Which toys can help teach those much-needed interaction skills? SMU Alumni (MOT, 1998) Rondalyn Whitney, PhD, weighs in.
Parents often think of toys as a vehicle for pure fun and play—and for typically-developing kids, they often are. But for autistic kids, toys can serve another purpose—as a teaching tool. “It sounds counterintuitive, but we really need to teach these kids how to play,” says Jan Blacher, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and director of the SEARCH family autism research center at University of California-Riverside. “For children with autism, play does not come naturally because they don’t have built-in knowledge about what to do with toys and how to interact with other kids.”
So which toys can help teach those much-needed skills? We asked Blacher as well as Rondalyn Whitney, PhD, an occupational therapist and assistant professor at Philadelphia’s University of the Sciences, to weigh in. Their picks:
“For children with autism, the best toys are those that facilitate playing with others, because autistic kids have a lot of trouble with social communication,” says Blacher. “Simple games like Candyland can help teach skills like following directions and taking turns, and they also involve social interaction with another child. As children get older, more complex board games like Boggle, Scrabble, checkers or chess are terrific.”
Whitney agrees, and suggests that parents incorporate a weekly game night into the family’s schedule. “Games help autistic children navigate so many fundamental concepts: Losing, cheating, playing by the rules, counting skills, and on and on.” Whitney especially recommends cooperative games where players have to work together as a team. “Two of my favorites are Caves & Claws and Sleeping Grump,” she says. “The Ravensburger Company is also a great source for family games.”
“Just like typically developing kids, some autistic kids have excellent athletic ability and hand-eye coordination skills,” says Blacher. “Plus, sports are another great social activity.” For young children, she suggests something as simple as a ball. “You don’t play with a ball much by yourself, and right there you have a mechanism for social play, eye contact, and social language.”
For older or more athletic kids, Blacher recommends a skateboard. “Yes, it’s technically a solitary sport, but it often ends up as a social activity as kids congregate at skate parks and skate together in groups.” She also adds that sports skills can provide social capital as autistic children age. “Suddenly, they’re recognized more for being good at skateboarding, or surfing, or tennis than for being autistic.”
Whitney also likes zip lines that parents can install in the backyard. “It helps kids build core strength, and it offers the same sensory stimulation as twirling or spinning (a common tic in autistic children), but it’s more socially appropriate.”
“Again, developing a skill like playing an instrument can come in handy during the tween and teen years in terms of buying kids some common ground with their peers,” says Blacher. “Plus, it’s creative and involves some social nuance: Players have to read and interact with a teacher or conductor as well as other players in a band or orchestra.”
For little kids who may not be ready to tackle the piano or guitar, Whitney suggests simple musical toys like a whistle or kazoo. “Autistic children need to pay attention to how interactivity occurs between themselves and others,” she says. “One easy game you can play is to have your child repeat after you: Play a simple tune—“toot, toot, toot”—and then ask the child to repeat it back to you.”
“Building blocks and toys like Legos are fantastic,” says Whitney. Try asking your child to practice putting the pieces together according to the directions before she constructs her own free-form creation. “Autistic children often have a problem with following visual or verbal directions and sticking with a task. The process of building the animal, or airplane, or castle can help reinforce those skills, and then afterwards they can flex their creative muscle by playing on their own.”
“It sounds almost too simple, but just a toolbox with a hammer, nails, and a screwdriver can be a great inspiration for play,” says Whitney. “Using tools not only builds fine-motor skills, it also builds a sense of accomplishment when kids can create something they’re proud of.” Not handy yourself? Try signing up for a weekend build-it workshop at Home Depot or Lowes, suggests Whitney. “These workshops are often very special-needs friendly, and it’s a good social activity.”
Good news for parents of children on the spectrum: “In our research, we’re finding that autistic children are often very age-appropriate in terms of their literacy, and those skills tend to be a real strength,” says Blacher.
Older kids may prefer reading on their own, but with toddlers or elementary school students, Whitney suggests adding therapeutic value to story time by using this technique: “Put your child in front of you and hold the book up to your face,” she says. “You want your child to learn to look at you, look at the book, and look back at you. It helps teach them how to put their eyes in multiple places and read clues from their environment about where to look.”
For younger kids, too, Whitney recommends books that teach socially appropriate behavior as well as humor. Two of her favorites: Me First, by Helen Lester, and Roses Are Pink, Your Feet Really Stink, by Diana DeGroat.
And what about iPads and computers?
“These devices are fast becoming some of the most desirable toys for typically developing kids, so it’s not surprising that children with autism prefer them too,” says Blacher, who believes that they can be useful social tools. “From middle school through high school, video games really are the social currency; and now you can play online against your friends. They’re not considered as isolating anymore. So if your child is a tween or a teen, I’d say: Sure, he can play these games, albeit with a little more supervision than other kids might need.” And for younger children with autism, Blacher notes, “iPads are proving to be a remarkable communication tool and learning tool.” Still, says Whitney, it’s important for parents to set limits. “I’m a huge fan of technology, but I also think it needs to be balanced with other activities that help promote needed skills. So maybe it’s an hour of computer time in exchange for an hour spent playing outside with a friend.”