Six-year-old Mikey McDonough has gotten many Christmas gifts that last just a few minutes after he tears off the wrapping paper. Since Mikey is autistic, he doesn’t understand why the batteries need to be changed in his remote-control cars and he has no patience for toys he doesn’t understand.
Relatives and friends often turn to the dreaded kid present: clothes.
"People don’t know what to buy an autistic child," says Mikey’s mom, Rose McDonough of Chicago. "They’re like any other child. They want toys, too."
To help parents and others know what toys work best for kids with special needs, the National Lekotek Center of Chicago, a nonprofit that lends toys and offers play sessions for kids with special needs, has launched a new toy review Web site, www.ableplay.org. The site also offers play and adaptation ideas tailored to children with disabilities.
"We needed to find an efficient way of getting out information on the products we know are good for children with special needs," says Diana Nielander of the National Lekotek Center.
Each toy is rated from one to five stars on its accessibility and appropriateness for children with physical, sensory, communicative and cognitive disorders. Knock Knock Blocks, a set of soft cloth blocks, ranks high in all four categories, but Nielander says that’s rare. "If it has gotten a high rating in one [category], it’s a good toy," she says.
To keep toys interesting after the initial excitement wears off, the evaluations include suggestions for ways to play with the toy, such as throwing the soft blocks at a target to develop arm muscles. Many evaluations also include simple adaptations that can make the toys more accessible, such as adding Velcro to the blocks so the tower will be sturdier. There’s also practical information about storage, price, ease of cleaning and whether batteries are necessary.
Toy testing is "very time-intensive," Nielander says. Each toy is tested by five to eight kids with disabilities ranging from Down syndrome to spina bifida to deafness. Comments from parents and evaluators are also taken into consideration. There are currently 37 toys evaluated on the site, and Lekotek will add more toys over time.
Evaluations are independent, but companies pay to have their toys listed after they have seen the evaluation. This means there tend to be more positive reviews on the Web site, Nielander admits. But knowing which toys not to buy also would be helpful, McDonough says.
McDonough says the site can be a resource for parents whose children have been diagnosed recently. She remembers grilling her son’s therapists on where they got their toys and how to use them. "Parents want to know what to invest in to help their children and to help educate their children," she says.