The Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design hosted the 2011 Good Design Award, an international competition for product design and graphics. This year’s winner in the Children’s Products category is PlanToy’s Build-a-Robot. In this post I’ll delve deeper into what makes this toy great for autistic children and what it can teach you to help you identify other autism-appropriate toys when you’re next shopping.

Build-a-Robot toy aimed at autistic children

Build-a-Robot is designed specifically to benefit autistic children. How? With several features

  • Multiple heads with different emotions on each one that help autistic kids learn to identify emotions
  • The heads also allow autistic children to communicate emotions nonverbally by choosing the head that represents how they’re feeling
  • Helps developing motor skills and stimulate the senses with features such as different tactile materials on each head and a satisfying pop sound when heads are removed.
  • Looks like a normal toy, so autistic children don’t feel embarrassed playing it
  • Nontoxic and environmentally friendly (the environmentally friendly part isn’t really a feature that benefits autistic children, but it is a nice plus!)

Emotion Heads Help Teach And Communicate Emotions

As I’ve discussed in other posts (such as one focusing on toys for  low-functioning autistics and one focusing on why autistic kids love music), autistic children find emotions hard to communicate and read. This is why they can be prone to tantrum outbursts and why they are attracted to music as a way to communicate emotions non-verbally. Build-a-Robot’s main feature of four interchangeable heads that show different emotions–happy, sad, anger, and surprise. Using these heads, children can try to express their emotions, and parents can see how well children can identify the robot’s “emotions.”

Develops Motor Skills and Stimulates Senses

Because children with autism can be very sensitive to touch and sound, Build-a-Robot also includes features to stimulate these sense. Each head has a different texture on its top, from soft felt on the sad head to bumps on the angry head. The robot also incorporates snap-in connectors to give a reassuring physical sense of joining two parts together. Finally, sounds are also given off when buttons are pressed on the head.

Doesn’t Look Like A Special Needs Toy

Another great feature of the toy that the inventor wanted to achieve was that it is suitable for autistic children without looking like a special needs toy. This is a very important characteristics because special needs children already feel different without having to use an object that further makes them stand out. (As I mentioned in another post, this is also a reason why the iPad is so popular with autism families.) In fact children without autism will find it just as appealing as autistic children.

Nontoxic and Environmentally Friendly

Care was taken with manufacturing and packaging decisions for Build-a-robot. The toy is made with organic reclaimed rubber wood, water-based dyes, and non-toxic glue in a renewable energy powered factory. Packaging consists of recycled paper and ink made from soy. The toy was created by former photojournalist Chun Urquiaga in collaboration with autism experts. She says she decided to create the toy after documenting an autistic boy for a story.


In a lot of ways build-a-robot reminds me of Automoblox wooden toy cars, which was also designed by a toy industry outsider and incorporates many similar concepts (rearranging of the toy, wood-based, snap-and-pull feel). The success and design kudos that Automoblox has earned makes me think Build-a-Robot will find similar success and bring similar joy to kids.

Build-A-Robot is available on Amazon for around $30.

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