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A toy for every child

Agency hosts bazaar with items geared to kids with special needs

Camille Voglewede of Fort Wayne says holiday shopping for her 8-year-old son Noquisi Guest can be something of a challenge.

Many kids his age might like anything electronic – and the more blinking lights and machine gun-like noises the gadget has, the better.

But Noquisi has a condition known as sensory processing disorder – and that means such toys are not really at the top of his list, his mom says.

“I stay away from things that are extremely loud and overstimulating things,” she says. “Our son is extremely sensitive to noise.”

So, Noquisi (pronounced Noke-see), his mom and his dad, Tommy Guest, were at Fort Wayne’s Second Steps Autism Resource Community Center on a recent Saturday morning, showing what, to this little boy, was a very interesting toy.

A test-tube-like bottle had been filled with gel and sparkly glitter by the center’s staff and young clients, many of whom, like him, have autism-related conditions.

“I think all kids would like it – boys and girls,” Noquisi says as a visitor watches the bottle’s contents morph, ever so gently, into random patterns as the bottle is moved. “Babies too – they might want to shake it,” he says.

The occasion was a holiday bazaar that included items crafted with special-needs children in mind – and an open house at the center’s Sensory Critters retail shop, which stocks 10,000 products geared to the daily-life, therapy and playtime needs of such children.

The shop at 4118 N. Clinton St. and its website at can be a real help to holiday elves seeking special gifts for special kids, says Lisa Compton, founder, president and CEO of Sensory Critters and owner of Second Steps.

Every child has his or her individual profile for what is appealing, even within the same diagnosis, she explains. And that’s what should guide gift-givers.

“That’s one of the biggest misconceptions people have – that all children with autism will like the same things. I could line up five kids in here and all could be 8 years old and all have autism and they would all like something different,” she says.

When doing holiday shopping, the child’s parents, teachers and therapists are best for knowing what might be right for a particular child. “Parents know their child best,” she says.

Still, certain considerations apply across categories. The best items play to a child’s strengths and encourage them to exercise their weaknesses.

“When you talk strengths, then they’ll really want to do it (play with the toy),” she says. “When you talk weaknesses, you can bring them up to speed with their strengths.”

For example, children with Down syndrome might like toys with bigger pieces to compensate for less-developed motor skills and that can be made more difficult as skills increase, Compton says.

Some kids with autism might be drawn to what experts call cause-and-effect toys – toys that encourage a child to, say, push a button and get a response or that offer a reward for a verbal response.

Children who have arthritis or other joint or muscular impairment might like toys that gently exercise certain parts of the body that are compromised while using others.

And, while a detailed paint-by-number set might be too frustrating for a child with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, that child might do wonderfully with a toy such as a product with crafting material that’s more open-ended.

Compton says Sensory Critters is rare in the marketplace. “We’re one of only three retail stores in the country that specialize in special needs children,” she says, adding that other area agencies such as Easter Seals ARC and the Anthony Wayne Center use the business as a resource.

Because of its Internet presence, Sensory Critters now has more than 10,000 customers in all 50 states and 57 foreign countries, she says.

Some mainstream marketers, including Toys R Us, and specialty retailers also have websites where they sell toys appropriate for children with special needs, Compton acknowledges. But a store makes it easier for parents and other purchasers to select items, Compton maintains.

“They can actually bring the child into the store and try things out, see things and smell things,” she says.

“A lot of special needs kids have a lot of defensiveness, so it’s good to get them familiar with something new before buying it.”

For the unsure, the store also offers gift certificates and a “wish list” feature on the website, Compton notes.

Often, items that children themselves inspire make great gifts. At the open house, one local vendor was offering hand puppets – rabbits, cats and dogs – whose faces had been designed by children with autism who attend the center and encourage interaction.

Another was offering a $40 soft felt blanket-like item that can turn a standard card table into a customized playhouse – a barn, a schoolhouse, a circus tent, cottage, camouflage fort or a princess’s castle.

“A lot of times all kids like their own space. Some of these kids may have issues where they don’t understand exactly where their body is in space and crave security. Sometimes the world is overwhelming to them,” Compton says. “A playhouse… is their space. It leads to imagination and creativity.”

Popular items – and the first Compton offered – are weighted blankets and hoodies. Similar to items used to calm nervous pets, the items appear to comfort the anxieties of some children with autism, she says.

Noquisi’s mom, says kids like her son can be fascinated by the $3 tube toy for several minutes at a stretch, as they let their imaginations range over what they see inside.

And if they get tired of the toy?

No worries.

“I’ve had a couple of individuals who bought them because they wanted to hang them on the tree,” she says with a smile. “They make great ornaments.”

Top toys

Here are some items recommended by Lisa Compton, founder, president and CEO of Sensory Critters and owner of Second Steps Autism Resource Community Center in Fort Wayne, for children with special needs:
Scooterboards. Basically a wide skateboard-like toy that allows kids to lie on their belly and push themselves around or pretend they’re swimming a safe 4 inches off the ground. Ecourages physical play for those with limited mobility and imagination; $24.
Net doorway swing. This hammock-like device allows a child’s weight to be evenly distributed for easy motion and is good for kids with balance issues or in need of stimualation or calming; $65.
Wikki Stix. Plastic sticks that can be easily bent like a pipe cleaner and shaped into flat or three-dimensional craft projects. These come separately and in themed kits, such as Bible Fun, Jewish Fun and Christmas; $7 to $30.

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