How To Buy Toys For Kids With Autism


One of the hardest things for us autism parents to deal with is buying toys for our kids. Our kids don’t really do toys, simply because they don’t really play. It can be heartbreaking to get something we are sure our child will love, be all excited as we give it to them, and then kind of deflate while the child shows little or no interest in the toy.

One day, shortly after George was diagnosed with autism, I bought him an activity table that was chock-full of sensory-type things for him to do, including a toy phone. He tugged mightily at the toy phone until he succeeded in pulling it off its string, and then spent hours – literally, hours – lying on his back playing with the string. He paid absolutely no attention to any other part of the activity table.

And so I tried crafty things. Paper, pencils, crayons. I mean, what kid doesn’t like to scribble and make a mess, right? In theory, this was a good idea, but in practice it fell a little flat. Although there’s never been anything wrong with George’s gross motor skills – the kid sometimes demonstrates Olympic-like coordination – his fine motor skills are still behind where they should be. For a long time, he just didn’t have the ability to hold the coloured pencils and safety scissors that I lovingly bought him.

After a decade of autism parenting, I am finally starting to get it. I am, through my experiences and those of others, figuring out how to get toys and activities that my son will actually use. Here are some of my pearls of wisdom.

1. Test-drive toys from a local lending library before buying them. You’ll save a lot of money if you can discover ahead of time that your child won’t like the toy (this tip comes from fellow autism mom Jacquie, who left it as a comment on a previous blog post).

2. Go with your child’s interests. If that means buying Mr. Potato Head or Mega Blocks for ten Christmases in a row, so be it. At least your gifts will be appreciated.

3. Check out websites for educational toys and activities. A great one is UK-based Junior Scholars. They have an entire section for special needs items, including ergonomically designed pencils and pencil sharpeners for left- and right-handed children, fine motor activities like lacing toys and peg boards, and giant hourglass-style timers, which are ideal for kids who need visual reminders. Conveniently, they accept PayPal as well as credit card payments, and they ship internationally.

4. Think outside the toy aisle. When we realized that George’s fancy activity table was only being used for its string, we decided to get rid of it. We couldn’t expect George to go cold turkey on the string, and we didn’t want to spend a fortune on a toy just for the sake of a string. So we went to the dollar store and bought one of those miniature mops that some people use for cleaning dishes. It worked like a charm.

5. Think visually. Many kids with autism are visual learners. We tried for months and months to teach George how to name colours. In the end, all it took was two months of playing Mr. Potato Head games with my mother.

6. Cater to the deep pressure needs. Many kids with autism love to do things like swing, jump and wrestle. Providing toys suitable for this will not only satisfy that need within your child, it might also save your furniture. We have to keep one of those small round trampolines in our living room for George to jump on. I think we’re on our third one now, and that’s OK. Replacing a $30 trampoline is a lot cheaper and easier than buying a new bed.

If you buy a toy that gets a lukewarm reception, give it a bit of time. Like many typical kids, auties have interests that wax and wane, and sometimes they simply need to get used to the new toy being there.

Do you have any tips to add? Leave them in the comments!

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle, published in accordance with my disclosure policy.

Photo credit: Junior Scholars. Picture used with permission.


Bedtime Toys: Finding The Lost Lego

Last night, my son George couldn’t find his Lego. This was a potentially disastrous situation: George has to  have certain things with him when he goes to bed, including a subset of his Mr. Potato Head collection and his stack of pink and yellow Legos. Gathering them up and putting into bed is part of the routine, and if anything goes missing, the entire routine – and subsequently everyone’s sleep – goes to hell in a handbasket.

So when the Lego went missing, the entire family embarked on a thorough, systematic search. Anyone looking at us would have thought we were trying to root out Saddam Hussein. The search included all rooms in the house, the backyard, the car, even the garage.

Eventually James found half of the Lego stack caught behind the treadmill. The other half had somehow ended up in the washing machine with some laundry. The crisis was averted, and before long, George was snuggled up in bed with his Lego and his Mr. Potato Heads.

It seems like a strange choice of sleeping companions. I’d always thought that kids liked teddy bears because they were soft and comfortable to hug, and for a long time, I assumed that George’s total lack of interest in plush toys was somehow related to his autism. Since then, I have realized that not all kids are into teddy bears, and that preference has nothing to do with autism or the lack thereof.

James went through a brief phase of having to sleep with every stuffed toy in the house. I would have to arrange them around him, and to an extent, on top of him, and I would always wonder if the furry friends would take up so much space that there would be no room left for the kid. It was an impractical arrangement because James is a restless sleeper, and one by one, the stuffed animals would be displaced. When I went to wake James up in the morning, his room would look like a plush toy factory had exploded in it.

It was at around this time that George started taking his Mr. Potato Heads to bed. He couldn’t possibly fit his whole collection in there, so he would pick out about ten of them, ensure that they had their arms and legs and other bits and pieces, and he would line them up neatly. There was a whole variety of them – plain old Mr. Potato Heads were mixed in with the likes of Darth Tater and Indiana Jones: Taters of the Lost Ark.

Taters of the Lost Ark was an interesting one: if you pushed down on his hat the Indiana Jones theme song would be played. This would happen when George rolled over onto this particular Potato Head in his sleep.

It’s a little disorienting to wake up at three in the morning to the sounds of the Indiana Jones theme song.

George’s choice of sleeping companions has not changed much since then, but James’ has. The stuffed toys have been relegated to a toy box, and James now sleeps with Finn McMissile (of Disney Cars fame), his Megatron (a member of his ever-expanding Transformers family) and a glow-in-the-dark skeleton.

From time to time, I will check on them after bedtime to find the pair of them in George’s bed with their respective toys. They’re hiding under the comforter with a flashlight on, playing companionably alongside each other. I pretend to reprimand them for not sleeping, and then I slip out of the room and let them play. Because really, who am I to interrupt their moments of brotherly togetherness?

Do your kids sleep with stuffed animals, or do they prefer other toys? How strict are you about separating play time from sleep time?

(Photo credit:


Letting Go Of The Old

Yesterday afternoon, I found my living room floor. It had been missing for several years, buried beneath layers of toys that the kids have, over the years, played with and outgrown.

On several occasions, I have made efforts to organize the toys, painstakingly separating them into categories and storing like with like. But these toy organization systems that I have spent hours creating have lasted, on average, for about an hour. My older son sometimes copes with his autism meltdowns by picking up boxes of toys and dumping out the contents. Even as I wistfully watch my hours of work come to naught, I recognize that I would rather see my son throw toys around than bang his head against the wall hard enough to put holes in the drywall.

Quite apart from the side effects of autism, kids under the age of six don’t really get that the cars should go with the other cars, or that the Legos should be in the same container, or that the gazillion Mr. Potato Head parts are meant to stay together.

This weekend, me and my husband – ably assisted by our five-year-old son, took another crack at organizing the toys. But there was a difference in the way we did it this time.

A big difference.

This time, we actually got rid of stuff.

I thought getting rid of toys would be a nightmare, but once we had the buy-in of our younger son, it was actually quite easy. It was never going to be a problem where our firstborn was concerned. As long as he has his Lego, his gazillion Mr. Potato Heads, his measuring tapes, his alphabetic fridge magnets, and his math workbooks, he’s happy.

After a day of sorting, storing, and being bossed around by our five-year-old, we had reduced the volume of toys by a staggering amount. All of a sudden, we had enough toy boxes to contain all of the toys that we kept, without them spilling over onto the carpet. We rediscovered the concept of walking from one end of the living room to the other without getting Lego-shaped dents in the soles of our feet. It was an incredibly liberating experience.

There’s just one thing…

These are the toys that my kids played with when they were babies. The little teddy bears. The Winnie the Pooh ride-on toy. The blocks, the nesting cups, the First Words books. Getting rid of these remnants of my kids’ babyhood was like saying goodbye to a phase of my life, and acknowledging that my babies are no longer babies, that they are little boys.

As sentimental as I felt about the toys, what really made my breath catch in my throat was sorting through the little shoes that my kids wore as babies. It was the shoes that served as a physical reminder of how tiny they once were. As I held the shoes in my hands, the memories washed over me.

My older son’s very first pair of baby slippers, given to him by my Dad when he was just a few days old (no way am I getting rid of those).

Feeling my boy’s fingers grasp my hand with absolute trust as he tentatively walked in shoes for the first time.

My younger son’s face, alive with excitement, as he wore the shoes that were a miniature version of the ones his Dad wore.

My two boys laughing together as they splashed in rain puddles, wearing their new galoshes.

Their joyful oblivion as they tramped snow into the house in winter, leaving tiny wet footprints all over the floor.

The memories fade out and I reluctantly come back to reality, sitting there on the floor holding these tiny shoes in my hands. All but a couple of extra-special pairs must go. It is time to allow to the old to make way for the new, as my boys enter new and exciting phases of their lives.

Just because it has to be done though, that doesn’t make it easy.

It represents a letting go, and that is a bittersweet pill for any Mom to swallow.

(Photo credit: This photo has a creative commons attribution license.)


Talking Toys

The day before yesterday, I felt like buying presents for the kids. It’s not Christmas, it’s not anyone’s birthday, it was just a day when I wanted to pull out surprises for the kids when I got home and see their faces exploding with smiles.

Getting presents for James is easy. There’s just one general guideline to follow: if it has wheels, he’ll love it. When he was younger, it was Thomas the Train. Then it was Hotwheels. And for the last year or so, it’s been Disney’s Cars. The kid has about twenty Lightning McQueens and fifteen Maters, plus a Sally, a Sheriff, a Red The Fire Truck, a Doc Hudson, and all of the other characters, and it’s still not enough. The Cars obsession showed signs of starting to flag a little, but that was before the preview for Cars 2 came out.

And now the toy stores have come out with a whole new line of Cars 2 products. And so I headed straight for the display and picked out a Lightning McQueen (yes, another one) and a Mater (yes, another one). These aren’t just any Lightning and Mater, though. Some previous iterations have had features like the ability to light up or make vroom-vroom noises. These new ones do all of that AND talk!

Buying presents for George is more of a challenge. He doesn’t play with toys in the same way that other kids do. He’s into more cerebral stuff that lets him work with words or numbers, but there are only so many alphabetic fridge magnets and alphanumeric toys that you can buy for one child. The only toy toys that he really likes are Lego blocks and Mr. Potato Head. And again, he has so much of that stuff that buying more would seem like overkill. I mean, his Mr. Potato Head collection fills three large boxes.

But still, there’s always hope that Hasbro has come up with a new Mr. Potato Head character to add to Indiana Jones Taters of the Lost Ark, Darth Tater, and all the rest of them. So I headed over to the Mr. Potato Head section, and to my utter astonishment, I struck gold.

A talking Mr. Potato Head.

This thing is super-cool. You don’t even have to press any buttons to make him talk. He’s equipped with a built-in microphone that picks up on conversation and noises in the room, and he talks back. His repertoire of things to say is surprisingly extensive. An added feature is that when the room is silent, he will say things like, “Can I get some attention around here?” And if you make a sudden loud noise like banging on the table or clapping your hands, Mr. Potato Head’s pieces come flying off.

It’s a fun, fun toy. A bit challenging to have in the room when you’re trying to watch TV because it keeps providing a running commentary, but that’s a minor detail to live with. What’s really fantastic about it is how much George loves it. Getting him a toy that he instantly engages with and has fun with is such a rare experience, and we savour it.

In the meantime, James has fallen in love with his talking Cars cars. He gets them to have conversations with each other (they too, have a decent repertoire).

So things are peaceful in my house right now, with the kids each having cool new toys to play with.

And because of the nature of the toys involved, things are very, very talkative.

(Photo credit:


James, Trains And Automobiles

From the time he was a baby, James loved trains. Loved, loved, loved them. In fact, potty-training him turned out to be quite an expensive endeavour, because his rewards were trains. Not just any trains – they had to be Thomas the Train trains. I suspect that James drew out his potty-training for long enough to collect most of the Thomas the Train characters. He even got a Sir Topham Hat (who, if I’m to be honest, creeps me out just a little – I mean, he looks like an adult baby, reminiscent of Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movie).

Then, about two years ago, James was given a DVD of the movie Cars, and just like that, the trains became second-class citizens in his toybox. Now it was all about Lightning McQueen, Mater, Doc Hudson, and all the rest of them. No creepy human characters in this lot – the Cars cars inhabit a world consisting solely of cars, trucks, and helicopters.

The movie is actually quite cool. It has a bit of everything: action, suspense, comedy, and a moral message. It even has those essential elements: a car chase and a love interest.

Since he first saw the movie, James has built up a staggering collection of Cars stuff. He has more Lightning McQueens than I could possibly count, as well as at least one of all of the other characters. He’s got race tracks, ramps, tipping tractors (tractor-tipping is like cow-tipping – don’t even ask), and several Radiator Springs buildings. He has a Firetruck Mater, Monster Truck Mater, Bulldozer Fighter Mater, and some good old plain Maters. His toothbrush, shoes, and backpack all feature Lightning McQueen. He’s got books, puzzles, and the Mater’s Tall Tales DVD.

Our household has probably singlehandedly kept the Disney Cars industry alive.

And now a sequel to Cars is coming out soon. In this one, Lightning McQueen competes in an international Grand Prix, and Mater gets sucked into an espionage situation (to get an idea of the incongruity of this, picture Mr. Bean trying to be James Bond).

James is dead-keen to see the movie, and not on some lame-ass TV screen. He wants the real-deal, big-screen movie theatre. And that is why his very first trip to the cinema is in his very near future.

Today, some exciting news came my way. News that will make James a very happy little boy indeed. This weekend, Lightning McQueen and Mater are in Toronto. They will be setting up camp in one of the larger shopping malls, and making themselves available for their adoring fans.

It is going to be crowded. There will be hundreds of screaming kids running around like lunatics, and hundreds of sobbing parents running after them, trying to contain them. Do I really want to put myself through that kind of stress?

Damned right I do. Seeing the look of joy on my child’s face as he beholds his Cars heroes will make it all worthwhile.

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