Education Learning Skills Technology

What do I give Anna for her birthday ?

I bought a Barbie doll for my granddaughter on the first day of its international launch day for her birthday. She took it and ran to her room I followed her with the excitement hoping she is going to unwrap and start playing giving me lot of hugs and kisses. Instead when I pipped through the door she was lining the toy next to the other toys. I was surprised to see all the toys lined exactly in a straight line and found her looking at them from various angles and in different shades of light. I was shocked and annoyed that all my efforts and money spend has gone down the drain and I could have given her anything else.”. – a grandparent of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Similarly most of us are clueless about what to buy as gifts  for Autistic Children.

Giving gifts to family members is a long-standing tradition in every culture. It is a way to express love, gratitude and personal satisfaction. Selecting a toy is easy for typically developing children as we know exactly what they want without putting much thought in to what to buy. Giving toys or choosing gifts for Autistic Children can be challenging and frustrating to know what would be a good gift. It may lead to gilt that the toy you brought did not excite him/ her and did not bring the smile you desperately wanted to see. So toys or gifts for Autistic children need to be developmental toys.

Toys are meant to be versatile & replicate daily routine activities to enhance learning about the world in a safe way. They are also meant to consolidate understanding of basic concepts, provide sensory input, increase social interaction, promote receptive and expressive language and social skills such as waiting, taking turns, winning and losing in a structured play with peers. Play can also be unstructured without any rules and Playing with toys promotes joint attention, imitation, and comprehension of instructions, unlimited fun, cause and effect and pretend play opportunities. For a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder core deficits lie with difficulty with all the above skills and hence selecting a right toys or gifts for Autistic Children will promote development of language, social emotional growth and cognitive improvements.

If you look at toys market it is a huge market and companies makes variety of toys. They also have research to say what types of toys children play at certain age. Play skills develop as the child matures and language develops. The first stage is sensory motor toys here the sensory aspect of the toy is important like the texture, sound and other features. Also, it is a stage for solitary play where the child likes cause and effect toys. The next stage is where the child watches another child but does not join in. Next the child moves closer and moves parallel to another child. Next is associated play where they start playing with other children and learn cooperation, problem solving. The final stage then is cooperative play at this stage the child gets in to group and requires cooperation. Provides rules with a leader and others assuming more different roles. Child with Autism Spectrum Disorder may not follow a similar progression seen in typically developing child. They may get stuck at a level or deviate persisting to stay at the same stage longer than a typically developing child.

Children with autism often have repetitive or unusual play (e.g. Lining up toys) or lack symbolic play (e.g. using a block as a telephone), their parents may have difficulty finding ways to interact with them during play. Most difficult play for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder is the pretend play (e.g. pretending to be a bat man) as these games requires cognitive flexibility which they lack. It can be very difficult for parents & peers to engage the child in reciprocal, symbolic, turn-taking play episodes without intervention. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder can be stuck in a particular stage and may find it difficult to play with toys differently thus limiting learning opportunities.

So when I am going to buy a toy for my child with Autism Spectrum Disorder I need to answer some questions to self. Does the toy promote inclusion and allows other family members to participate, can the toy be adapted to accommodate my child’s needs, does the toy allow creativity, does my child have adequate attention to play with the toy, what sensory stimulation does the toy offer, can this toy be used to challenge my child and will it allow for creativity and avoid boredom? Also thinking if the deficit is in language or social skills and targets then can be set with the clinician to target skills during play. E.g. sharing, waiting, understanding rules for board games can be done by using visuals to make the child understand.

Today’s world is also a world of virtual toys. Computers, play pads, tablets, gaming devices have invaded every aspect of society. A question always asked is should iPad be used or not? According to my experience of working with Autism Spectrum Disorder for 20 Years I think using iPad to play can be disastrous for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder as it eliminated the need to share and interact with humans. It can be offered to children while parents get on to do other chores leaving a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder exposed to feed on their rigidities and obsessions. E.g. watching the same clip over and over. Also because of the ease to use it and instant reinforcement many children like it. Technology has advantage for Autism Spectrum Disorder child as the games, pattern or sound they want to be replicated can make it a toy of choice. But if used ingeniously iPad cab used as a tool & can be versatile gadget as it can  be used to engage and gain attention for a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder who finds engagement difficult. With plethora of apps in the market you can download apps across categories targeting fine motor skills, cooperative play, pretend play, sorting, matching activities. Apps can also help in language development and helping with expressive voice put aids such as expressive, proloq2go etc. Apps can also build vocabulary and help with word finding e.g. “Meri Vaani or Talk Around It”. They can also help with social skill development such as “story maker”.

Anything can be used as a toy if you can think out of the box. I have successfully used toys such as simple kitchen tools, empty cartoons, newspapers, strings, buttons, balloons, socks, washing laundry , old clothes , Lego blocks, books, beads , card board boxes, empty bottles, tyers. Daily chores provides plenty of play opportunities to engage with your children. I believe that there is no need to buy costly toys always for your children but it the ingenuity and time which is needed to play. Setting a toy library to exchange toys can be good idea so your child gets to play with new toys often and also can be circulated between friends.

The first step in helping your child learn new ways to play is to follow his lead by including his Interests. This means: Be Face-to-Face with your child – This allows you to see what interests your child. Observe what your child is doing – Notice what your child is looking at or playing with. Join in and play with your child – Be sure not to change the play. Try to play the way your child enjoys playing. You can join in by: doing what your child is doing – Copy what your child does with his toy. Sarah’s mom noticed that Sarah was hugging her doll, so she did the same thing with her own doll making a comment about what you or your child are doing – Sarah’s mom made a comment about her own actions by saying “Shhh…the baby’s sleeping”. She also commented on Sarah’s actions, saying “Oh, your baby is sleeping too”. Once you’ve joined in your child’s play, you need to wait to see what your child will do next. This allows you to ensure that your child is still having fun and is motivated to continue. If you keep playing in this way,you will end up taking turns back and forth with your child, and your child will have fun while learning new ways to play with his favourite toys. By following your child’s lead, you can ensure that it’s fun when you play together, not work. Parent focused programs such as Hanen are beneficial for teaching play skills and language development.

Milind Sonawane,

Sr.SLT ASD team, Ireland


  1. It’s the simplest and the most informative article one can come across.. very line is meaningful and thought though. Surely it’s the result of Years of experience and hands on knowledge . Thank you Milind

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