This is a contest and you are invited to compete. I particularly hope that the students from UMD's Communication Sciences and Disorders Program will compete, but really, if you are reading this, you can enter this contest. The contest is an exercise in seeing what makes an interesting toy for the purpose of social interation and language intervention.
"What" I am often asked "is a good toy for a child with autism?" I wander through toys stores, hardware stores, office supply stores, and the Goodwill looking for good toys. I know um when I see um. But I do have to look because lots of toys are not very useful for this purpose. I went looking for some new toys, recently at Mall of America, in Minneapolis and I did not see much of interest in the toy stores. It is harder for me, though, because I am always looking for a toy that will both interest the child who has autism but also support communication--so it can't be such a good toy that the child forgets he or she has a play partner. I need a semi-interesting toy, not a compelling toy. I am liable to have to wrestle a compelling toy away from the child at the end of our play session and that is no fun.
What did I bring home from Mall of America? I brought home a black cardboard box. It had five beautiful tea cups in it, each about the size of a coffee mug minus the handle. I saw them and I wanted not only the cups, I wanted the box. I knew that this box would be an interesting toy because:
1) a box is a familiar object but it can contain many different things. It has the advantage of being both predictable and novel at the same time. Admittedly, some children with ASD will want to know what is in a box before they are interested in opening it, but for most the children I have known, seeing what is in the box is fun.
2) a box is basically a hole where you can put things so it is not just taking things out of a box that is fun, putting things into a box is also fun. Putting things into the right shaped hole is a familiar, and successful recipe for "interesting activity". Examples: mouths, inset puzzles, shape sorters, bathtub drains, cups, buckets, basket ball hoops, ice fishing, crochet, the hole in the ground where the golf ball disappears. Birth to death, people seem interested in activities that involve this basic activity of putting objects into a hole. I am not going to go any farther with this birth to death idea here, but you could.
3) this box had five holes in a row, equal in size, and mysteriously black. Symmetry is very interesting to the human eye and this box had a simple but interesting symmetry and it was an interesting color.
4) there is a lid to this box. It opens and shuts. Like a door--which is another familiar but interesting phenomenon. Things can go in and disappear when you put on the lid, and then re-appear when you take off the lid. Very early on we get interested in this situation where things disappear and then reappear and games that capitalize on this framework tend to be fun.
So, did I mention that I bought not one but three sets of tea cups? So, I actually have three boxes. But I am willing to give one away to you. Just send me your idea for how to use this box. Please include the following:
1) What would be your reason for using the box? One might want to call this a learning objective but I won't exclude you from the contest if you just state a reason.
2) What materials would you use? Something will have to added to this box to make it a good toy--what will you add?
3) How are you and the child going to interact with this box? What activity do you have in mind?
4) What else should I know if I want to use your idea?
Please send me your ideas in the comments section below or in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org by the end of November. I will publish, in a future blog, all the ideas and with my set of three impartial judges (don't know who yet) I will pick a winner and that person will win the box. If you include an email address, I can even let you know that you won the box. And, if you live in the United States, I will send you the box. Otherwise, you will have to come to Duluth and pick it up.