For the Autistic, a Gift of Common Ground


By Julie Bick, The New York Times


Almost everyone knows of a family affected by autism, the disorder that can impair a child's ability to form social and emotional connections. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says autism-related disorders are more common than cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, blindness and deafness - some of the other major childhood disabilities.


Children with autism often have a hard time interpreting emotions in others, may learn to speak later and can experience hypersensitivity to noise, light and touch. As the holidays approach, family members and friends may wonder what to buy for any children with autism on their list while accommodating their special needs.


Play is the work of all children because it lets them practice new skills, find new interests and develop mentally and physically. For a child with autism, the right kind of play at the right time is crucial. Play can help deliver some basic communication and life skills that may not come naturally.


Children with auditory processing problems, for example, may have trouble translating a verbal request like “put on your coat” into a physical action. Games like the Hullabaloo DVD Game ($24.99), from Cranium, which playfully asks children to jump to different floor pads while showing others performing the desired action on screen, combine auditory and visual cues that can help children follow directions.


Although some toys are specially designed for children with autism, many families may prefer toys from the mainstream, like the Hullabaloo game. Lauri Perry of Seattle, the mother of Clark, an 8-year-old with autism, buys off-the-shelf items rather than custom products. “I want him to have the toys everyone else has, so when kids come over, they see things they know and like,” she said. “His room shouldn't look like a therapy station.”


On the other hand, a specially designed therapeutic toy can focus more directly on a specific skill, like maintaining appropriate eye contact.


Autism disorders fall on a spectrum from mild to very severe. Mari Stobbe, a founder of the Autism Spectrum Treatment and Research Center of Seattle, said: “It is vitally important to help children on the spectrum develop social connections, and to find common ground with typically developing children.” She said a shared interest in a toy could help foster that bond.


Ms. Perry also wants to make sure Clark has popular items. One favorite is a SpongeBob SquarePants backpack with a cloth tongue that rolls out when he unzips it. “The other kids think it's cool,” she said.


For the past 13 years, Toys “R” Us has published a “Toy Guide for Differently-Abled Kids,” originally in print and now at www.toysrus.com/differentlyabled. It offers tips for buying mainstream toys based on factors like multisensory appeal, safety and potential for interaction.


The toys in the catalog have been evaluated by Lekotek (www.lekotek.org), a nonprofit organization in Chicago that aims to make play more accessible for children with disabilities. Each item is tagged with symbols showing which abilities the toy may help promote, like social interaction, fine motor skills or language development.


When Ms. Perry first saw the Toys “R” Us catalog, she felt put off. “It felt condescending, like we weren't able to choose the right toys ourselves,” she said. “Clark's interests are not that different than other kids.' ”


But as she examined the catalog more closely and saw the symbols, she realized that it could be useful. “There are definitely areas Clark needs to work on, and the symbols show where a toy could help,” she said. “So if it saves me from spending time and money on the wrong thing, it is valuable.”


Many toys are hard work for children with autism because they stretch the child's capabilities in language, social skills or sensory integration. While these are crucial to the child's development, Susan Malmquist, director of educational and clinical services at the autism research center, advises care providers to balance instructional and therapeutic toys with their favorite types of toys. If the child loves airplanes, for example, provide them as a break between more therapeutic activities.


Children with autism usually have a limited set of interest areas, but those interests are very strong. So whether an interest is in animals, trains or cars, it is hard to go wrong buying more items in that category.


Many Web sites offer information and products for children with autism and other special needs. Stars4kidz.com offers toys grouped by development category, like cause and effect, or sensory play.


Neurodiversity.com, through links to Amazon.com, suggests gifts as well as children's books featuring characters with autism, including “Of Mice and Aliens” by Kathy Hoopmann (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, $12.95) and “Tobin Learns to Make Friends” by Diane Murrell (Future Horizons, $16.95). The site's books for siblings include “All About My Brother” by Sarah Peralta (Autism Asperger Publishing Company, $16.95).


For parents who want more information about a toy than the mall or the Web might offer, Discovery Toys (www.discoverytoysinc.com) of Livermore, Calif., will send a sales representative to make a presentation for a parent's support group or a play group. Working with a child development expert, the company has chosen a variety of toys for children with autism in different skill-building areas. The Castle Marbleworks Play Tower ($36.99), for example, teaches cause-and-effect relationships using balls and interlocking plastic ramps.


Ellen Notbohm, author of “Ten Things Every Child With Autism Wishes You Knew” (Future Horizons, $14.95), advises gift-givers to think beyond the toy store, especially by emphasizing everyday items that provide sensory experiences. One year she gave her son with autism a tissue-lined wicker basket containing 10 cans of shaving cream, to be dispensed at will in the bathtub, sink or wading pool. “He was beyond happy,” she recalled.


Because children with autism often like to play with one type of thing for a long time, large quantities of typical items can delight them, she said, like a bucket of flashlights or a treasure chest of costume jewelry collected from local garage sales.


“Any idea can be terrific, and any idea can be disastrous, depending on the child,” Ms. Notbohm said. “Parents will appreciate it if you have thought of three or four suggestions and ask them which might be most appropriate.”


Asking parents in advance is wise because special needs can vary so widely. Children on the autism spectrum usually have a concrete view of life, so fantasy characters and toys may not appeal to them. For some, a sense of danger is slow to develop, so be sure to ask parents about toys with an electrical cord. And though grandparents may like to shower a child with gifts, one large present may be better than many small ones. Too many things going on at once, too many choices, can overwhelm a child with autism, who finds it easier to focus on one thing at a time. Membership to the local zoo or science museum (where the family can visit when it is not too noisy or crowded) is another possible gift.


Most buying guidelines for children with autism are the same as those for any other children, according to Dr. Malmquist at the autism research center. Find toys based on their interests, toys that will help them develop and toys that are safe and matched to their intellectual capabilities. It may just take a little more research.

This article originally appeared in the New York Times on Nov. 26, 2006. Copyright © 2006 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.