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What toys should I buy as a gift for a child on the autism spectrum?

Updated: Aug 16, 2023

Toys are the most frivolous things in the world and, in some ways, the most essential. No culture exists without toys.


Toys are bought to provide fun, games and attraction to the kids. Toys also provide at least some opportunity for learning to children. The best toys are those which can engage a child’s senses, spark their imagination and encourage them to interact with others. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in one of their clinical reports, describes in detail about playing with family members being essential for growing brains, bodies, and building social bonds―which are most important in today's busy world.


Research has shown that play can improve children's abilities to plan, organize, get along with others, and regulate emotions. In addition, play helps with language, Mathematics and social skills, and even helps children cope with stress.


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 is easy for a normal and typically developing children as we know exactly what they want without much need to put any thought to what to buy. On the other hand, giving toys or choosing gifts for children on the autism spectrum can be challenging. Just to decide on a good gift is a real task. It may lead to a feeling of guilt that the toy you bought did not excite the child and did not bring the smile you desperately wanted to see.


What to consider when choosing a toy


While buying toys please keep in mind the child’s developmental ability rather than their age and their interests. In general, when thinking about or looking for a gift, do consider the following:

  1. Will they enjoy it?

  2. Does it match or suit developmental ability?

  3. Does it create opportunity to think, reason, learn language, academics and social skills such as turn taking, waiting etc.?

  4. Does it satisfy the sensory needs of the child?

Some individuals may be developmentally delayed and they may thus enjoy toys meant for younger children. Different types of toys include 1) Sensory toys 2) Puzzles and Legos 3) Physical activity toys 4) Educational toys and 5) Books.


Toys are the teaching tools for all children, and especially for kids on the autism spectrum. Learning toys are especially critical in early intervention where the right toys can make all the difference. Parents use toys to build relationships. Behaviorual therapists use toys to teach cause and effect, pretend play and other skills. Speech therapists use toys to evoke communication, learn language and play skills. Occupational therapists use them to develop fine motor, gross motor or social skills.


For kids, sensory toys are just plain fun! The best toys for children on the autism spectrum are the ones that motivate kids to engage.

Tips For Buying Toys For Children on the Autism Spectrum

When it comes to buying something for children, we are seldom hasty. We tend to gauge the usefulness of the toy, the durability, the safety and the cost. When it comes to buying something for a child with special needs, we may end up overthinking our shopping. Well, there is no need for that. Here are all you need to remember when buying toys for a child with autism.

  • 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.

  • If you are buying a gift for someone else’s kid, just ask the parents what the kid would like.

  • Check online for reviews of a particular toy or game before you buy it. Better yet, just buy it online. From sensory toys to educational kits, your options online are many. Also, you get some of the best bargains when you shop online.

  • Remember that not all toys are for everyone. Keep in mind the child’s age, interests, ability to comprehend and their skills before investing in a toy. If there is a specific skill that you want the child to improve, look for toys that aid in that.

  • 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.

The iPad as a toy: a gift or curse?

Today’s world is also a world of virtual toys. Computers, play pads, tablets, gaming devices etc. have invaded every aspect of society. A question that should always be asked is 'Should the iPad be used or not?’ According to my experience of working with individuals on the autism spectrum for 20 Years, my opinion is that iPad to play can potentially be disastrous for children on the spectrum as it eliminates the need to share and interact with humans. It may predispose them to perseveration e.g. watching the same clip over and over. Also, the ease of use and instant reinforcement induce many children to like it.


However, if used ingeniously, the iPad can be used as a tool & it can be a versatile gadget as it can be used to engage and gain attention for a child on the autism spectrum who finds engagement difficult. Apps can also help in language development and helping with expressive voice put aids such as Expressive, Proloque2go etc.


Practical ways to play with your child


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, cardboard boxes, empty bottles, tires.


A washing up his toys

Daily chores provide plenty of play opportunities to engage with your children. Setting a toy library to exchange toys can be a good idea so your child gets to play with new toys often and toys also can be circulated between friends. I believe that there is no need to buy costly toys for your children but it is the ingenuity and time which is needed to play.


The first step in helping your child learn new ways to play is to follow his/her lead by including his/her interests. This means:

  1. Be face-to-face with your child; this allows you to see what interests your child.

  2. Observe what your child is doing. Notice what your child is looking at or playing with.

  3. Join in and play with your child and be sure not to change the play. Try to play the way your child enjoys playing by doing what your child is doing and copying what your child does with his/her toy.

Here is an example: Janice’s mom noticed that Janice was hugging her doll, so she did the same thing with her own doll.


Janice’s mom then made a comment about her own actions by saying “Shhh…the baby’s sleeping”. She also commented 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 his favorite toys.


By following your child’s lead, you can ensure that it’s fun when you play together, not work.


Written by Mr Udaya Kiran, Speech & Language Therapist.

Edited by Dr Lian Wee Bin.

 

Parent focused programs such as Hanen are beneficial for teaching play skills and language development. To learn more or enroll, message The SKILT Centre on Whatsapp or contact us at enquiries@theskiltcentre.com.sg

 

Help other parents out by sharing your personal experiences in the comments:

  • How do you and your child interact with their favourite toys?

  • What are some toys you would recommend to other parents, and why?




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