UB Program Uses Toys to Help Children With Disabilities

By Lois Baker

Release Date: November 11, 1994 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- While most people may think of toys only as recreational items for children, researchers in the Early Intervention Lab of the Center for Assistive Technology at the University at Buffalo see them, and other everyday items, as a means to help infants and toddlers with disabilities communicate, move and learn.

"We look at toys with a different eye than a lot of other folks," says Susan Mistrett, an educational specialist at the center, which is affiliated with the Department of Occupational Therapy in the School of Health Related Professions.

Through assistive technology, everyday objects and toys are adapted to suit specific needs -- to help children play, communicate, move, control things and hear or see better. This includes items that make things easier to turn on, hold objects steady, and help a child be bathed, dressed or fed.

The Early Intervention Lab -- also staffed by pediatric occupational therapist Shelly J. Lane, Ph.D., and physical therapist Ellen Kroog -- serves children ranging in age from birth to 3 years who have significant physical, sensory and cognitive disabilities.

The lab is a one-year pilot project funded by UB's Multidisciplinary Pilot Project Program and the Office of the Provost.

A total of 10 children with disabilities and their families will participate in the pilot project, with their experiences providing the data necessary for a multi-year grant application. Five children from Niagara and Erie counties have participated to date, and five more are being recruited.

The lab offers a "family-centered" approach to intervention, Mistrett notes. Personnel examine the child's home and day-care environments to see how technology may assist them, she says. The team also may address ways to get healthy siblings to interact more with the disabled child.

The pediatric team works with families on a case-by-case basis. "The parents call the shots," Mistrett says.

Therapists begin an initial play assessment with a new client by determining the parents' immediate goals for the child and gathering background information. The center then lends out toys, accompanied by a list of suggested exercises and an evaluation sheet.

"The wizardry is incorporating common sense and knowing what's out there," Mistrett says. She stresses that technology does not necessarily mean computers. Commercially available items, such as koosh balls, snack trays and Fisher Price toys, often are used. Tables or trays may be adjusted to restrict play to a specific area. Velcro strips may be attached to toys to help stabilize movement.

Vibrating "bumble balls" and battery-operated toys that make noise are especially useful for blind children. Attaching switches to battery-operated toys by inserting battery-interrupters makes some toys more interactive.

For example, Mistrett rigged a switch to a Fisher-Price tape recorder for a non-verbal 15-month-old baby to press while in her crib. It played, "Good night, Mommy. I love you."

The message established the end of a bedtime routine for the mother. "It's the little things that can make or break a whole day," Mistrett says.

She notes that "babies use their senses to find out things about their world. We try to enhance that ability to keep them stimulated and motivated," Mistrett says. The key is to give the children a sense of empowerment or control over their environment, she says, adding that through the assistive technology activities, "the child is controlling the play more and more.

"Play is how a child grows; these activities must be fun for the child," Mistrett says.