Although there are specialty online games and toy stores that cater to autistic children, these may not always be the cheapest or most convenient option. Many toys that you can find at your local Toys R Us or Target can also be appropriate as evidenced by a list of vendors compiled by the autism advocacy organization Autism Speaks.
In this post I’ll summarize the main categories of places where you can look for autism toys as well as pros and cons of shopping at each source. In a later post I will write about some of my initial impressions of the vendors listed on the Autism Speaks site.
Specialty Online Stores and Companies Catering to Autistics
It’s highly unlikely that you will find a local bricks and mortar toy shop that caters to autistic children. Two factors make this an unlikely scenario: the autism toy market is a very specialized market, and toys have relatively low profit margins. But if you are lucky to find one in your town, this is probably your best bet since you will have knowledgeable salespeople to interact with and will save time because you choose from toys that have already been preselected for you. (If this is the case please email me to let me know the name and location of the store so I can share this information with others!). Barring this, online shopping is probably your best bet.
One advantage of online stores as just mentioned is that because they cater to a larger geographical area, you will have a better chance of finding niche products that cater specifically to autistic children. The prices may also—but not always—be lower than a comparable bricks and mortar store. The downsides of online shopping are less (if any) human interaction if you have questions or want to learn more about a product, as well as an inability to physically examine or try a toy before you buy.
Large Chain Stores
You can often find appropriate toys by scouring your neighborhood toy chain. Toys R Us, for example, joined forces with Autism Speaks to raise money to support autism research and also highlights “ten toys that speak to autism.” (Although right now the link doesn’t seem to work so I can’t actually see the ten toys they recommend for autism.). Target, Wal-Mart and other big chains also sell a variety of toys that may be appropriate, but since nothing is described as specifically for autistic kids you will have to do some exploring and research on your own. Salespeople at such stores also probably won’t be able to give you much help or advice.
Amazon is such a unique entity that I’m going to put it in its own category. Amazon blends the purchasing power and ubiquity of large chains combined with the ability to find a lot of specialty products that you might otherwise have to buy from specialty online shops, especially since a lot of their less common items are stocked by third-party distributors. Additionally, it also has the advantage of customer reviews that you can read, as well as lists made by users. A helpful way to find autism toys may be to scour lists in their listmania! Section that cater specifically to autistic children and toddlers, although as with all things on the internet you should use your own judgment when deciding whether the toys listed on such lists are actually appropriate for the autistic child in your life. Remember–each child is unique!
One thing to be aware of on Amazon is that the prices may sometimes be high for toys, which is in contrast with its deep price cuts on books. I’m not sure why this is but I suspect it is because toys are not their main market and because a lot of toys sold on Amazon are actually sold through Amazon third-party vendors who don’t get the scale advantages large chains do. Also beware of shipping costs if you find a toy listed by a third-party vendor on Amazon.
Local Bricks and Mortar Toy Shops
All cities have locally owned small toy shops. Such shops tend to focus on educational toys and specialty toys that the larger chains don’t carry, and they also try to differentiate themselves through better service. For example, one of the toys featured on the Autism Speaks site is a line of wooden toy cars called Automoblox that I haven’t found at the large chains but have found on Amazon and local toy stores. The advantage of such shops is that you tend to get more personalized service and may be able to touch and interact with the toy before making a purchasing decision. But because such stores don’t focus on autistic children specifically the employees are unlikely to provide useful suggestions beyond general toy suggestions.