Special Needs: Toy Heaven

Jane Hawes

The stakes are higher when the parent of a child with special needs buys a toy. That Playskool Elefun Ball Popper that goes for $29.99 at Target? The price goes up to $114.95 at enablingdevices.com when you have to buy the adaptive model that also requires a $37.95 touch-button switch to operate.

"We have bought many things over the years that Cash either can't operate, or finds so difficult to operate that it gets reclassified from 'fun' to 'work,'" said Janelle May in an email interview. Her 4-year-old son Cassius has 1p36 Deletion Syndrome, a type of chromosome deletion that results in global developmental delay.

Six months ago, May and her husband Adam Cutright discovered a resource just a couple of miles from their Clintonville home that has vastly expanded Cash's ability to play: It's the Nisonger Center's Toy and Technology Library.

Located in a large, converted classroom in McCampbell Hall on the campus of the Ohio State University, the library has more than 1,500 adaptive toys, activation switches, books and other play materials available for families to check out. Literally.

Mary Jo Wendling is an occupational therapist who has run the library since it opened 22 years ago at the Nisonger, which is OSU's nationally known center for developmental disability research and treatment.

Wendling explained that some families visit the library to test out toys before purchasing them, while others will borrow them for 30 days at a time. All services are offered free of charge.

"You order something like this online," Wendling said, holding a colorful Fisher-Price "classical stacker" musical toy, "and for whatever reason, it doesn't work for your child. There's not a big resale market (for an adaptive toy). You can't take it to a Once Upon A Child or sell it at a garage sale."

May said the library has already been a money and time saver for them: "This is a nice way for us to be able to try out new kinds of things before making a purchase, or just explore Cash's changing interests."

The library also allows families to test out and train to use computer software and hardware, but this equipment is not available for loan.

Another critical service that Wendling provides is helping families figure out which switch is the best for their child. There are dozens available on the market.

"Once you find that right switch," Wendling said, "that opens doors to toys, communication devices and then computers."

Not all the toys are adaptive or need to be adaptive. Many are included in the library's collection because they suit a developmental or physical need that a child may have, Wendling said, like building strength or fine motor skills, stimulating the senses and even learning how to play.

"A child with special needs maybe can't set up play schemes," Wendling said, then demonstrated how a child can use an empty three-ring binder to create a tunnel, knock over blocks, build a barn or carry other toys.

"(These are) all things that children learn through play," Wendling said, "and children would not be stuck just turning toys on and off."

The library is open one day a week, on Thursdays, and Wendling is the sole staff member with volunteers sometimes available. She recommends setting up an appointment for the first visit; she is most easily reachable via email at mary.wendling@osumc.edu.

"We knew vaguely about the Nisonger Center, so we did some reading up about it and discovered the…library," said May. "From there, I got in touch with Mary Jo, who asked a little about Cash's interests and abilities. When we went to our first appointment, she had put together a collection of things that she thought he would enjoy. We have been visiting once a month ever since."