Awesome ABA reinforcers for kids (i.e., toys / games / activities)
May 17, 2010 4:43 AM   Subscribe

Yippee, I have a new job as a junior ABA therapist with an atypically autistic boy. I'd like good ideas for 'reinforcers' -- since these come in the form of little games, tickles, stickers, toys, imaginative play, puzzles etc., I figure all parents can help with this question rather than just people who have experience with Applied Behaviour Analysis and autism. I'd like ideas of quick little fun things that make kids laugh. I'm not a parent so I need to build my repertoire!

The first boy I am working with has PDD-NOS and is actually very imaginative and very verbal so he loves pretend play, storybooks, etc. (whereas a lot of autistic kids struggle with imaginative play).

But all ideas are welcome, because I plan to work with several families and children on different ends of the autism spectrum.

To get you started, the types of recommendations I need are:

-Actual toys or puzzles (cheap and simple or more elaborate; I don't mind. I need a bag of tricks!)

-Fun little physical things that kids like, e.g., being tipped upside down, tickled, piggybacked.

-Little games or activities like talking on a toy phone, drawing a face on the side of your fist and making your hand talk, thumb wrestling.

-Crafty activities: making things out of playdoh, paper crafts, etc.

-Great (shortish) books, preferably ones we can act out afterwards.

Basically, ANYthing quick and fun that kids like to do! (Activities can be a little longer too.)
posted by KLF to Grab Bag (24 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have experience with kids who have autism but I loved the card game "snap" as a kid (you know, where you both turn over a card simultaneously until there's a pair, and the first person to say "snap" and smack their hands down over the cards gets the whole pile of cards that have been dealth - and the winner is the one who ends up with all the cards) - and I've had great fun playing it with other people's kids
posted by Chrysalis at 4:57 AM on May 17, 2010

-Actual toys or puzzles (cheap and simple or more elaborate; I don't mind. I need a bag of tricks!)

When I was small I loved little plastic animals. My dentist had a 'treasure chest' (apparently google is saying that is the actual term for the item you can purchase) and I inevitably went straight for the animals. You can make little farms for them with popsicle sticks and a rumpled green cloth, make up stories for them, or paint them. I painted some of my little plastic animals so often the animal had lost all the detailed edging because the paint was so thick. Actually, I still love plastic animals, but now they're made of metal and I try not to paint them so thickly they lose definition.

-Little games or activities like talking on a toy phone, drawing a face on the side of your fist and making your hand talk, thumb wrestling.

A laughing contest! You take turns making faces and the first person to laugh loses the game.

-Crafty activities: making things out of playdoh, paper crafts, etc.

When I was a young person I pretended I was renting one of my shelves to a anthropomorphized cockroach. I built him a little house in a shoebox with little furniture I had made myself and all the accessories made with clay and paper. It was fun and a lot of the fun came from the stories which arose when I made a new piece of furniture or yet another aggrieved letter from one of his lady bug friends.

-Great (shortish) books, preferably ones we can act out afterwards.

Roald Dahl's books are great for this.
posted by winna at 5:02 AM on May 17, 2010

Water and glasses / containers. a submerged glass can pull water above the water line. Or vice versa, air can be pushed below the water line. MAGIC!
posted by Meatbomb at 5:23 AM on May 17, 2010

Since this kid loves pretend play and storybooks, why not little Fisher-Price people - I loved playing with those as a kid. You could use them as a cast to act out a story.

Doll house furniture to create a miniature environment would be fun too.
posted by tel3path at 5:28 AM on May 17, 2010

Thomas the Tanks engine is supposed to be good. Clinically proven.

FWIW my autistic nephew thinks Thomas and his crew are the duck's nuts.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 5:36 AM on May 17, 2010

Ohhhhhhhhh cornflour slime!!

It's so much fun to play with (and non-toxic) - when you move it slowly it will flow slowly like a liquid, but if you try and change its shape quickly (eg if you hit it) it goes hard.

If you get the consistency right, apparently you can even roll a ball out of it that will bounce, then when it stops, flow as a liquid again (I haven't managed this before)
posted by Chrysalis at 5:46 AM on May 17, 2010

Oriental Trading.

Dig around Toys & Novelties, Stickers and Teaching Supplies.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:49 AM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

String games. I once entertained a cranky three-year-old on a bus for an hour with a piece of string. It requires some finger dexterity, though. Here's a pretty big collection. Some of them have stories that go along with them.

Build card houses. I still do this. Once you get the core set up, they accommodate a bit of clumsiness. Plus, knocking them down is 75% of the fun.

You can play "which hand is the piece of paper in?" for hours. We played a variation called "Grade School" for multiple people. The teacher would go to each person and have them pick a hand. If they guessed right, they moved up a stair or back a step; the first person to six (sixth grade) won.
posted by punchtothehead at 6:02 AM on May 17, 2010

And just a bit of trivia: the fella who was recently interviewed on Australian TV regarding his Thomas the Tank Engine / autism research was a one Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, cousin of Ali G and Borat creator, Sacha Baron-Cohen.

Talented family.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 6:08 AM on May 17, 2010!
posted by kmennie at 6:10 AM on May 17, 2010

Best answer: Stickers
Clapping games
Temporary tattoos
Glow sticks and strands
Origami paper
Florescent pens
Multi-color pencils
Magnifying glasses
Bendable straws
Balsa airplanes
And a favorite at our house: hammering golf tees into pumpkins or watermelons.
posted by cocoagirl at 6:32 AM on May 17, 2010

Make a bunny out of a dish towel to use as a puppet, like in these directions.

Act out the classic rent drama with a napkin as a prop, like in this video.
posted by TrarNoir at 6:40 AM on May 17, 2010

I sent you a message via MeMail about a product my company makes that some autistic kids really love.
posted by alms at 6:46 AM on May 17, 2010

I have always had excellent luck with talking in funny voices. "NOW WE ARE GOING TO TALK LIKE ROBOTS." "OKAY OTHER ROBOT." "I NEED OIL. WE MUST FIND OIL." "I AM SURE THESE COOKIES ARE FULL OF OIL."

An autistic child with whom I am quite familiar, that was almost the only imaginative play he was willing to do. It starts being funny when kids are about 8 months old and it stays being funny until -- well, I don't know, I still think it's funny! Silly voices, noises, sound-effects, etc. When I was a camp counselor I could get the busload of kids to quiet down by promising to do my cartoon voice. (With my eyes crossed, if they were extra good.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:24 AM on May 17, 2010

Best answer: I'm an ABA therapist. Good for you that you're collecting ideas now!

Some of my all-time greatest hits for reinforcers:

flip books (the small books where you flip the pages and it's a short animated cartoon)


music (either songs you sing or a novel CD)

This Little Piggy (can be done with either fingers or toes)

marble mazes

small plastic dinosaurs

flashlights shaped like animals

bouncing balls filled with water and glitter (do not buy the really big ones--they're so heavy that they're a hazard)

Silly Putty

Magna Doodle

novel art supplies--glitter crayons, colored pencils, fun erasers, etc.

toys that have a heavy feel to the hand, like small metal cars or trains


Craft stores are a treasure trove of ideas--you can get art supplies, craft making kits/instructions, small items from the dollar bins, etc. It's funny what kids are going to want to play with, because it's sometimes the thing you least expect.

For pretend play, puppets can be a lot of fun. If you're spinning kids around/tipping them upside down, be careful that you don't strain your back. (I know a lot of therapists who've gotten hurt this way.)

Best of luck in your new job, and have a ball.
posted by corey flood at 7:34 AM on May 17, 2010

Best answer: Finger puppets.

Eyebrows' robot talk reminded me of a way I used to entertain one of my sons by pretending we were on a rocketship to Mars when we were actually doing mundane activities. Sorting laundry might require clothes to be identified as "bee-tonium", "blu-tonium", and "bar-tonium" for the different rocket reactors. Filling the washing machine might be "filling the fuel cells". Before pressing buttons I'd ask the "Flight Engineer" (my son) if "all systems are go". And the requisite machine noises -- beeps, sirens, clicks -- were also part of the play.

Furniture forts: take the sofa cushions and some extra blankets and make a "fort". Then we would play that I would visit the fort for tea. Drink coasters made for great plates.

Playing store: there are plastic toys, but the same fun can be had with boxes, blocks, game tokens. The child generally gets to be the storekeeper and you the customer buying what you need for supper, a birthday party, or even a Mars expedition.

Good luck!
posted by angiep at 7:50 AM on May 17, 2010

I like crafty activities that you can then play with, rather than the type where you make something that sits on a shelf:

Make paper airplanes - have a contest.
Make helicopters and drop them from the top of the stairs.
Make tops from various materials and watch them spin. I swear I've seen tops in the science museums that have markers as the center spindle so you spin them on paper to make designs on the paper, but I can't find any directions for those.
Here is a link with all kinds of paper toys to make - I haven't tried them, but some of them look cool.

For fun little physical things:
For younger children, my kids loved to be bounced on my knees using This is the Way the Ladies Ride poem. In each verse, the bouncing gets bigger and more out of control. We added farmers, circus clowns, race horses, etc. Maybe for older children they do this on their own feet with their hands in front as if holding the reins - use their own bodies to go higher, faster, sideways, etc.

That link has some other little physical games - Itsy Bitsy Spider, Ring Around the Rosie, dancing to various types of music.
posted by CathyG at 8:23 AM on May 17, 2010

Sped teacher here: good for'll have fun.

Keep in mind that the best reinforcers are usually things that the kid has specific interests in: so if it's trains, Elmo, whatever; if you can keep it related to that theme, you can get great results!
posted by dzaz at 8:24 AM on May 17, 2010

Best answer: A few thoughts off the top of my head:

1. Dolls/Little People: I'll go further and encourage you to give something like a toy theater a try. Having an entire little self contained world with people and parts that he can move around can be very comforting and provide a safe place to exercise imagination, and play out or try to understand situations that might be confusing or incomprehensible in a larger context. When I was a kid, I followed instructions in a magazine (Boy's Life?) to make a tiny haunted house out of a shoebox. There was a peephole you looked through-- it showed a room with furniture. By means of cardboard levers on the sides ghosts and goblins would appear from behind walls or furniture. I loved not only thinking it up, but finding the materials and planning the events, as well as showing it to other kids and adults, along with my narration and spooky sound effects, gave me many many hours of fun and satisfaction. A websearch tells me these are now called "shoebox dioramas", although I would stress that I enjoyed the enclosed nature of it-- viewed through a peephole-- rather than making an open scene as many of the projects seem to suggest. Of course your student will be different. For the record, I consider myself to be a pretty high functioning Asberger, although the term had not entered wide use when I was a kid. (I'm 42 now).

2. Water: Some autistic children I've volunteered with have loved to work with water, particularly flowing water in a sink. I've even seen good results with some kids helping do the dishes.

3. I'm sure you already know all about the hug machine, but maybe some of the readers of this thread who know an autistic person may not have heard of it, so I include it here. Hard to argue with the excellent results and lasting comfort it has given to many people.

4. Some autistic children I've worked with have been fascinated by circular or spinning items. This could be a top or dreidel, or even something as simple as the moving "second" hand of a clock. In a previous lifetime when I was a young Mormon missionary, there was one one autistic boy who loved to stare at my watch. When I was swarmed with other kids, sometimes I would just put my watch on his little wrist and sit him in the corner, and he would stare quietly at it for as long as I needed. He was also entranced by the patterns on my ties-- so maybe fabric swatches, or those little child-activity boards that have pockets and buttons and bells on them.

5. Oh dear, somehow I always seem to end up recommending Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools blog. Do a search there for "toys" and there are a ton of excellent recommendations.

6. I sort of like this Totem Pole Mailholder. If any of your students like arts and crafts, it would be fun to help them build it, and you can also use it to display their assignments or papers that you give them.

Well, good luck with your new career! The world needs a lot more people like you, especially ones who are still excited about their work. You really have the capacity to help out and bring love to some people who really need it (and in a way that they can understand and accept it), and are often forgotten by society. Please consider letting us know in this thread how things are working out, and send me a PM if I can do anything to help. Thank you for your service.
posted by seasparrow at 8:36 AM on May 17, 2010

Oh more ideas: Of course you know that some kids will develop a narrow interest and focus on it with great passion: Some things you might try to see if an interest appears: knot tying and fancywork (can be done safely with a "knot board" if you are worried), 3-D molecular construction kits, historical military uniforms (try "Osprey" books), cars or tanks, sports statistics, etc. Also programmable robots. Make magazine had a section recently on how to make your own musical instruments, including a cigar-box guitar. I'm pretty sure that is still available online for free.

If the toy theater thing that I recommmended catches hold, many children are now using cheap digital cameras to make their own animation/stop motion films using toys or Legos. Specifically for Legos, I believe they are called "Brick Films".
posted by seasparrow at 8:41 AM on May 17, 2010

melissa and doug have about a million awesome puzzles.

favorites are puzzles that make a noise once you complete them (a little mini-reinforcer within the reinforcer for kids who have attention issues or who have a hard time doing the whole puzzle)
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 1:57 PM on May 17, 2010

I am an autism service provider, and am familiar with ABA. In my experience, naturalistic reinforcers (particularly when they are social in nature) are more effective than ones unrelated to the task objective. I realize this is not exactly what you are asking for, but I suspect that in asking the question, your standard repertoire of reinforcements isn't achieving the results you desire.
posted by kch at 7:14 PM on May 17, 2010

I just found a whole website of toys that kids can make. I'm not sure if any of these would work in your specific situations, but I thought it looked really cool.
posted by CathyG at 11:50 AM on June 2, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks everybody, these were really really awesome. Always welcome more ideas; plus this thread may help others in the future. I found there wasn't much on the web.
posted by KLF at 1:07 AM on August 4, 2010

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