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.


Autism: A Question of Toothpaste

Any autism parent will tell you that autism can be really time-consuming. Apart from the time spent at assessments and IEP meetings, we have to devote precious minutes to stuff like clearing up autism-related messes, dealing with meltdowns, and having arguments with people who think we’re terrible mothers because we believe the vaccine-autism theory is a load of guff and choose to keep our kids’ vaccinations up to date.

One of the biggest uses of our time is that used for teaching our kids how to do stuff that comes naturally to typically developing kids. I have told the story of how I worked with George for up to an hour a day for eleven months, just to teach him how to point. Make no mistake – the day he pointed independently for the first time made all of those hours totally worthwhile and I still well up like a leaky tap just thinking about it, but there’s no getting away from the fact that it took an enormous amount of time.

At the Geneva Centre for Autism symposium that I recently attended, presenter Peter Gerhard said something that made me stop and think. We’re so focused on teaching stuff to our kids that we don’t always stop to think about whether it’s really a necessary skill. Therefore we may, in some instances, be inadvertently wasting time that could be better spent elsewhere.

Gerhard suggests that when we’re deciding on what to teach our kids, we ask ourselves the following question:

If my child does not learn this skill, will someone else have to do it for him?

For example, I am trying to teach George to brush his teeth independently, and it is proving to be extremely difficult. Where my six-year-old just runs to the bathroom and brushes his teeth when he’s told to, George still needs hand-on-hand assistance and a great deal of coaxing.

But if I don’t help George with his tooth-brushing, his teeth will just never get brushed. Anyone would agree that this is an essential skill for George to learn. If he doesn’t brush his teeth, someone else will have to do it for him.

However, there is a step within the tooth-brushing task that I am rethinking, and that is the kind of toothpaste I use. It’s a brand of kids’ toothpaste that comes in a small squeeze-bottle rather than a tube. The thing is, you have to squeeze the bottle fairly hard to get anything out of it. The toothpaste was recommended to me by an O.T. ages ago, because squeezing the bottle would help strengthen George’s hands and thus contribute to his fine motor skills.

On the face of it, that seems like a pretty sound recommendation. The only trouble is that George hates the toothpaste itself. This in itself is not a problem. In fact, George’s dislike for toothpaste is a key element that I count on, because it motivates him to spit it out at the appropriate time instead of swallowing it. George learned how to spit because of the dreaded toothpaste.

The need to spend time squeezing the bottle creates a sense of frustration and dread for George, because he has to work so hard just to get a toothbrush full of yucky goo shoved into his mouth.

That’s not the greatest motivation, is it? And it’s probably one reason that George resists tooth-brushing time every single night.

If George doesn’t learn how to squeeze toothpaste out of a ridiculously hard-to-squeeze bottle, will someone have to do it for him?

I’m thinking probably not. George can just choose from the multitude of normal toothpastes in the grocery store and get his fine motor practice elsewhere, perhaps by doing a task he actually likes.

I will always spend a lot of time working with George, because he’s my child and I want what’s best for him, and because the moments of accomplishment make it so worthwhile.

But I will also try and really evaluate whether I am working with him on the stuff that he actually needs.

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


George and the Big Wide World

Today’s prompt in the National Health Blog Post Month challenge is to write a post inspired by a picture or a video.

“Peep And The Big Wide World” by George

One of George’s favourite shows is a charming little cartoon called Peep And The Big Wide World. It’s about a chicken (Peep), a robin (Chirp) and a duck (Quack) who are best of friends and make all kinds of discoveries about the world. It is entertaining – even to an old fogie like me – but it is also educational.

In one of the episodes, Chirp and Quack find that they have been inadvertently joined together by a rope, so wherever one goes, the other has to go. This presents a conflict, because Chirp wants to sit in a tree, and Quack wants to float in his pond. They resolve the problem by taking turns to pick the activities of the day.

When George first started tying dressing gown cords around people’s ankles, I didn’t immediately make the connection. It was only when he tied one end of the cord to my ankle and the other end to his own ankle that I realized that he was role playing the scene in the show.

For a kid with autism, this is huge. I mean, HUGE. Pretend play is a fairly complex skill, and because it is socially based, it is one that autistics tend to have quite a lot of trouble with.

And so I encouraged this play and made attempts to expand on it. Before long, George was playing “turtle” by crawling around with his T-shirt pulled down over his knees, and he was being a dog, crawling around going “Arf!” It was a lot of fun witnessing this evolution in George’s play skills.

What really got me excited was the picture he drew. Up until this point, I didn’t think his fine motor skills were good enough for him to draw an actual picture. And here he was, coming up with a clear representation of the scene from Peep. This is the first real picture George drew.

This is all such a massive leap for George. It shows a new level of social awareness, it shows imagination, and it shows intent.

The best part is how proud George was of his picture. As well he should be.

(Photo of George’s artwork taken by Kirsten Doyle)