In a previous post I summarized findings from the Public Interest Research Group’s 2011 Annual Toy Safety Survey.  In this post I focus on specific toys PIRG found to have safety issues that might be of interest to someone buying toys for an autistic child. You can find the full list of danger toys in PIRG’s full report, Trouble in Toyland.

LL Whirly Wheel (lead hazard)

LL Whirly Wheel

PIRG’s lab tests found that the whirly wheel exceeded the federal lead standard of 300ppm and had a lead content of 3700 mg/kg of lead.

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Last week the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) published its 26th annual survey of toy safety where they profiled some hazards they found in toys being sold this holiday season.  I think you can tell pretty quickly from the survey’s title—Trouble in Toyland—what PIRG’s opinion of the toy industry is.

This is sad because in 2007 there were a series of high profile toy recalls. More than 20 million toys were recalled by major manufacturers as Mattel (which owns Fisher Price) due to the presence of lead-based paint that exceeded the federal limit. In some cases the lead content was found to be 180 times the federal limit! In response, Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) of 2008, which established lower limits of lead allowed in children’s products and also banned the use of three phthalates (chemical substances shown in many studies to cause birth defects and affect hormone levels in young children and the unborn) in such products. The law also required manufacturers to submit to mandatory third-party testing for such substances.

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Children with autism are often visual learners. For this reason, visual sensory toys for autistic children are often a better choice than toys which focus on sound or text. This post describes the types of visual sensory toys that would be a good fit for autistic children and provides some specific toy recommendations under each category.

Climbing Gyms

Climbing gyms or other areas that require kids to observe all three spatial directions are good for developing spatial skills, as well as for developing motor control skills and encouraging physical activity.

If you don’t want to buy such an large item, the simplest solution would be to venture to your nearest playground. The downside to going to a playground is that it isn’t private. If your child has a lot of difficulty interacting with other children at the playground then you might want to avoid this approach. Additionally, equipment at playgrounds might not be age-appropriate for your child (the monkey bars may be too high for your 3-year old, for example).

There are a variety of products you can set up indoors or in your backyard if you want to go have a private playscape for your child. Around $100 buys you a small plastic slide set such as the All Sports Climber, and around $200 gets you more rigid metal climbing structures like the Easy Outdoor Space Dome Climber. Both products can be found on Amazon.

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iPad 2 with Dr. Seuss Game

The iPad has been the subject of many recent news stories as an autism intervention tool. But like any other miracle device, there are probably benefits and dangers in relying too heavily on using iPad Games with autistic children. In this post I dig through the hoopla to identify the reported pros and cons of relying on the iPad to help autistic children.

Benefits of iPad Games

Some experts and parents who’ve used the iPad with autistic kids believe it helps these children deal with sensory overload. Autism expert Martha Herbert, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School who wrote the book Understanding Autism for Dummies, says that the iPad can give autistic children control over the pace of information that comes at them.  Another expert in assistive technology says that the iPad is great because it provides autistic children a way to directly control the interface instead of having to use a keyboard and mouse.

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Autistic girls think and act differently than autistic boys. Despite this there isn’t a lot of research into good toys for autistic girls because autism appears in boys four times more than in girls, with estimates that 1 in 80 boys has autism while only 1 in 240 girls has autism. The sex ratio is even more imbalanced in the high-functioning autistic population with referral rates in the range of 10 boys for each girl!

Because girls are underrepresented in the pool of autistic children, parents of autistic daughters have a particularly hard time finding support resources and advice on appropriate education, toys, and games. This article summarizes findings from research studies about how autistic girls differ from boys and suggests some types of good toys for autistic girls. In later posts I’ll give some specific toy recommendations.

How Autistic Girls Differ From Boys

Although research findings from studies comparing autistic girls to autistic boys differ depending on the age of children in the study, the IQ of children in the study, the type of studies, and how behaviors and skills are measured, all the studies (summarized by Nichols, Moravcik, and Tetenbaum in their book Girls Growing Up on the Autism Spectrum) present several consistent findings:

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autistic toddler playing with dna toy

Autistic toddler playing with DNA toy

Toddlers are typically defined as children between the ages of one and three. Research suggests that early screening to detect autism in toddlers and provide intervention measures can help lead to increased intelligence levels, language skills, and behavior. This recent research also suggests that the best type of intervention for autistic toddlers is interacting with therapists and parents in natural home settings focused on play activities rather than other types of commonly used therapies such as Applied Behavioral Analysis that involve the therapist or parent interacting with the child in a desk setting, where the adult gives small tasks to the toddler and provides feedback as to whether the tasks are performed correctly. In short, playing with toys is good!

Toddlers with autism may exhibit the following characteristics:

  • Difficulty communicating or understanding verbal commands and gestures
  • Throws tantrums
  • Prone to repetitive behavior
  • Doesn’t seem to pay attention to others
  • Has delayed speech skills

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Autistic child

Children are classified as having low functioning autism based on the severity of symptoms and results from IQ tests. What does this mean exactly for the adult who wants to buy the right toys for these children? It means that children with low functioning autism are more likely to display one or more of the following characteristics:

  • An inability to express themselves using verbal language or to learn language
  • An inability to live independently
  • An inability to use typical nonverbal gestures used for communication
  • Avoids eye contact
  • Prefers to be alone
  • Poor physical coordination
  • Either a heightened sensitivity to sensory stimulation, or a lack of sensitivity to such stimulation (noises, lights, touch, tastes, smells)
  • Emotions vacillate to extremes, such as crying for no reason
  • Very impulsive
  • Very aggressive
  • May like to injure themselves
  • Physical manifestations, such as being below average in weight and height
  • Lags other children in their age group academically

For all these reasons, choosing an appropriate toy for a child with low-functioning autism is particularly hard. While high functioning autistics may do well with age-appropriate toys, low-functioning autistics may need toys designed for younger children, which will be safer and also easier to understand.

Characteristics of Appropriate Toys

Low-functioning autistics have difficulty expressing themselves verbally, which prevents them from easily communicating with peers and adults and leads them to spend most of their time alone. They will therefore embrace toys that allow them to play alone and grow to be familiar with such toys. At the same time if these toys can also be adapted for interaction with others you may have an easier time getting them to use the toy as a medium for communicating with others.

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In a previous post I discussed the main places online and offline that you could find autism toys and games. I also mentioned that the advocacy group Autism Speaks has a list of autism toy and game vendors.

The main categories of products I see featured on this site include:

  • Computer games
  • Educational videos
  • Board games and card games
  • Physical Toys for Children with Special Needs
  • Art Toys
  • General toy vendors and manufacturers (i.e., stores and products not focused on special-needs kids)

In this post I sift through the first category of products on this list–computer game companies– and provide for you my impressions of these products and vendors. As a disclaimer, I have no stake in any of the products and don’t make money from any of them.

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Although there are specialty online games and toy stores that cater to autistic children, these may not always be the cheapest or most convenient option. Many toys that you can find at your local Toys R Us or Target can also be appropriate as evidenced by a list of vendors compiled by the autism advocacy organization Autism Speaks.

In this post I’ll summarize the main categories of places where you can look for autism toys as well as pros and cons of shopping at each source. In a later post I will write about some of my initial impressions of the vendors listed on the Autism Speaks site.

Specialty Online Stores and Companies Catering to Autistics

It’s highly unlikely that you will find a local bricks and mortar toy shop that caters to autistic children. Two factors make this an unlikely scenario: the autism toy market is a very specialized market, and toys have relatively low profit margins. But if you are lucky to find one in your town, this is probably your best bet since you will have knowledgeable salespeople to interact with and will save time because you choose from toys that have already been preselected for you. (If this is the case please email me to let me know the name and location of the store so I can share this information with others!). Barring this, online shopping is probably your best bet.

One advantage of online stores as just mentioned is that because they cater to a larger geographical area, you will have a better chance of finding niche products that cater specifically to autistic children. The prices may also—but not always—be lower than a comparable bricks and mortar store. The downsides of online shopping are less (if any) human interaction if you have questions or want to learn more about a product, as well as an inability to physically examine or try a toy before you buy.

Large Chain Stores

You can often find appropriate toys by scouring your neighborhood toy chain. Toys R Us, for example, joined forces with Autism Speaks to raise money to support autism research and also highlights “ten toys that speak to autism.” (Although right now the link doesn’t seem to work so I can’t actually see the ten toys they recommend for autism.). Target, Wal-Mart and other big chains also sell a variety of toys that may be appropriate, but since nothing is described as specifically for autistic kids you will have to do some exploring and research on your own. Salespeople at such stores also probably won’t be able to give you much help or advice.

Amazon.com

Amazon is such a unique entity that I’m going to put it in its own category. Amazon blends the purchasing power and ubiquity of large chains combined with the ability to find a lot of specialty products that you might otherwise have to buy from specialty online shops, especially since a lot of their less common items are stocked by third-party distributors. Additionally, it also has the advantage of customer reviews that you can read, as well as lists made by users. A helpful way to find autism toys may be to scour lists in their listmania! Section that cater specifically to autistic children and toddlers, although as with all things on the internet you should use your own judgment when deciding whether the toys listed on such lists are actually appropriate for the autistic child in your life. Remember–each child is unique!

One thing to be aware of on Amazon is that the prices may sometimes be high for toys, which is in contrast with its deep price cuts on books. I’m not sure why this is but I suspect it is because toys are not their main market and because a lot of toys sold on Amazon are actually sold through Amazon third-party vendors who don’t get the scale advantages large chains do. Also beware of shipping costs if you find a toy listed by a third-party vendor on Amazon.

Local Bricks and Mortar Toy Shops

All cities have locally owned small toy shops. Such shops tend to focus on educational toys and specialty toys that the larger chains don’t carry, and they also try to differentiate themselves through better service. For example, one of the toys featured on the Autism Speaks site is a line of wooden toy cars called Automoblox that I haven’t found at the large chains but have found on Amazon and local toy stores. The advantage of such shops is that you tend to get more personalized service and may be able to touch and interact with the toy before making a purchasing decision. But because such stores don’t focus on autistic children specifically the employees are unlikely to provide useful suggestions beyond general toy suggestions.

Kids with autism have a lot of trouble understanding social skills. Developing social skills should therefore be a priority so the autistic child fits into society and experiences less childhood stress. In this entry I’ll summarize some specific strategies for social skill development and how toys and games can fit into such strategies. The strategies I will talk about include:

  • Having a child imitate your behaviors
  • Using positive reinforcement to support desired social behaviors
  • Using visuals to explain social skills
  • Avoiding using toys and games that send conflicting messages

Imitation

One strategy for teaching social skills is to have your child emulate your behavior. Non-autistic children naturally try to imitate what their parents do because they want to feel like grown-ups. This is why you’ll find such products as toy lawn mowers and toy vacuum cleaners at toy stores. (On a side note, isn’t it ironic that kids want to imitate doing chores when they’re young but don’t want to do chores as they grow older? But I digress…). For autistic children, getting them to imitate what you do is harder but this imitation can still be an effective strategy if used appropriately. Since autistic children tend to be fixated on certain toys, imitation might not work so well if you’re trying to teach them to imitate how you play a new board game or how you interact with a toy they’ve never seen before. The best way to apply this strategy is to use it on something they’re already familiar with. For example, if your autistic child is very fixated on toy trains, maybe you could teach them to imitate how you gently handle the toys, and put them back in the box when you’re done.

Positive Reinforcement

People and pets respond best to feedback that is specific to behaviors. Think of how frustrating it was to have that boss that said you needed to do better but never told you what exactly you were doing wrong, for example, or how you can’t train your dog to sit still by rewarding him five minutes after he’s stopped sitting. This means that if there’s a toy or game your child likes, and you want to use this as a reward for good behavior, give it right after a good behavior and explain what behavior you are rewarding so your autistic child doesn’t have to guess. Conversely, if you are trying to punish your child for bad behavior be specific about what the behavior is.

Use Visuals

Children with autism tend to learn best visually, and also tend to have trouble retrieving words. This means they would rather see pictures than read a lot of text or hear a long lecture. Cue cards or other such games are therefore useful for incorporating into your child’s social skill development lessons. In this case, it may be useful to use video or video games as well, although keep in mind the dangers of overreliance on technology that I’ve mentioned in previous posts.

Avoid Conflicting Messages

Children with autism tend to think logically and in terms of rules. You can help them learn social skills by accepting and working with this tendency. This means that you shouldn’t introduce toys and games that showcase exceptions to a rule you are trying to hammer home to the child. For example, if you are trying to teach an autistic child not to throw balls at other kids, don’t introduce dodgeball. This will just confuse her!

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