Every year I see multiple lists about the best toys for learners with autism. And every list seems to include toys that aren’t great for teaching play skills, but instead are great items for reinforcement. Often these lists are used by parents and relatives of children with autism as a guide in choosing toys for birthdays and holidays. While the parent believes they’ve found a toy that will help them engage with their child, instead they may have purchased a toy that encourages their child to engage in stereotypy (or stimming.)
Today, Achieve Beyond tweeted about one of their recent posts entitled “10 Great Toys for Children with Autism.” Achieve Beyond is a great organization that publishes a fantastic and useful blog (as can be seen here and here.) However, this year’s list of ten great toys includes four toys that really aren’t that great in terms of play skills. Rather, they are great reinforcers. I love and use the Tangle Therapy, rain tubes, and fidget sets they listed with many students. However, I have great success using these items as brief reinforcement throughout sessions. The tangles and the items in the fidget sets are also wonderful for parents to have on hand when learners might be in situations where they are required to do difficult tasks, such as sitting in the waiting room at a doctor’s office. But I do not believe these are great toys in the typical sense of allowing children to engage in play, creating an entry point for parents to engage with their learners, or developing further play skills.
So what really is the difference between a great toy and a great reinforcer? Both are necessary, and while there is sometimes overlap, it’s important to note the differences. I’d like to see these types of lists describe why these are deemed great toys and explain what their purposes really are. Below I’ve shown a few differences and similarities for the next time you’re considering a toy to use with your learners.
So now that we’ve looked at the characteristics of great toys and great reinforcers, I think it’s valuable to reorganize Achieve Beyond’s list, because all of the items on the list are valuable for learners with autism. You’ll notice that the Lets Talk Book for Babies and Toddlers is not included as it is not a toy, though it’s possible it could be placed in the reinforcer circle.