Whenever Christmas time or birthdays roll around, I’m often at a cross roads as to what kind of gift to get for our autistic son. Our child is 6 years old and although he is chronologically six, evaluations have indicated that he is operating at about a 2.5 year old level developmentally. This puts me in a conundrum as to what would be the best kind of gift to buy or suggest for him. Sure, he’s six years old and quite interested in what his older brother and sisters play with, but he is also drawn to toys geared toward toddlers and preschoolers. Talking with his therapists, however, has helped me gain a better perspective and some great gift ideas as well!
What my son’s physical therapist shared was incredibly illuminating when we discussed practical gift ideas. Most parents of disabled children want to rush their child along as they are gaining mastery of different skills and behaviors and get on to the next milestone. What we tend to forget the importance of simply letting the child enjoy what they have accomplished with all their hard work! Essentially, it is not only okay, but it is normal and vital for parents to let their children play and have fun with these newly developed skills! We just don’t notice it as much with neurotypical kids. Our special needs kids are simply going at a different pace. This discussion was so eye opening for me and gave me a sense of relief.
Now, with this in mind, we also must consider most families of children with developmental delays or neurodevelopmental problems, are putting a lot of money into therapies for their children. They want their children to progress to the fullest extent possible. They also have to be wise with their budget. With autistic children, like our son, regular therapies like speech, occupational and physical therapies are typically covered by insurance or Medicaid. Alternative therapies are typically not. Additionally, a lot of children are on special diets and these healthy diets are a higher, yet worthwhile, expense. As a result, I, for one, am interested more in toys or gifts that are not only good quality, but provide some sort of therapeutic value and are durable. Having fun is certainly a therapeutic value, but most autistic kids I know, as well as certain children I’m related to, are really hard on their toys! They need to be able to handle the kind of intense treatment a child with poor judgment puts forth.
There are, of course, a huge variety of toys available in any store that can be used in some therapeutic way for an autistic child. It is such a treat to learn from the therapists, different ways in which to play with one’s disabled child that not only are engaging and fun, but satisfying several needs at once. The advantage of having therapists and special educational services for one’s child, certainly can extend to the home. If you think about it, it’s a fact that is true for any child. All kids like to receive fun gifts and items they are interested in. This goes for autistic children like my son, as well as kids with any type of disability. What is important is encouraging an inquisitive mind, mastery of skills, creativity, engagement with others (ie. growth in social skills) and simply having fun.
Some examples of utilizing a toy for therapeutic value is Mr. Potato Head and all the varieties available. What fun it is to work on directions, body parts, fine motor skills regarding manipulating the parts, hand/eye coordination, emotions (turning the mouth upside down to make him “sad”), matching or coordinating outfits, and simply having fun being silly.
Another example is playing with beads. There are, of course, beads of all shapes and sizes, as well as beads that snap together and easier to manipulate. You can work on patterns, fine motor skills, strengthening fingers, and being creative. This type of gift needs to come with the understanding that when using beads, care needs to be involved in only spending about 15 minutes as kids can get frustrated pretty easily. Bring out just a small amount of the beads so they can have a sense of success and completing a project, while building their self esteem through the mastery of difficult tasks.
Of course, there are also the “Wow” gifts of a trampoline (mini or full size), scooters, balls, X-box Kinect games, bicycles or tricycle, indoor bowling sets, indoor swings, puzzles, simple games, etc. Basically, anything affordable that captures the child’s interest and that will keep them interested and engaged, as some of these gifts are done best when someone is playing with the child. There are some toys they can play by themselves, and there is a place for that in a child’s development, but what will excite them the most is having someone to play with them on a consistent basis.
The reality is that regardless of the gift you get for your child, whether at Christmas or their birthday, the best gift you can give is something they will enjoy with the vital ingredient to include being simply the gift of yourself. Spending time with your special needs child, enjoying their mastery and celebrating their achievements while simply having fun and delighting in them, will make lasting memories for both of you and that is the central piece for a healthy and happy childhood!