Thanks to Asperger’s, I Used To Give Terrible Gifts. Here’s How I Learned To Pick Good Ones.

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Nov. 30 2011 5:29 PM

How To Give Good Gift

Despite an Asperger’s-induced empathy deficit, I’ve learned to choose meaningful presents for my wife. You can, too.

Gift-giving doesn't have to be difficult
Gift-giving doesn't have to be difficult

Photograph by Jupiterimages/Thinkstock.

There is something a little creepy about people who, regardless of the circumstances, always give the right gift. That rare, uncorrected proof of your favorite novel, that hand-sewn quilt with a swatch of fabric from your great-grandmother’s wedding dress, that baseball signed to you personally by Derek Jeter. These sorts of gifts don’t happen by accident. Unless you specifically request them (providing SKU numbers or, better yet, URLs being my signature move), they are the rare fruits of an empathic giver, someone capable of getting inside your head and snooping around.

Some might say that my misgivings toward such individuals are born of jealousy, and they would be right. I am jealous—intensely jealous—of people like this. My knack for giving horrible gifts is unparalleled; I’ve presented people with magnetic marbles and pictures of my head—gifts that were bad enough to jeopardize long-standing friendships.

I like to tell myself it’s because I have Asperger’s syndrome, a neurological condition that compromises my empathic abilities. After all, empathy is what enables a person to access and understand the perspective of others, to adequately process their beliefs, their intentions, and, notably, their desires. Desires such as what they might hope to find under the Christmas tree, or wrapped up as a birthday gift.

My Asperger’s theory lends a handy excuse when presents miss the mark (“It was my mild form of autism that compelled me to get you that puffy-paint sweater”), though I’m hardly alone in my gift-giving ineptitude. Bad gifting seems like an epidemic when I consider all the lousy presents I’ve received from neurotypical people throughout the years: oversized fleece track suits, a theme calendar with pictures of eagles feeding their young—not the band the Eagles, which would have made for a pretty cool calendar, but the gigantic predatory bird. What am I supposed to do with this? I wonder, sizing up whatever the hell it is I’m holding. And to think I gave you magnetic marbles.

But lately I’ve been on a roll. Things turned around for everyone in my Secret Santa pool two years ago, when, after being diagnosed with Asperger’s, I started looking for ways to compensate for my lack of empathy. As I began seeking out more frequent conversations with other people and forcing myself to listen more carefully as they spoke, relationships were renewed. And, to my great surprise, and even greater delight, I gained significant insight into the sorts of presents people were after. I have since distilled these insights into a handful of holiday shopping tips to which I now refer when contemplating gift ideas. They are as follows.

Don’t give that which you’ve clearly purchased for yourself.

On our first Valentine’s Day together, I presented my wife, Kristen, with a men’s fragrance gift set. Included was a large bottle of Calvin Klein’s Obsession and a lumpy, Obsession-scented soap-on-a-rope that was my free gift for having spent $35 on the cologne. The very inclusion of the free soap should have been a red flag, in retrospect, but I blindly accepted it as reassurance from the universe that I was making a sound purchase.

Kristen seemed puzzled when she opened the box. “Am I supposed to wear this?” she asked. I explained that, no, the cologne was for me to wear; my gift to her was allowing her to enjoy my new signature scent whenever we were together. Her laughter commenced.

But crummy as my gift may have been, my intentions were basically good, if slightly selfish: A few weeks earlier, I had read an article claiming that scent, more than any other physical sensation, lends a permanence to our memories. The right scent, the article implied, can also make a man irresistible. Unfortunately, the article did not specify that it was a man’s natural scent that made him irresistible, and so I assumed we were talking about bottled fragrances. Barring that one massive oversight, the logic seemed flawless: If I want to be irresistible to Kristen, I have to get my bouquet on.

Suddenly fixated on the prospect of being irresistible to Kristen, I spent a couple weeks shoving cologne samples under her nose and asking her, as casually as I could manage, what she thought of them. The only scent that didn’t cause her to wrinkle her nose and gag was Obsession, so Obsession it was.

Unfortunately, the claims in the article I’d read were well-substantiated: Sense memory is a very real phenomenon, and scent does, in fact, lend permanence to our memories. Sometimes cruelly: Now whenever Kristen catches a waft of Obsession, she can’t help but think of me, and laugh.

Don’t overthink it.

When contemplating gift ideas, it is best not to get carried away. Unfortunately for me, the autistic mind just loves to think too hard about things. It’s not so different from the way procrastinators tend to ruminate on Christmas Eve: Oh, shit, what am I going to buy for Libby? Libby, Libby ... What can I wrap and give to Libby ...

The problem is that, at some point, feverish rumination makes unspeakably poor gift ideas start to seem pretty darn good; the mind’s ability to panic is matched only by its ability to justify. This is precisely how my dad ended up with a worthless pile of lights for his fishing boat a few years ago, and how my mom came to possess her very own website, still under construction.

Though overthinking begets disaster, it is a great idea to put some rational thought into the gifts you buy. If you’re not panicking, you might even ask yourself the right question: not What can I get for Libby, but What might Libby want? The focus shifts, as it should, to the recipient. Which leads us to the final rule:

Do pay attention.

Not long after I began looking for ways to compensate for my lack of empathy, I stumbled upon a very important discovery: Not only do other people have their own needs and interests, but they send off more clues about those needs and interests than they realize.

My earliest attempts at harvesting those clues amounted to eavesdropping, a strategy I abandoned after a series of inevitable backfires that culminated in the purchase of an elliptical trainer. Eight months earlier, I had overheard Kristen on the phone encouraging a friend to buy one. Little did I realize how nonplussed she would be to receive her own that Christmas—it was as if I’d given her more cologne.

Far better than spying, though, is to get a person talking—a skill I wasn’t born with but was determined to acquire. At first, I tended to be overt, asking: “What, precisely, do you want for Christmas?” Over time, though, I refined my tactics, and found great value in being less direct: “How are your workouts going?” “Have you given any more thought to planting that garden?”

The right questions invite a dialogue that not only helps to build the relationship (we now exercise together, though not with the elliptical, and our kids love to help us in the raised garden that I constructed) but also reveals a lot about what the person might hope to find under the tree on Christmas morning. How else would I have known to buy my wife a new sports bra or an enormous box of dirt? And who knows? By learning to be more responsive to what people tell you, you may just stumble upon the greatest gift of all: friendship.

I’m joking. The greatest gift of all is a Porsche.

David Finch lives with his wife and two children in Illinois. His first book, The Journal of Best Practices, will be published in January 2012.