- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 8, 2006

NEWARK, N.J.

Like most 5-year-olds, Nicholas loves to play. But not every toy is fun for Nicholas, who is autistic.

“It’s hard to find something just for him. It’s pretty aggravating shopping for toys for him, at times,” said his mother, Jennifer Navarro. “Some toys that are meant for his age group are too complicated, but some are too simple.”

Two years ago, Mrs. Navarro got some help in finding good choices for Nicholas by consulting a guide compiled by specialists at the nonprofit National Lekotek Center and distributed by the New Jersey-based retailer Toys R Us Inc.

“I thought it was wonderful. I’ve never seen anything like that before,” said Mrs. Navarro, 32.

The free guide is available at Toys R Us stores and online at www.toysrus.com/differentlyabled.

The family, which lives in Naplate, Ill., did not have good luck with items from catalogs aimed at special-needs children.

“He’s advanced over a lot of those and they don’t hold his interest,” Mrs. Navarro said. Nicholas also wanted to play with toys like those used by his brother, Peyton, 3.

Mrs. Navarro said the right toys help with the development of Nicholas, an active boy who loves to play outside as well as with laptop computer learning toys such as LeapPad.

“If I gave him a set of blocks, instead of making a building or making a castle, he will line them up from one end of the room to the other,” Mrs. Navarro said, adding that this is typical of many autistic children. Nicholas also will line up other toys, such as miniature cars.

“He doesn’t play with [toys] like other kids,” Mrs. Navarro said, so she has found toys that help him learn to read and speak, including those that play rhyming Dr. Seuss stories.

The 85 toys in the guide are sold nationally, with just six available only at Toys R Us stores, said company spokesman Kelly Cullen.

The company this year printed 600,000 copies of the “Toy Guide for Differently-Abled Kids,” about 100,000 more than last year, and absorbed all costs, which will not be disclosed, Miss Cullen said. Wayne-based Toys R Us started the guide in 1994.

The struggling toy industry is preparing for the holiday shopping season, when most sales are recorded. Children are increasingly turning to video games and other gadgets. Sales of traditional toys fell 4 percent to $21.3 billion last year, from $22.1 billion in 2004, according to NPD Group, Inc., a market research firm in Port Washington, N.Y.

Each toy in the 52-page guide includes a detailed description of how it can be used, along with icons indicating whether the toy can stimulate development in such areas as creativity, self-esteem, vision or hearing.

The guide can be useful to people buying toys for many of the more than 6 million children in the United States who have disabilities, said Diana Nielander, executive director of the Chicago-based National Lekotek Center.

The group, which operates 38 therapeutic play centers in eight states, evaluated about 200 toys in the past nine months to select those included in the guide, Miss Nielander said.

Certified play specialists observe families and children with the toys, and determine which would work, for example, for a child who is blind, or for a child who can’t close their hand, she said.

“A lot of times, people look at play as being very simplistic. And it is simplistic, unless it’s your child that has trouble with play,” Miss Nielander said.

Lekotek chose a variety of toys, including some new toys, “because those are the ones that their friends and neighbors are playing with … and everyone wants to fit in,” Miss Nielander said. “We try to get all the fun ones that are going to be on TV and will be hot for the holidays.”

The criteria include toys that are easy to handle or manipulate, and don’t have a “right way” of being used.

“These are things that are good for all children, but especially good for children with challenges,” Miss Nielander said.

“We want to see toys that are great for the most amount of children. And sometimes the smallest thing can make the biggest difference,” she said, such as knobs that allow puzzle pieces to be lifted easily from their board.

Miss Nielander noted that the guide features photographs of disabled children playing with the toys, adding, “One mother told me that her daughter sleeps with this guide because it’s the first time she saw children who look like her.”


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