The Christmas that Nigel was two, he found the toy hiding place. Yes, early on that boy was probably skeptical about Santa.
I had been on the couch breast-feeding four-month-old Aidan, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Nigel coming out of my room with an odd look on his face. I somehow knew that he had found the toys in the closet. I stood up with Aidan still on my breast (I got very good at that) and walked down the hall to where Nigel was standing. He walked back into my room and stood in front of the now-open closet and said in a flat but certain voice, “Toys.” Much to my surprise, not only had he had spoken (which he rarely did then), but he had also not taken any of the toys out. They were still neatly stacked in the closet where I had put them.
“Yes, those are toys,” I said. “But those toys are for Christmas, and if you open them now, then you won’t have any toys for Christmas.” It was a shot in the dark. I was expecting a full-blown tantrum, mostly because I figured of course the two-year-old wants the toys! But also because I figured there would be no way that he could comprehend what I had said to him.
After I explained about the toys, I closed the closet door, and much to my shock, he just quietly followed me out of the room. I asked him if he would like to watch a Disney video, and he got on the couch with the utmost compliance. It was as if he understood what I had told him about the toys and accepted it! I was floored!
Toys are rather magical things. They can prompt an autistic two-year-old to talk, and they can motivate his behavior in anticipation of receiving them. For years, they also served as therapy objects, teaching him how to play, how to engage in social behavior, and eventually encouraging spontaneous speech.
I wrote this post today because I had noticed several incoming searches for toys for autistic teens. I think the rule of thumb with what would be appropriate is along the same lines as my advice for books for autistic teens: it depends on their cognitive level and individual interests. The difference with selecting toys is that it also depends on their level of emotional maturity. Nigel, for instance, is fairly high cognitively, however, his emotional maturity is a few years behind his peers. I think this is why, going into eighth grade, he still loves his stuffed animals and toys from his favorite movies (Jurassic Park dinosaurs and Thomas the Tank Engine). He is really not into video games, but he’s always had an interest in science, so he has a microscope, telescope, chemistry set, and volcano model. He is also entertained by robots and remote controlled cars. And Lego. That has to be his all-time favorite toy. I don’t think he’ll ever outgrow it! He hasn’t outgrown looking in closets for toys, either. I’ve had to get really creative as the years have gone by.