In a previous post about Christmas toys for autistic children, I mentioned that Mattel’s Fijit Friends was one of the 2011 season’s hot toys. Here I’ll delve deeper into what makes Fijit a good choice for autistic kids even though it’s a mass market toy, as well as behaviors you might want to avoid when incorporating Fijit into your child’s play time. Fijit is available at any large toy retailer such as Amazon.

There are a lot of customer reviews that talk about personal experiences with Fijit, but in this post I’ll link the personal experiences with insights from scientific research to provide a more holistic view of why Fijit is good.

Great things about Fijit include:

  • A unique rubbery skin that promotes tactile exploration and safety
  • Extensive use of nonverbal communication such as music and dancing
  • Bright colors and facial expressions that might allow it to be incorporated in teaching sessions
  • Looks cute and not human

Some not so great things about Fijit are:

  • Its price—at $50-$60 it’s expensive compared to most other toys
  • Some minor issues with its voice command understanding [Continue Reading…]

With all the electronic toys available these days and few made specifically for autistic children, what guidelines should you follow for choosing the “right” toy?

Luckily, a lot of recent research in the field of robotic autism therapy has given us interesting insights into the types of interactive toys that best benefit autistic children.

Key Findings

Some key lessons from these studies that will be explained in more detailed below are that

  • Toys, especially interactive toys, can act as a bridge between controlled, repetitive activities and human social interactions
  • Toys may be better if they look too human or realistic
  • Toys that express emotions and facial expressions can help autistic children learn how to recognize these social cues
  • High functioning autistic children and Low functioning autistic children respond differently to the same toy
  • Interactive toys can  reinforce lessons taught in speech and music therapy classes
  • Toys made of materials that promote the sense of touch appeal to autistic children

In an earlier post I talked about the main reasons why autistic children benefit from music. In this post I’ll delve deeper into one specific benefit of music toys and musical activities for autistic children: increasing social interaction.

Studies show 3 benefits of music activities and toys, each of which I’ll describe in more detail later in this post. These are

  • Improving attention spans during peer interactions
  • Increasing the number of social play activities with adults
  • Leading to longer moments of happiness and better interpersonal behaviors

The Science

Several studies point out specific benefits that can guide your toy and play activity choices.

1. Special Needs Children Are More Attentive When Music Play Activities are Involved

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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 [Continue Reading…]

For most children, Christmas is the most fantastic time of the year: bright lights, presents, family gatherings, singing, laughter, etc. But for autistic children, Christmas can be particularly stressful. All the stimulating sounds and sights that non-autistic children enjoy during the holidays can be the very things that wear out autistic children. (See Temple Grandin’s description of difficulties she faced during childhood for a first-hand account!).  This leaves many parents and relatives of autistic children at a loss for activities to do during the holiday season.

Luckily, this Christmas some malls and community centers are having autism-friendly Santa events. These events typically take place outside normal mall hours to provide a quiet, more predictable environment for autistic children and their families. Lights are dimmed, music is turned off, and parents are typically asked to fill out a form beforehand to give the Santas a heads up on any special requests and things on the kids’ wish lists. The Santas are also trained to have a calmer demeanor which is more amenable to autistic children.

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In an earlier post I profiled two hot toys this holiday season that could make good Christmas toys for an autistic girl. In this post I profile a few other good hot girls toys for this season.

1. Lalaloopsy Silly Hair Dolls

lalaloopsy doll

As I mentioned in a previous post, autistic girls have been found to have a stronger preference for imaginative play scenarios than autistic boys. This makes dolls good toys for them. Lalaloopsy Silly Hair Dolls is this year’s “it” doll for girls made by MGA toys for girls 4 and up.

The main selling point of the toy is its unique hair, which has an easy-to-style bendable structure. Each toy comes with a variety of styling brushes, clips, and beads. It also comes with a pet whose tail can be styled. I don’t get it, but I’m not a girl.

The Good

The many ways girls can style the hair can provide a creative outlet for their imagination and also provide a social outlet for girls to share with each other their styling creations. It’s also an interesting alternative to standard Barbie dolls.

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In line with recent brain imaging studies that find that autistic brains operate fundamentally differently from non-autistic brains (which I talked about in another post), autistic children are intelligent in ways that are different from children without autism. Scientific American has a recent feature on the hidden potential of autistic kids that current IQ tests understate or miss entirely.

The feature has some key  points that I want to highlight here. These key points bring out key questions about what we should consider intelligence, and how we can choose toy and play activities that best promote the intellectual growth of autistic kids.

1. Statistics cited about the percentage of autistics who are mentally retarded aren’t strongly grounded

Research Meredyth Elenson at Willamette University found that sources for often cited statistics saying that  70-80% of the autistic population is mental retarded are inconclusive. She also found that most of the conclusions are based on IQ tests that tend to overestimate mental disability in the autism population.

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Many parents of autistic children swear that musical therapy greatly helps autistic children, even if there aren’t a lot of scientific studies that show music therapy programs are effective. This is largely because such studies are hard to do. However, studies and anecdotal evidence do show that autistic children respond positively to music, so believing that autistic children benefit from music activities isn’t much of a stretch.

Because of the positive experiences of many parents with autistic children to music activities, these activities are now a core part of many programs for autistic children. In this post I’ll talk about some of the benefits found by parents and autism professionals from music programs, and things to keep in mind when deciding on appropriate music activities for a child with autism.

Benefits of Music Activities

Parents and autism professionals have observed the following benefits of music activities for children with autism.

1. For high-functioning autistics, music provides a creative outlet and promotes relaxation.

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Advancements in medical imaging have allowed scientists to discover new insights into how autistic brains work. These interesting findings help us better understand how and why autistics think differently from non-autistics and give us insights about how to better teach and play with autistic children.

One recent important study was performed by researchers at the University of Montreal. They analyzed 15 years of human brain imaging studies comparing hundreds of autistic and non-autistic people. The study–which the United Kingdom’s National Autistic Society and various autism experts view as significant–contains 4 interesting findings about how the brains of autistic people are wired differently from people without autism.

Key finding 1: The part of the brain that processes visual information is more highly developed in autistic people compared to non-autistics.

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Finding advice about good toys for autistic girls is hard because of autistic boys severely outnumber autistic girls. In a previous post about autism in girls I mentioned stats about this sex discrepancy in the autistic population: 1 in 80 boys has autism while only 1 in 240 girls has autism. For high-functioning autistics such as those with aspergers, the sex imbalance is even greater with estimates of 10 autistic boys for each autistic girl.

I also talked about how autistic girls view the world differently from autistic boys, and they have different interests. I concluded by describing several types of toys that are good for autistic girls:

  • Toys that promote imaginative pretend-play activities, especially if such activities can be played with others. This means that popular girl toys such as Barbies would work.
  • Books!–fantasy books, books aimed at young girls such as the Babysitters series, etc.
  • Art toys, such as etch-a-sketch or arts and crafts kits
  • Music composition toys, such as Neurosmith’s Music Blocks

With the Christmas season in full swing there are a slew of new toys on the market, some of which are appropriate for autistic girls. I looked through the top toys for this Christmas season and describe a few in this post that seem like they would be good selections for autistic girls. These include dancing and singing robotic toys, dolls, electronic toys, art sets, as well as plush toys. In this post I’ll talk about Fijit Friends and Let’s Rock Elmo–two hot toys that would be good for autistic girls this Christmas season.

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