I was really pleased to be asked, as a special needs parent, to write an article for an online toy trade publication.
As with anything I write, I think about my approach and I started by looking up the definition of toys, this is what good old Wikipedia said:
“A toy is any item that can be used for play. Toys are generally played with by children and pets. Playing with toys is an enjoyable means of training the young for life in society.”
“Toys, and play in general, are important when it comes to growing up and learning about the world around us. The young use toys and play to discover their identity, help their bodies grow strong, learn cause and effect, explore relationships, and practice skills they will need as adults. Adults use toys and play to form and strengthen social bonds, teach, remember and reinforce lessons from their youth, discover their identity, exercise their minds and bodies, explore relationships, practice skills, and decorate their living spaces.”
This is where the metaphorical record suddenly scratches for me, my children don’t know how to “play” with toys in the traditional sense, they have autism (definition of autism here).
I asked people who I connect with on social media for their experiences of toys and their children and whilst it is some comfort to know that so many of our autistic children have the same issues around playing in the conventional sense, there is a definite pattern as to what autistic children play with and how they play.
The first thing I’ve found is that whilst children with autism could be seen to be “playing” with toy cars, for example, it is more of a case of them being lined up, sometimes by make, colour or size, wheels. There would seem to be some reassurance for the child to be gained from doing this. Very often, a child who has an interest in lining up and sorting cars/trains/vehicles will have an almost obsessive interest in anything connected with cars/transport. For example, looking for wheels/tracks/car badges when out, wanting to watch roadworks, wanting to search for train tracks. The train spotters at stations spring to mind, collating numbers on the front of trains. This satisfies the obsessive element of autism, the need to know anything and everything about a particular subject, it can also be an anxiety reliever.
For example, my son could name all the premier league badges at 18 months, I used to have to laminate little pictures of them for him. His interest in football is now such that he will write his own match reports, prepare his own league tables and you could ask him particularly any result in the premier league/championship he would know the result, who scored, was carded etc. he did not “play” in the conventional sense, his stress reliever is to bounce on a netted trampoline with a ball, commenting as he’s heard commentators do.
Another element is sorting, for example Lego. The bricks can be sorted by colour/size and again lined up. One child takes great comfort and pleasure in building Lego buildings he’s seen on the television, once they’re complete, “fools” will smash them and break them. This again, has traits of the obsessive and anxiety reliever, I doubt though the child would be pleased if anyone “smashed” his creation before he is ready for a “fool” to knock it down.
Lights, buttons and sounds are also a favourite. Electronic devices such as v-tech consoles – in younger children – to apps on an iPhone/ipad/tablet, Nintendo D’S, Wii machine, PS3 etc. In virtually all of these examples, it’s a case of “cause and effect”, the child is in sole control and gains instant results both visually and auditory. There generally isn’t turn-taking (another issue for children with autism), they are in sole control.
Toys can also be used as comforters, my daughter’s favourite toy is Bunny, she will generally call toys what they literally are – Bunny, bear, rabbit, puppy etc – Bunny is not just a toy to her, Bunny is incredibly important. There is a stress relief aspect, the sensory aspect of having soft and small to carry around and the immense anxiety if Bunny is ever dropped. Whenever Bunny has to have a trip to the washing machine, my daughter will sit in front of the washing machine for the length of the cycle, intermittently wailing, holding her hands out for her very special toy.
There is also an element of echolalia (or learnt script) in how my daughter will address Bunny, she will use phrases that I will recognise from “Ben and Holly” or “Skylanders” and generally in the same tone too, another indication of the lack of imagination and social skills that autistic children possess. Role-play either by dressing-up or otherwise does not tend to feature in households with autism.
So, as well as the comfort of lining up vehicles/collecting anything to do with a particular topic; the instant gratification of visual and auditory toys, there are also sensory and calming elements for the softer/smaller toys, the ones that are easily transportable. Autistic children will also find benefits in twirling long hair on toys, on pulling out feathers and, in my daughter’s case, rolling out tiny individual balls from tissue paper, regulating herself by doing so.
I used to get caught up in the Christmas rush every year, buying anything that they had shown the slightest interest in, only to find them discarded and barely looked at. This is because my children did not know “how” to play with toys, the social interaction aspect was missing from their psyche, couple that with an element of OCD and “play” was limited to lining up toys, sorting them, just carrying them around for security.
So, purse lighter and charity shops benefiting, you learn to only buy those toys/gadgets that you know your child will gain some benefit from. This is why I primarily asked for gift vouchers/felt tips pens and paper for my children last Christmas and why their main birthday this year will be ipad minis, both personalised in advance with sporty/action games for my son and gentler very visual apps for my daughter.
It takes a while for an autistic child to find their toy/gadget/comforter of choice, but as demonstrated last year – post here – when I saw the most happiest adult male flapping (which some individuals on the spectrum do when excited) whilst watching some roadworks (and the men at work let him stand there and watch, which was great) the choices are likely to be long-lasting.