With all the electronic toys available these days and few made specifically for autistic children, what guidelines should you follow for choosing the “right” toy?

Luckily, a lot of recent research in the field of robotic autism therapy has given us interesting insights into the types of interactive toys that best benefit autistic children.

Key Findings

Some key lessons from these studies that will be explained in more detailed below are that

  • Toys, especially interactive toys, can act as a bridge between controlled, repetitive activities and human social interactions
  • Toys may be better if they look too human or realistic
  • Toys that express emotions and facial expressions can help autistic children learn how to recognize these social cues
  • High functioning autistic children and Low functioning autistic children respond differently to the same toy
  • Interactive toys can  reinforce lessons taught in speech and music therapy classes
  • Toys made of materials that promote the sense of touch appeal to autistic children

Toys Encourage Interaction Because They’re Predictable

Autism experts believe that robots, computers, and other electronic devices appeal to autistic children because they’re predictable. A researcher interviewed by MSNBC who works on the autism robot Kaspar says that robots feel safer than people to autistic children because there’s “less for them to interpret and they are very predictable.”  In contrast, human interactions are varied and unpredictable, making them difficult for people who autism. As I mentioned in a previous post, autistics generally love rules and patterns and avoid unpredictability.

Kaspar Autism Therapy Robot

Kaspar Robot

In studies using Kaspar, researchers profile one student with severe autism who interacts regularly with his family at home but is withdrawn at school. After playing with Kaspar once a week for several weeks, he started sharing his experiences with his teacher, exploring the classroom environment, and communicating non-verbally with adults around him. Kaspar was also used for teaching children how to approach other children on the playground by using him in practice sessions as an intermediary between one student who controlled the robot and another student who approached and initiated a conversation with the robot.

Interactive Toys That Don’t Look Too Human May Be Best

Prof. Maja Mataric, whose research with autistic children incorporates a robot called Bandit, consciously designed Bandit to not look too human. She did this because autistic children often find other children intimidating, and she also wanted to make sure autistic children didn’t see the robot as a substitute for other people. Instead she prefers it to be a “catalyst” for social interaction. Other autism experts also agree that robotic toy interaction can’t substitute completely for human interaction, but they can provide a good complement for person-to-person lessons and activities.

This means that going for a cutesy interactive toy like Tickle Me Elmo is a good choice!

Toys That Express Emotions and Facial Expressions Might Help Autistic Children Recognize Social Cues

In the Kaspar project, one 4 year old autistic child began to identify emotions on the robot during lessons focusing on this, saying “happy” when the robot smiled and saying “sad” when the robot frowned. Researchers also found that when Kaspar incorporated emotions such as  laughing when touched a certain way, or saying “ouch, this hurts” when slapped too hard, some subjects began identifying some emotions over time. Other experts also said that having a toy that laughs can be used to teach a child what laughing is.

High Functioning Autistics And Low functioning Autistics Respond Differently To Interactive Toys

Researchers at the University of Southern California found that higher-functioning autistic children interacted more with their parent and were more sociable than usual when their interactive research robot was in the room. However, some of the lower-functioning autistic children rejected the robot and were scared of interacting with it. Studies using the Kaspar robot found that Kaspar led to some students with autism being excited and wanting to share their experiences with teachers and therapists. The researchers guess that having such human contact may give meaning to the child’s experience with the robot.

In general, researchers found that high functioning autistics become more sociable with interactive toys, but low-functioning autistics often reject them.

Interactive toys can  reinforce lessons taught in speech and music therapy classes

Autism therapists involved in the Kaspar project found that they could use the robot to help children practice recognizing emotions, as mentioned earlier. But they also say that the robot alone can’t be used to teach speech or play. Instead it and other similar types of interactive toys should be thought of as ways to reinforce lessons learned in person-to-person therapy lessons.

Toys made of materials that promote the sense of touch appeal to autistic children

Studies using the Kaspar robot found that all children who met the robot were attracted to explore the robot by using their sense of touch. The researchers say that tactile exploration is important for developing body awareness and a sense of self in autistic children.

Conclusions

Research autism therapy robots show that interactive toys can provide many benefits to autistic children if used as a complement to human-to-human interactions. Have you had any experiences that suggest any of these conclusions are wrong? Please comment and share!

In another post I point out specific toys you can buy at stores today that can provide some of the benefits that these research projects provide.

Read our other posts about interactive toys to learn more!

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