What toys/gifts can I buy for a child with Autism?
Updated: Aug 17
Toys are sometimes considered to be frivolous but at other times, it is the most essential in different ways. Toys are bought to provide fun, for entertainment or as an attraction or even a distraction to children. Toys can also provide a lot of learning opportunities for children if used effectively. The best toys are those which can engage a child’s senses, spark their imaginations and encourage them to interact with others. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) describes in detail in a clinical report about how playing with family members is essential for growing brains, bodies, and building social bonds―which is a crucial skill in today's world. Research has shown that play can improve children's abilities to plan, organize, get along with others, and regulate their emotions. In addition, play helps with language acquisition, math skills, and even helps children cope with stress in a healthy and fun way!
Giving gifts to family members and friends is a long-standing tradition in every culture. It is a way to express love, gratitude and personal satisfaction. Selecting a toy for a typical developing child might be a lot simpler as they can communicate their wants and likes to us. However, choosing toys or gifts for children with Autism may be more challenging and requires more thought.
Here are some factors we can look into while choosing a gift:
Instead of focusing on the child's age, you should instead consider their developmental ability and level and see how the toy can enhance their current skill or build upon it
The child’s needs and interests are the two most important things you need to remember when you look for toys. Just like any other kid, a child with special needs also has likes and dislikes. Being thoughtful about them can help you a great deal in choosing that right gift.
Ask the question, “Will my child be able to play with that?” or “How simple or difficult is it to play with that toy?” Keeping in mind the child’s cognitive levels will ensure that the toy you buy will be put to good use.
Will they enjoy it and does it satisfy their sensory needs?
Does it create an opportunity for them to think, reason, learn language, acquire social skills through turn taking, pretend play etc?
Select quality over quantity. Children often end up playing with just one or two toys they like the most, even when they have a box full of them lying next to them. So, it should not be about getting more toys, but about getting the right toys.
Different types of toys to look out for in the market are:
1) Sensory toys
2) Puzzles and Legos
3) Physical activity toys
4) Educational toys
Toys are the teaching tool for all children, and especially for kids with Autism. Learning toys are especially critical in early intervention programs where the right toys can make all the difference. Parents use toys to build relationships, while ABA therapists use toys to teach cause and effect, pretend play and other social skills. Speech therapists use toys to evoke communication, learn language and play skills, while occupational therapists use them to develop fine motor and gross skills. For kids, sensory toys are just plain fun! The best toys for children with autism spectrum disorder are the ones that motivate kids to engage in it.
Today’s world is also a world of virtual toys, be it computers, play pads, tablets, gaming devices etc. A question parents always ask is whether or not they should let their children use such devices. According to my experience of working with Autism Spectrum Disorder for 20 Years I think using these devices constantly can be harmful for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder as it prevents them from finding the need to share and interact with humans and it may also allow them to feed on their rigidities and obsessions e.g playing the same video repeatedly. However, technology has some advantages for a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder as the games, pattern or sound they want to be replicated can make it a toy of choice and can be used as a tool & a versatile gadget to engage and gain attention from a child with Autism who otherwise finds such engagement difficult. Apps can also help in language development and cognitive development - in fact anything can be used as a toy if you can think out of the box. I have successfully used toys such as simple kitchen tools, newspapers, strings, buttons, balloons, socks, old clothes, washing laundry, pens, books, beads, card board boxes, empty bottles, tires etc.
The first step in helping your child learn new ways to play is to follow their lead by including his/her interests. This means to be Face-to-Face with your child as it allows you to see what interests your child. Observe what your child is doing – notice what your child is looking at or playing with and then join in and play with your child – be sure not to change the play but instead to try to play the way your child enjoys playing. You can join in by modelling what your child does with his/her toy. For example, Janice’s mom notices that Janice is hugging her doll, so she does the same thing with her own doll, and vocalises what she is doing e.g “Shhh…the baby’s sleeping”. She also comments on Janice’s actions, saying “Oh, your baby is sleeping too”. Once you’ve joined in your child’s play, you need to wait to see what your child will do next. This allows you to ensure that your child is still having fun and is motivated to continue. If you keep playing in this way, you will end up taking turns back and forth with your child, and your child will have fun while learning new ways to play with their favourite toys. By following your child’s lead, you can ensure that it’s fun when you play together, not work. Parent focused programs such as Hanen are beneficial for teaching play skills and language development.
Written by Udaya Kiran