Educational Toy Guide – Supporting Special Interests

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Educational Toy Guide

Supporting a Child’s Special Interests

By Karen Krejcha

By accepting children on the autism spectrum, their learning differences and social culture, we help nourish self-esteem and can often open the door to more receptive, enriching and empowering play. 

Here are 10 points to consider when purchasing toys for children identifying on the autism spectrum.

1) Children with autism often engage in play in different ways than their neurotypical peers and that’s okay!  

Medical and educational professionals agree that play is very important in a child’s developmental process. Through play, children practice a variety of skills, many of which show learning, planning and interpersonal development. Children on the autism spectrum may be seen playing by themselves or playing with toys in ways that are different than their typically developing peers. 

As adults, you have the opportunity to use play to get into a child’s world. Accept from the outset that just because a child may be neurologically wired differently doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t want to have fun, be creative or feel supported. Try to understand where the child is at and use positive reinforcement during play to encourage the learning process. 

2) Consider the child you are buying for keeping safety in mind. As the saying goes, if you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism! Although there are commonalities, no two children on the autism spectrum are the same. Some children are oral seeking and will put toys in their mouths. Others like to take things apart and need toys with durability. A considerate gift means considering the recipient.  

3) Support the child’s special interest. Does the youth you are buying for have a special hobby or fascination?  Trains, horses, cars, dinosaurs, animation, stuffed animals? Purchasing a toy that engages the child and appeals to a child’s special interests increases the likelihood the toy will be used repeatedly. It also provides playmates a wonderful opportunity to use the appeal of that special interest to relate to the child. 

4) Think about developmental ability rather than age when looking at learning toys. Focus on building confidence and independence while developing skills.

5) Concrete minds crave clarity and predictability.  In her 2012 book,” Asperkids, An Insider’s Guide to Loving, Understanding and Teaching Children with Asperger Syndrome,” Jennifer Cook O’Toole, an Aspie mother to three Asperkids emphasizes that the way children on the autism spectrum think is different than their neurotypical peers. “Our concrete-seeking minds crave clarity and predictability. Most of our days are trying to navigate a world that is counter-intuitive to the way our brains are hard-wired so we seek comfort in toys and activities that help calm us.” Cause and effect toys are logical and appeal to more concrete minds.  

6) Think about toys which engage but do not aggravate the senses – A lot of learning comes from what we take in through our senses, however almost all children on the autism spectrum have sensory challenges and sensitivities. For those that use motion to regulate themselves, consider toys that allow swinging, climbing, spinning or bouncing. For kids with smell or hearing sensitivities, avoid toys which are scented or make sudden unpredictable noises.  

7) Think of toys that are calming and tactile friendly. For children experiencing sensory overload that need a break to calm, toys like bubbles, stress balls and soft fidget toys can help. Consider a play tent as a quiet area and keep items like visual timers, weighted blankets, soft huggable stuffed animals and toys with tranquil music. 

8) Think about portability. It is often challenging for children with autism to break routine, wait in lines or deal with unexpected circumstances. Create a to-go bag of portable toy favorites that travel with you. Suggestions include a drawing pad, crayons, flashcards, tablet with apps, special interest comfort toy, hand fidgets, autism chew toys (for children who are very oral), puppets (to roleplay), a visual timer and a favorite book.

9) Think about skill-building. Whether you choose a paint-by-numbers art project, a card game, a board game or puzzle, think about incorporating different learning skills through play whether it be gross motor, fine motor, verbal, reasoning or memory. 

10) Think about toys they love that can help you build social interaction and get into their world. When you see a child stacking blocks of the same color, lining up cars or categorizing their collection, remember that imaginative play comes in many forms.  To those not on the autism spectrum, repetitive tasks may seem mundane and unimaginative. To children who are autistic, predictability is comforting, calming and prepares for the development of higher level learning.

If your child lines up cars or stacks toys in a pattern, play along and make your own pattern. Instead of stacking by color, stack by size. Instead of lining up by type of car, line up alphabetically. Then take that a step further by creating a visual map or diagram and building to that visual model.  

Remember that turn-taking, sharing, social interaction and manners can all be modeled while still showing respect to a child’s preferred style of play.  

In conclusion, whether buying for a boy or a girl or on the autism spectrum, all kids want to have fun. When you buy toys that inspire a child, they’ll in turn inspire you too!

A locally-owned, independent specialty toy store that carries unique toys, books and games for kids from birth through preschool, grade school and the teenage years in the Southwest Washington and Portland metro area is Kazoodles Toys in Vancouver, WA and also at www.kazoodlestoys.com

This article was published in the Winter 2016 issue of Spectrums Magazine.

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