At the risk of sounding cliche, in today’s mass market ready-made culture we often forget that buying something is not an end in itself but is instead the start of a journey. In part, this view of “things as ends” was created during childhood: as kids a lot of us were offered toys as rewards for achievements or behavior. The toy then became an end in itself, rather than as a platform for developing our imagination.

I remember distinctly getting toys because I did well in school, or because I underwent some painful medical procedure, and having the actual event of getting the toy feel anticlimactic–a letdown, even. While I had been waiting with deep anticipation for the toy promised by my parents, once I got the toy it became, “eh, this is actually kind of boring.” I never played with most of those toys again after the first few days of ownership.

But the toys I did return to over and over again were those that forced me to use my imagination. For example, when I received themed Lego sets, I ended up not playing with them much because once I had built the set that was devised–whether it be a fire station or a space shuttle or something else–I didn’t want to destroy it. In some ways, the original design seemed perfect (it was designed by professional Lego designers after all), so why bother? But the Lego sets I did play with over and over again were those that my sister had tore apart and so I was missing pieces, or those that came with a pile of blocks but no premade designs. In these sets, there was no predefined “perfect” design for the pieces I had (or for the ones that I was missing pieces–the perfect design could never be built again). So I was free to experiment, try new designs, imagine new scenarios. The same thing happened with popular action figures, such as Wolverine from X-men. If I played with Wolverine, it was Wolverine–the character was so strong in my mind that I couldn’t imagine anything else. But for action figure toys I received from McDonalds that I didn’t care about, however, I imagined my own characters and own scenarios. I imagined!

I say all this to remind us as adults purchasing toys for autistic children (or non-autistic children) that purchasing a toy is the start of an adult’s involvement in how the child uses and perceives the toy. In the end, we should always remember that a toy is nothing but a chance for play, however we want play to be defined.

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