Here at Scalliwag Toys, we are often asked to recommend toys for children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. ASDs are more frequently diagnosed and reported now than at any time in the past; the U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 88 U.S. children has been diagnosed with an ASD, and one assumes that the Canadian figures are similar. The diagnosis of an Autism Spectrum Disorder is based upon observation of behaviours, and although autism is a highly-variable disorder most children with an ASD will share some behavioural characteristics.
Many children with an ASD perform repetitive behaviors, such as stacking or lining up objects. Many will develop an attachment to a particular color, texture, book, or song. Many will demand that certain events take place in exactly the same way every day. Most show signs of social impairment, including slow or lagging language skills, difficulty in interacting with others, and absence of imaginative play.
Because Autism Spectrum Disorders are so highly variable, the first order of business is for us to talk to the customer about the individual child. How old is he? What sorts of things does he play with now? What does he like, or dislike? Is there anything that he is particularly fascinated by–school buses, say, or giraffes, or the color red? And–perhaps most important–what does the customer want this toy to achieve?
If, as educator Maria Montessori said, “Play is the work of the child”, then we can think of toys as therapeutic objects for children with an ASD. Toys can help to bridge the gap for these children, to support their particular needs for order and structure while at the same time helping them to practice new and difficult skills. Of course, toys for children with an ASD must be safe, even when used in ways and by ages that the manufacturer might not have imagined.
Sensory sensitivities are common in children with an ASD. Some avoid certain textures and seek out others. Toys with different textures can be a low-stress way to encourage children to try other tactile sensations: stress balls (latex rubber filled with plastic micro-beads) can be squeezed and prodded; toys sewn from a variety of fabrics–smooth satins, ribbed corduroy, bumpy dotted Swiss, rough burlap, or fur–can provide new surfaces for little fingers; smoothly-sanded wooden toys such as blocks can feel warm and organic.
Toys that encourage imaginative play and social interaction can help a child with an ASD work on these critical skills. Age-appropriate board games can help reinforce social skills such as turn-taking, passing objects (like dice) to another person, and sitting down for a certain period. Co-operative board games can help with language skills and problem-solving, as players discuss the options open to them, and they also eliminate the trauma of losing (a big deal when you are just a little kid).
Puzzles with large, chunky pieces help with fine motor skills and hand-eye co-ordination; many of these also have pieces–usually familiar objects such as farm animals, pets, or vehicles–that can be “stood up” and used as playthings in their own right.
You will notice that all these toys are just as valuable for children without an ASD as they are for those with one, and all these toys in fact are classic and universally-loved types of playthings. They fulfill the criteria for Great Toys: they are open-ended, creative, of great quality, and will provide hours of play. The best toys for children with an ASD may be fewer toys rather than more, of great quality, and chosen to fit the individual child’s interests, maturity, and skills. The decision of when to stay within the child’s comfort zone (texture, color, or theme) and when to push the boundaries a bit (maybe a die-cast metal city bus this time, instead of yet another yellow school bus?) is very individual, and we find that parents are pretty well tuned in to their children’s needs.
Next time, we’ll talk about basic skills and how toys can be used to help children learn to master them.