Buying a toy, a gift for a child on the autism spectrum can be a challenge. During the holidays we receive many calls for advice to our product specialists. Based on these questions, our product specialists have developed this useful guide to help you choose the best gifts for autistic children, adolescents and adults on the autism spectrum. There are some gifts that simply do not fly for children on the autism spectrum.
- Anything made with lead or mercury:
No child should receive a gift with lead or mercury. That sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s something that you must be very careful to make sure since many toys from abroad are made with toxic metals. This can be very important when considering a gift for a child with autism, as it can articulate objects even longer than other children, which puts it at a higher risk of ingestion.
- Cheap discounts of the real thing:
Children with autism have fabulous visual memories. They will not be “bought” with a doll “similar to Elmo”, a “Thomas-like” engine or a “Barney-like” dinosaur. But do not expect a child with autism to be deceived: Elmo is Elmo, and there is no fair substitute in the market!
- Gifts that are appropriate for age but are not welcome:
Yes, you’re right, a ten-year-old boy is probably “too old” for Thomas the Tank Engine. When her autistic niece un-wraps that gift and does not find a favourite toy but an “age appropriate” item, which she never asked for, she is ready for a merger. How would you feel if you had something you did not want, but it was “good for you”?
- Gifts that absolutely require social interaction or verbal skills:
There are many toys that aim to develop the skills most needed by autistic children. There are social games, verbal games, games to teach to read, games to teach to share and all these are excellent tools for teaching. But vacations are not about teaching, it’s about fun. If your donation absolutely requires that a child with autism find a partner, express thoughts and take turns, it is likely that he will use it once and never again. Instead, choose a gift that can be used interactively (building blocks, puppets, etc.) but that you do not have to use with others. That way, a child with autism can enjoy it alone or learn new skills when they play together.
- Gifts that require advanced fine or gross motor skills:
Children with autism can be very active and can love trampolines, swings and slides. But most children with autism also have at least some gross and fine motor delays that make more complex sports difficult. Unless you know that the autistic child in your life really loves you, avoid toys like jump ropes, hacky sacks, juggling scarves and the like. They may be attractive, but they will probably end up in the junk drawer when your autistic loved one discovers they are too difficult to handle.
- Toys that cause sensory overloads:
Many children with autism have sensory sensitivities that make certain toys and materials for handicrafts and crafts very difficult to carry. Examples of what should be avoided include sticky items such as “silt,” Silly Putty, paper-mâché kits and the like, as well as smelly items such as certain markers and plastics. Depending on the child, you may also want to avoid toys that make a lot of noise, flash with intensity or assault the senses.
- Foods that encourage breaking a special diet:
Quite a few children with autism are on special diets. Most of these diets exclude gluten and casein that means that a gift of special cookies can become a serious problem: children love them, but mom and dad can object. The same goes for any Christmas treatment based on gluten or casein. Before giving food, check with mom and dad about special dietary problems; Send a list of ingredients before delivering the treatment.
- Toys that stimulate an obsessive interest:
There is a thin line between obsession and passion, and children with autism often cross that line. Yes, they can be happy to receive a special baseball card. But if the card becomes the central focus of your day, which results in counting and sorting a complete collection of cards for hours and hours, it’s not really a positive gift. Before choosing to give a toy that supports a persevering interest, consult with mom and dad. Maybe there is a better time than holidays to give that gift. When things are less hectic, you can take time to talk about the gift, the interest, the collection and help turn an obsessive interest into a true shared passion.