December 07, 2006

Just for fun: 'Special' kids don't need 'special' toys

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- For those with special needs kids on their holiday lists, special education experts at Southern Illinois University Carbondale have a word of advice: Relax!

"When we talk about kids with disabilities, the idea is often, 'What can I give that will make them better,'" says Associate Professor Nancy A. Mundschenk, who specializes in kids ages 4 to 14 with mild disabilities and behavioral disorders.

"Don't invest so much psychologically, mentally, financially in this — it's a toy! If the child didn't have a disability, you would focus more on whether the child would like it. Think about what you know about the child and what they've communicated about what they want."

Deborah A. Bruns, an assistant professor who works with children under 5 with developmental delays and physical disabilities, says the technology involved in off-the-shelf toys at stores such as Toys "R" Us and Wal-Mart has given those shopping for children with special needs a wider range of choice.

"You don't have to go out and spend an arm and a leg on toys from the specialty catalogs," she notes. "You can think outside the box and adapt."

When choosing gifts for older children with learning disabilities, keep in mind that nine out of 10 will have some problems with reading.

"You might want to pay attention to how involved the games are and how complex the directions are," Mundschenk says.

If you're considering a popular video game that you think might stretch beyond the child's skills, she suggests looking at those for which "cheat books' are available.

"That's one fun way to encourage reading, and if the child has an older sibling, he or she might be willing to work with the child on the game."

Mundschenk prefers board games or card games to the video variety.

"They're a good way to learn about taking turns, following directions, developing strategies, and they encourage cooperative play with others," she said. "You don't get that with videos."

She's also a fan of the Turbo Twist and iQuest toys available at, a site with toys for everyone from infants to high school seniors. Both palm-sized devices, Turbo Twist comes with math and spelling cartridges, while iQuest focuses on math, science and social studies.

"It's handheld technology — that's really big for kids grades five to eight," Mundschenk says. "The iQuest looks like a Blackberry or PDA (personal digital assistant), and they're cool."

They also are portable, making them great to take along on those long holiday trips to visit Grandma, and they're something to do once you get there — as are board and card games, which have an advantage over the hand-held variety, Mundschenk points out.

"They encourage children to have fun with siblings and family members," she says.

"Toys never replace people, even when you're talking about school-age children and adolescents."

When buying for younger children, pay attention to texture, color, sound and function.

"You also want those with an open-ended use," Bruns says. "There can't be just one way to play with them."

Many off-the-shelf infant toys fit the bill. Take the classic ring stack.

"There are some that are fabric (there's the texture) or that come with sounds or lights," Bruns says.

"And you don't have to stack them. You can roll them, put them on the wrist and take them off again, talk about their colors or their sizes."

Shape-sorting toys also offer versatility, especially when you can see through the container.

"It's immediate feedback for cause and effect," Bruns says.

If children have trouble figuring out which shapes fit which holes, you can simplify the toy by taping up some of the holes and offering fewer toys. Or you could transform the toy into a primitive form of basketball by taking off the container's lid and having the child toss the shapes into it.

"Children might not play with a toy the way it's intended, but that's OK," Bruns says.

When they hear "building toys," most folks think "Legos." Bruns says, but not every child has the motor skills to play with those.

"There are a million kinds of blocks you can use that are bigger or have texture or are easier

to put together, and many of these are soft so when they fall down, they don't make a noise," Bruns says. "Some kids can't handle the noise."

Bruns is also a fan of what she calls "fidget toys."

"It might be a hackey sack ball or a Koosh ball (a small ball covered with dozens of rubbery, stringy threads) — anything that keeps their hands busy," she says.

"We do this as adults, but we don't realize it. The person who twirls a pen in his hand has his own fidget toy."

Rebecca J. Trammel, clinic director of the SIUC Rehabilitation Institute's Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders, concurs that for the children she deals with, the best gifts home in on children's interests — and may range beyond the obvious toy.

"If you have a child with an intense interest in Thomas the Tank Engine, you might buy Thomas the Tank pajamas, which could also help the child learn to button, or you might buy a Thomas toothbrush or toothpaste," she says.

"For a child with autism, don't just buy the engine, because the child will play with that in a corner alone. With autism, you want to encourage interaction."

As they can find interaction with another human being threatening, puppets or other toys offering dramatic play opportunities make good gifts for these children.

"They might not want to talk to you, but they will talk to a puppet," Trammel says.

Many children with autism feel reluctant to move from one place to another. The gift of a riding toy or wagon could make such transitions easier for them.

Children with autism also can be sticklers for order.

"Our kids do better when all the toys are organized — if they're all over the floor, the kids wind up not playing with them, so storage bins might be a good gift," Trammel says.

Whatever toys you select, always remember they should be fun and relate to what the recipients are interested in and do well at, Mundschenk notes.

"Women have been saying for years that a vacuum cleaner is no gift," she says. "It's the same thing here.

"For many kids with disabilities, school is challenging — it's work. They don't necessarily need a toy that's a teacher. They need a break."

Serving others is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.

Find gifts for special needs kids at these Web sites

Tips for sharing holidays with autistic children


Santa’s helper

Santa’s helper — Rebecca J. Trammel,
clinic director for the Southern
Illinois University Carbondale
Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders,
shows some of the off-the-shelf toys
that children with special needs
enjoy. The puppet she holds helps
children who shy away from
interaction with people give
voice to thoughts and feelings,
while the purple Koosh ball can
provide everything from sensory
stimuli to relief from “the fidgets.”
Download Photo Here