The hidden curriculum of gifts

I am writing on a topic I have not seen anything written about but it can be a big challenge for autistic people – that is issues around giving and receiving gifts. Autistic people can find everything involved in gift-giving fraught and confusing and that is because it is one of those hidden curriculum or unwritten rules concepts. Hidden curriculum things are apparently understood by allistic people with little trouble. They seem to just naturally pick up on these things. I always think it is like a magic trick as I can’t work out how they know what they are supposed to do without detailed instructions! This post unpacks my thoughts around gift giving and the conventions related to it.

Some of the issues around giving and receiving gifts are:

  • How much money should I spend? This is a tricky one. Spending  a lot of money can be seen as being flashy or indicate feelings for  a relationship which may not exist but buying a cheap gift can be interpreted as not caring about the person. I think this is one of the ‘rules’ that are pretty silly. I often buy expensive – and cheap – gifts because I see something I know the person would love and the monetary cost is irrelevant to me. The unwritten rule here seems to be one of  spending similar amounts on a person as they spend on you, which can be difficult. If you have no money and someone buys an expensive gift the expectation may be that you reciprocate. 
  • How do I know what the person likes? It can help to know the person’s interests. It is easier to find gifts for someone with a specific interest. 
  • What if the intent behind the gift is misinterpreted and I get in trouble? There can be a lot of misinterpretations around gift-giving. It can be a really fraught area where autistic people’s intentions are misunderstood. 
  • Why are gifts so gendered? Lots of things in the world are gendered and gifts is an area where this is really prominent. I remember when I was a kid my brother was asked to buy a birthday card for my aunt and everyone thought it was odd that he bought a card with a picture of a ship and a pipe on it – apparently it was for men. But how does that work? Why is a ship a ‘male’ symbol? It doesn’t make a huge amount of sense. If you go to gift shops there are a lot of things which society categorises as ‘female’. If you give a cis gendered man scented candles it is like to be seen as a ‘girl’ present. This of course is very unhelpful but it is very prevalent, especially for children’s toys. Some major work needs to be done to address this issue is it perpetuates stereotypes around gender which don’t help anyone.
  • If the other person didn’t buy me a gift from my birthday should I buy them something or not? This can be difficult. I tend to think if you want to give them a gift give them one. If they feel bad it will probably just mean that they give you something on your next birthday!  
  • How do wedding registries work? Why am I buying someone a gift for their wedding when they already have enough things? I really struggle with this. It’s like a kind of high end begging to me. I think the traditions have stayed where how we live has moved on. In the past people got gifts when they were married because they were moving out of home for the first time but this is not often the case now. In the past people probably actually needed the wedding gifts but now they don’t but we still have the tradition. I often give one of my paintings or something else heartfelt that I have made as a wedding gift as I feel it’s more meaningful. 
  • Things are damaging the environment. Will people understand if I don’t give them a ‘thing’ because I care about the world? While this might be a contentious view I think it is largely correct. Not that I am leading by example here because i have loads of stuff, but I do know that ‘things’ are damaging the world. If you are concerned maybe give an intangible gift. 
  • If some gives me something don’t like what do I do? There is a social stigma about regifting unwanted presents but I tend to think if someone else would like it and use it and you wouldn’t then giving it to that other person is a really good idea.
  • What does it mean when someone says ‘no gifts’? If the person saying they want no gifts is autistic it probably means they want no gifts. However, when allistic people say it they often mean quite the opposite. It might be worth giving them something. This is something which baffles me about cross cultural (ie autistic / allistic) communication. Would be nice if people meant what they said!
  • If it OK to give handmade / intangible gifts? YES! Many people will be happier with a thoughtful gift that you have created than something you have bought.
  • Can I give gifts to myself? Definitely yes! Giving yourself gifts is a lovely thing to do. I give myself  gifts to mark an occasion. Then those things remind me of the occasion or accomplishment. being able to happily give yourself gifts can be a great sign of self-acceptance and self-esteem.

Many of the unwritten rules discussed in this post are a bit foolish and arbitrary. It is an area where autistics can find ourselves being misunderstood. However, it is possible to get bogged down in overthinking about issues around gifts and we might worry more than we need to about ‘getting it right’. While this is understandable given the nature of unwritten rules, it can help to let it go and trust our intuition. I should say that there is not an intrinsic ‘correct’ way to do gifts, even if society dictates that there is. I do a lot of the gift things ‘wrong’ and if I get in strife I just explain my thinking to the person. I suppose giving and receiving gists is an area of different not less.

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