Gifts for children with autism

Tulika Prasad

If your child is anything like mine, you know the stress of shopping for toys and gifts for them. Over the years I’ve seen my son lose his interest in almost any toy that’s out there or play completely inappropriately with the ones that are fortunate enough to grab his attention for a few seconds. There was a time when he loved trains and every time we entered a “Toys r Us” he would run to the spot where they had a train table for kids to play with. He would spend several minutes there. We finally decided to get a train table in the small condo we rented and having no place to keep it, we had it smack in the middle of our living room where the coffee table should have been. It only made sense to have the center of our lives’ center of life be at the center of our house But soon enough the trains lost their charm , just like toys do for all the other kids, but like other kids he did not graduate to other big boy toys…he just stopped playing with any. That was 4 yrs back. He was around 3 then. The only one that he has not given up on is his kiddi laptop that has a few geometrical shaped buttons that light up some images on the “screen” and plays a music. He still likes to play with it. It’s for 6-12mnths old kids. We tried several musical toys since then without any success.

So, going to a regular toy store is not just stressful, it’s actually sometimes depressing because I feel lost among the cars, remote control helicopters, board games, action figures, video games and the likes. So many toys but none for my child !!!! I feel guilty for not finding something for him. However, over time I have been able to think out of the box and come up with some stuff to gift him, thanks to various forums and Facebook groups that have such a wealth of information. So, I decided to pay it forward and come up with my own list, which, by no means is complete, let alone comprehensive but it’s a start and I hope someone might get some ideas from this list.

Let me tell you a bit about my son. He is low functioning and non-verbal. His poor fine motor skills make it hard for him to play with a toy so mostly using a toy is more of a chore than fun. His attention span is extremely small ..maybe a few seconds and his cognition poor, so mobile games don’t amuse him since they need a lot of thinking ,motor planning and attention. He cannot read or understand much of language so books are not something he is excited about nor does he have any favorite superhero or comic character that he obsesses over . I could list several other limitations but this should build a good picture. Keeping this in mind, most of my suggestions will be geared towards sensory toys that don’t really require too much input from the player but can still excite them enough. So here we go :

For kids who like movement:
+ Rope ladder – this one you can hang from the ceiling of your room and it swings freely while your child climbs up. It can be challenging and still exciting.

+ Hammock – Yup, I can say from my personal experience that Hammock has saved my day on several occasions. It swings, gives him the deep pressure he likes and he can have his own sanctuary, looking up at the sky, clouds, stars, birds. It calms him down. He uses it as a swing too. In winter we bring the whole thing inside as well so that he can continue to enjoy it.

+ kids pod swing chair– He is outgrowing this but he really enjoyed it. The best part about this is that it can swing in any direction -the entire 360 degree is your option. On top of that you can twist the whole thing around and release it for a fun spin for your child.

+ Trampoline – well, the benefits of this toy is known to everyone . It’s a must have for those days when their energy seems to be infinite and unending. This is the best place to release some of it.

+ Spinning/rocking chair – This could be a simple rocking chair or an office chair or a more fancy one found in Ikea that looks like a capsule. The spinning and rocking are some of the favorite movements for these kids and these could be something they would love to spend their time on.

+ Exercise ball – We stumbled onto the advantage of this by chance. I found my son bouncing on my exercise ball while watching his rhymes. The combination of music and movement keeps him busy for long, really long and gives me much needed break. A win-win situation for both of us.

For kids who love visual stimulation:
+ Lava lamps & bubble tower lamps – These are so soothing to look at , even I could spend hours just looking at these. Watching the bubbles move around keeps the kiddos hooked.

+ Liquid motion toys – These come in different sizes, shapes and prices , take a pick. I can bet your child will love to sit and watch the colored bubbles drip and float and do their magic.

+ Newton cradle– The set of balls swinging and hitting and swinging back again can be a fun thing to look at. My son loved to watch it but I had to keep doing it for him which can get tiring but if your child is motivated enough to lift and release the ball, it can be endless hours of fun and it also teaches them cause and effect.

+ Fiber optic lamp – These generally come with a clear base with color changing crystals inside and can be mesmerizing to watch as the long optical fibers glow in different colors. It can also work as a soothing night light for your child’s room.

+ Plasma ball lamp – Another great visual toy for the kids, and if I might add, the adults too. Kids would love to interact with it as the globe responds to their touch and has a wonderful display of light inside it.

+ Gears set – This is like a board with gears of all shapes and sizes interlocked on it. Kids can have fun spinning one and watching the entire board spin. This can very visually stimulating.

Kids with strong tactile sensory needs:
+ Microwavable plush toys – Though these say microwavable, apart from warming them, you can also place them in the freezer for kids who seek cold (like my son). Most are filled with an aromatic filling like lavender that is soothing for the kids too.

+ Kinetic sand – This is another one I could find gifting to myself. I have caught myself digging my hands into it so many times. It’s fun to watch it move when you drop it slowly or just fidget with it. It comes with different molds and now even has glitters in it. There is a whole array to choose from . I’m sure this is a gift that will be a hit with your child.

+ Play doh – Who does not like play doh ! If your child loves to touch and knead and squeeze this is a good option. If they can, help them make their favorite object out of the doh and that should be an activity both of you can enjoy.

+ Massager or vibrating toys – My kid loves things that vibrate. He likes to press it on his cheeks or feel it with his hands. Kids with sensory needs are going to love this. Just make sure you have enough batteries on your hand.

+ Fidget cube – If you are part of any Autism community on Facebook you must have seen this on your feed. I’ve not tried this only because I think my son’s limited fine motor skills might not allow him to enjoy this as much but if your child can use the knobs and switches in this cube it’s a gift they would thank you for.

Kids who seek oral sensory inputs:
+ Chewy tubes : gone are the days when chewy tubes were big knobby tubes in very conspicuous shapes that, when hung around your kid’s neck made them look almost ridiculous. Now they have all jazzy and snappy shapes that look like nice necklaces. They look hip and serve the purpose too.

+ Vibrating oral tools : My struggle with my son’s brushing finally found a breakthrough when we started using a vibrating toothbrush. He would sit still if I let the brush stay at a spot inside his cheek. He enjoyed the vibration until his sound sensitivity took over and the sound of the vibrations started bothering him. But for those kids who seek oral inputs, a vibrating oral toy is a great gift. A vibrating toothbrush, Nuk brush, Z-vibe are some of the options.

Apart from these other sensory gifts like a weighted blanket/ lap scroll or vest is a wonderful addition to their treasure trove. These help them be more aware of their body in space and keep them calm.

For kids who have auditory processing issues, noise cancelling headphones are also something you can invest in. My son hates anything on his head or face – cap, hat , glasses, headphone everything gets thrown off of him so we’ve not been very successful with it but I’ve personally known people who swear by how helpful a noise cancelling headphone has been.

Although my son is not big on toys we’ve had limited success with the Discovery Magnetic Building set. He enjoys how the pieces attract or repel each other. I’m also planning to get a wooden tree marble run toy. We’ve had a marble run toy in the past that my son loved but it’s setup was elaborate and very unstable so I’m hoping that the tree marble run would be something he might enjoy. Another interesting toy is the LED light up building blocks. It might be fun for kids to watch the blocks light up the moment the are put together.

Another gift that could be fun and useful is the wearable GPS tracker for kids. This will keep them safe and keep you sane
For kids who like their iPad and apps, AutismSpeaks has a very nice list of apps that can be filtered down based on various criteria like age, category, platform etc. so that you can find the best ones for you. I would specially like to recommend Speakaboos, an interactive story app that I really liked. And for parents like me who can manage to code a few lines, maybe you could build your very own custom app for your kid to make them feel extra special.

Though there are tons of gifts out there the best ones cost nothing- hugs, lots of love and the belief that your child is no less.

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