things to keep in mind, like how age appropriate it is and what values it conveys.

The author does note that parents should look beyond the expressed want to the deeper need it may convey. My response is yes... but with caution. My experience, as a teen, was that people read things that weren't there. If I shared what I liked, and what made my heart sing, people might turn around and tell me what I was afraid of. When it was not about fear but about what I liked and what made my heart sing.

A lack of interest in what's new or in, or what teens are supposed to like... It doesn't necessarily mean a fear of change, a fear of growing up... a fear of anything. We're not all captivated by novelty in the same way. We don't all grow bored or tired of things in the same way.

Special Interests

A special interest, a consuming interest... oh, there is apt to be one! For me, it was kitty cats (oh, and special people... which aren't the sort of thing one can buy).

But to each their own! A common one girls with AS -- and, to some degree, with the general population -- is horses!

A girl may want big, thick books on her choice topic or even a magazine subscription. She may want small figures to arrange, display, manipulate -- the attraction to small, manipulable objects is very common in this population. The girl may also want themed items for her bedroom, bathroom, or locker.

Puzzles are another possibility. Some girls with what I call 'non-academic learning disabilities' are terrible at them. Others get immersed in them for hours.

A special interest can also be a way of developing academic skills or enticing interest in "teenage things"... or adult ones. (How about making a connection between the interest and an adult career?)

The Allure of Technology

Girls with ADHD and girls with autism... Girls with processing disorders that are hard to characterize... However different these girls may be, they tend to share a love for being on the computer and they tend to use the computer to regulate themselves.

Most teens and tweens like to be plugged in, but for a girl with a processing disorder, the computer can be particularly beneficial. The girl may find it easier to communicate in writing than with speech -- even if she has an impressive vocabulary. (It may simply be that it takes her longer than most to form her words.) The girl may prefer self-directed activity. She may use the device to self-soothe during stressful times or self-stim when she's having trouble connecting with what's going on around her. Technology is a socially acceptable alternative to self-stimming (at least in many situations).

Computers and Flow Time

I think I can explain the experience best if I start with something we're all familiar with: music. I've been reading about how the brain responds to music. Part of our enjoyment of music comes from repetition, and part of it comes from anticipating that next note. There's something in the brain that responds when we hear that note or that rhyme that we've been anticipating, and we experience a sense of reward on a neurological level.

Most of us also have some experience of "flow time" and know that it can be deeply pleasurable. Yet most people seem to get a lot of their pleasure from novelty or variety. And that's where something seems to break down. I know how to get pleasure from flow time: going deep, deep, deep into one thing or one relationship. And I know how to get pleasure from repetition, from anticipating that next note. If I listen to the same song 30 times in a row... well, sometimes the pleasure just builds. I want to hear it again and again and again.

But trying to watch a movie that I've never seen before, I want to crawl out of my skin. After an hour or so, I may start to settle down. Give me a choice again later and I'd rather see that same movie over again than see a new one. Because there's a template in my mind. The template makes it more like music. It allows me to experience pleasure.

School was difficult. I did well and I was well behaved. But there were times I sat in my chair and literally pulled out my hair strand by strand. I wasn't in flow time. There wasn't enough rhythm or repetition. There was a restlessness in me that's difficult to describe.

But the computer is different than a movie or a TV show or a lecture. I go into flow time.

Issues Surrounding Play

Girls with AS often play with dolls longer than other girls. I've read different theories about why it's so: that they're rehearsing social scenarios, that they like situations that they can 'direct', that they're just more immersed in pretend worlds. For some reason, neuro-atypical boys often don't develop pretend play, but girls with (presumably) the same genetic anomalies not only do develop this sort of play, but may carry it out longer than their peers.

I would stress that prolonged play can mean many things, and it doesn't always mean that mature forms of social interaction are being rejected. I ponder a long ago peer, the granddaughter of a neighbor. We never played dolls together, even when were small -- I intuitively understood and accepted she was not the doll type -- oh, but we played. We often played mythological creatures -- this was,it appeared, an intense interest of hers. The last time I saw her, I was going into 6th grade. She should have been going into 7th grade, but she had started school early, so she was going into 8th. For her, high school loomed not so far in the distance. And still we played! We spent a lot of that visit pretending to be runaway slaves.

But in the tree house there in her grandparents' yard, she approached me as a friend -- and in a way that no one had before. She knew the things I was going through, she said. She wanted me to talk to her. She wanted me to open up to her. She really meant it, she stressed. Such kindness and such intensity!

I read theories: about how some girls want to play playground games longer because they are confused by, or not ready for friendship that's based on social interaction or emotional sharing. Hmmm... I ponder us, at the close of the recess years, interspersing deep level connection with "Let's pretend".

Series Books

I liked Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys longer than most kids. I loved the predictability, the way everything fit into a template. It gave me, no, not a sense of safety, but of delight.

Here is an old classic.

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