I remember the first toy we bought my daughter that she actually liked.
Up until then, we’d filled our house with baby toys, toddler toys, blocks, dolls, books, everything we could think of and afford that we thought would be fun. She didn’t really play with these toys in the ways we expected, and for awhile I fell into the trap of thinking a different toy would do the trick. But none of it was really appreciated, and we even had to prompt her to open gifts.
One Christmas, a giant dog caught her eye, and we went with that. From the time it came home, it lived with her on her bed. Later on, it joined us in tea parties. It was just so satisfying to find something our daughter actually appreciated!
I am pleased to say that choosing gifts and giving them has gotten a lot more fun as our kids have matured, and we’ve even had a few episodes of premature peeking and tearing of paper. Gifts are something to look forward to, when they are things that you will enjoy.
What are some things to keep in mind when buying gifts for children on the autism spectrum?
Gifts are usually about encouraging play, so it’s a good idea to think about what that means.
Play matters because how children learn and explore the physical and social world. True play is engaging, intrinsically motivated, flexible, and fun. It’s not about following a set plan. It’s always about the process and not the outcome. Play is about exploring culture, connecting with others, and it supports children’s thinking, social competence, language, literacy, emotional health, and sensory-motor development.
Different kinds of play emerge at different points of childhood, and all kinds of play continue in some way throughout a person’s life.
- Manipulation play is about enjoying sensory experiences with objects, movement, or with people. Children with autism are often attracted to play activities and materials that involve sensory experiences, like fidget toys, play dough, or Light Bright. They may like to explore the sensory qualities of toys like cars or stuffed animals. It’s also fun to seek out physical or rough-and-tumble forms of play such as running, jumping, spinning, or bouncing.
- Functional Play is when a child uses objects in purposeful ways, often imitating what others do with those objects. Examples include stacking blocks, building with trains or Lego, pretending to use a phone or tucking a teddy bear in bed. Children with autism may need support to engage in this kind of play.
- Symbolic-Pretend Play is when a child’s imagination is fully active. They may pretend one object is really another (using a banana as a telephone), or pretend that things are different than they are (imagining a dry table is wet), or imagine that things that aren’t there really are (pretending to drink from a cup when there isn’t one there). As a child explores this kind of play, scripts and stories emerge. It can take awhile for this kind of play to emerge for children with autism. Therapies like DIR/Floortime have this kind of play as a major goal.
Play also has a social dimension. Starting in infancy, children typically begin to imitate facial expressions and gestures in games like Peek-A-Boo. Early play with peers also builds a child’s ability to share focus on an object or activity, imitate and reciprocate, and share emotions. As children grow, they continue to grow as social partners. They may spend time as onlookers as others play, play independently alongside other children, or play cooperatively with others, working on common goals like building a structure or acting out a story.
Why does this matter?
Children with autism are on their own developmental path. They don’t usually play in the same ways as parents see in their neurotypical peers, and that can be confusing for parents. It’s important to recognize that all kinds play can be both fun and valuable, at any age. By recognizing the kind of play a child engages in, we can choose gifts that they will truly enjoy.
Think Out of the Box
Rather than buying toys typically enjoyed by children of a particular age, think about the particular child. How do they play now, by themselves, and with others? What are they interested in? The things a child thinks about can suggest gift ideas they will really appreciate.
For example, if they are more into functional play, what sensory experiences bring them joy? Maybe you can find them something that they will like to feel, or watch, or hear, or jump on. One of our more successful gifts was a bag of soft plastic blocks, which could be built with or safely thrown.
Toys that can be used in a variety of ways are a great idea, and are likely to be enjoyed longer. Blocks, balls, art supplies, and outdoor play equipment are all good ideas and also can be played with either individually or with a partner.
Social connection is an important part of play, and play partners are the best fun. What could you buy that makes it easier to play together? Bubbles, balloons, play dough, musical toys and a kite worked well for this in our family.
Go Easy On The Toys
Don’t Worry About Age-Appropriate
If your child enjoys something that younger children typically play with, does it really matter? If we think about it, all of us still enjoy things from our childhood.
If your child receives something that isn’t fun and they aren’t really interested in, set it aside for later. They might grow into it.
Places to Shop
These are some of our favorite places, because they offer toys for the full range of play activities. Another good resource for ideas is the Parents Choice awards website, which lists the best of new toys, books, and digital media.
- Toad Hall Toys (also watch for their sidewalk sale each September)
- Kite & Kaboodle
- Michaels – for sensory play, arts and crafts
- Scholars Choice, especially for sensory toys
Wolfberg, P. (2003). Peer Play and the Autism Spectrum: The Art of Guiding Children’s Socialization and Imagination.