Tag Archives: toys

Ode to Lego

When Nigel was first diagnosed at age three, and for some time after, he didn’t know how to play with toys. I bought him a kids’ train set; he laid his head to one side and stared at the tracks. He had no interest in pushing the train along, even if I showed him how. I bought him Hot Wheels cars and tried to teach him to “vroom” them around on the floor; he lined them up end-to-end along the back of the couch and cocked his head to one side to stare at them. I feared that his imagination would never develop; eleven years ago my only knowledge of autistic adults was, unfortunately, limited to Rain Man. I didn’t know what to expect for my son’s development.

But, thanks to a successful response to a modified ABA-based program for early intervention, and perhaps his own desire, Nigel learned to play with toys. He skipped over “vrooming” on the floor and went right to faster-paced, battery-operated Hot Wheels tracks. His imagination began developing with his desire to feed his stuffed animals. And then he discovered Lego.

I cannot say enough wonderful things about this toy that I loved in my own childhood. Yes, we’ve all gouged our feet on errant pieces and cursed its existence, but the fact is that no other toy has encouraged Nigel’s imagination to develop as much as Lego has. And for that, I love it.

And we have tubs of it. Literally. We progressed from a medium-sized tub to two of them, and then I just up and bought a huge industrial-sized tub with a hinged lid, which is now full. And still Nigel begs for more, especially since they’ve come out with the Indiana Jones series. Oh, my son. Be still, his heart. Lego and Indiana Jones – two of his favorite things. That’s all he wanted for Christmas. It’s like the Lego people somehow knew that this combination would make an autistic teen very, very happy.

So I bought him the sets that he wanted, as well as this book that he has not let out of his sight. Of course he has re-watched all four of the movies several more times since Christmas, just to make sure that he has all the nuances of every line down pat. And so, when he decided to watch the Troy DVD this afternoon, I was pleasantly surprised. “I’m studying the layout of the outer walls of Troy so that I can take apart the Temple of the Crystal Skull set and build Troy,” he told me.

Nigel\'s Lego Troy

And that, my friends, is what he did. He constructed the ancient city of Troy out of Lego, completely off the top of his head and of his own design. He built a wall with a ratcheted gate and levers to open it. Yes, he even built a Trojan Horse out of Lego. That is either one hell of a toy or one hell of an imagination. He’s come a long way from lining up Hot Wheels cars along the back of the couch and staring at them. And Rain Man? No offense, but you can keep your cards and toothpicks. Nigel’s got an imagination – and he’s not afraid to use it.

Toy Envy

We have been waist-deep in Birthday-Induced Toy Envy and Younger Brother Control Issues. Far be it for me to think that this problem might have abated by now, but apparently twelve- and thirteen-year-olds are just as susceptible. Only now they are bigger and hormonal. And they’re not embarrassed bickering in front of their friends.

For his birthday this past weekend, Aidan received a toy that has flown off the local toy store shelves: Transforming Wall-E. His father had purchased it a month earlier in LA and brought it up to Oregon for the party. Nigel fell in love with it, and Aidan exploited that by not letting Nigel hold it. This is difficult territory for me for several reasons.

  • I want Aidan to share, but I don’t want it to be forced.
  • He already accuses me of favoring Nigel.
  • Nigel can learn patience about getting to hold his brother’s new things, but I certainly can’t expect commendable behavior from him in the same sensory-overloaded situation.

So Nigel kept nagging and Aidan kept refusing and Nigel’s behavior was escalating, but I was distracted getting dinner ready for a bunch of adolescent boys and couldn’t intervene. Finally, I had them all sit at the kitchen table, hoping the pizza and root beer would be enough to distract Nigel, but it was too late. He was in meltdown mode, clenching his fists, gritting his teeth, and growling. “Nigel, relax and eat your pizza,” I calmly suggested. “RRRRRRAAAOORRRR!!!” he growled in the face of the boy seated next to him. Fortunately, I was nearby and was able to grab Nigel as he lunged at the poor boy (a wonderful family friend who has witnessed Nigel’s meltdowns before and still agrees to come to our home). I managed to walk Nigel to his room as he growled, hissed, and clawed at me, his eyes wide with a combination of rage and fear. I reminded him that he needed to calm himself before he could finish eating and hang with his friends, and then I went back to the kitchen to apologize.

The friend whom Nigel had roared and lunged at asked if Nigel was okay, bless his compassionate heart. I thanked him for being so understanding. When I went to check on Nigel about fifteen minutes later, he had shredded a file folder, but he was de-escalating. I could tell he wanted to rejoin his friends because he was lying on the floor on his back, with most of his body outside of his bedroom door, and he was quietly talking to himself. Five minutes later, he was running around with his friends, laughing.

The next day, he came to me and asked if I would buy him his own Wall-E toy. I told him that he could use his allowance to buy it, but that all the local stores were sold out, so we would need to order it online. He flopped down on the chair in my office and said, “They’re like a flying pack of locusts, taking everything they can get! If only they could let me have a chance!” This was said with much more emotion than his usual flat tone. “Who?” I asked. “The store customers?” “Yes!” said my son, victim of consumerism.

And Aidan, I’m happy to say, finally relented. Last night, the three of us were relaxing on the couch watching a movie. Nigel diplomatically requested to hold Wall-E for “only a minute.” Aidan gave him three. And all was well in my little corner of the universe.

For the Love of Toys

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.