Note: For a definition of stim and background for this series, see http://wp.me/p2OomI-PY.
This is a Pop-Onz toy. It is designed to encourage very young children to build. There are two circular areas of the toy’s table where kids can place blocks and watch them spin around. The toy is notable because it is VERY hard to “pop” the building units onto the table, which makes it a terrible first building toy. This design flaw is probably why these toys aren’t made anymore and they can only be found on eBay and in thrift stores. The Pop-Onz toy is also notable to me personally, because it signifies the history of my daughter Beth’s spin stim.
The Beginning of Spin Stim
Beth was about two and a half when she started at her first preschool. Within weeks of starting preschool, Beth’s teacher called my husband and I to a meeting and said she was “very worried” about Beth. The teacher recommended a developmental evaluation by a medical doctor for diagnosis and a school system evaluation for therapy support. We knew Beth was stressed, but we thought she would eventually adapt. Beth did not adapt as anticipated and we pulled Beth from the school and started intensive therapy at home for autism. Looking back, I realize Beth tried to adapt in her own way. For example, at the school playground she rocked on a rocking toy and threw wood chips to soothe herself (now I know these are common sensory/stim activities for children with autism, but I was clueless at the time). And every morning at drop off as I turned to leave Beth at preschool, she ran to a Pop-Onz toy sitting in the corner of her preschool room and pressed the button to absorb herself in the spinning characters. She was desperately trying to soothe herself.
Fighting the Spin Stim
Since Beth loved the Pop-Onz toy at her preschool, I bought the same toy for home. But Beth seem overly preoccupied with the spinning characters on the Pop-Onz toy. If I would try to talk to her while she was using the toy or interrupt the spinning to show her how to build on it, she would either ignore me, walk away, or get frustrated. I asked therapists what I should do about the preoccupation with spin and how we could use it in play, but no one had an answer. The prevailing view was we had to get rid of spin toys like the Pop-Onz so that we could work with Beth to help her play in a traditional way. The Pop-Onz toy went into the attic along with other stim toys that were “too obsessive” and we spent years trying to coax Beth to play with us the traditional way. The end result of elimination of stim toys (electronic toys with spinning, music, and sounds) was no real progress with play milestones and no improvement in hand use during play. One day I gave in and ended up right back where I started, trying to use stims like spin (and sound…a topic for the next post) to help Beth develop.
Using Spin Stim as a Motivator
Since I was having no luck building with Beth using traditional means despite trying a variety of toys and approaches, I resurrected the Pop-Onz toy. First we build (sometimes I block the button while we build), then Beth presses the button to have the spin as a reward. Recently I noticed she really likes some of the structures we build because she smiles and flaps a lot when they spin, so she is learning that building different things can be interesting. When Beth was younger, she would have been frustrated because she lacked the hand strength and coordination needed to pop the blocks on the nubs, so I doubt we would have been able to use this toy for building back then. But I believe I would have been able to help Beth develop with easier building sets with spin, which underscores the importance of having appropriate toys that are in line with skill level before attempting to guide the child and expand their play and hand use.
Soon I was looking for other ways to use the spin stim. Here are some examples of the ways I used spin stim to encourage Beth to use her hands during activities:
I thought it would be cool to try building a translucent marble run (1) on the light table with Beth. Unfortunately the translucent marble run set was too difficult for Beth in terms of building, but she liked dropping the marbles into the big funnels and watching them spin. So much so that she would get very flap happy and then do it over and over. At that point, I just surrendered. There was no way to get around the stim, so I decided to work with it. I thought of Floortime and how I could expand this activity in small ways to help her development. We worked on taking turns, but she quickly bored with that expansion. Then I showed her several times how to drop the marbles in the small funnels in the upper portion of the toy. This may not seem like a big deal, but for her to do something other than drop them in the big funnels to watch them spin was huge. She was looking up (something she resists), so that was good for her head and neck muscles. She was dropping the marbles into a small funnel and at first she lacked the precision to get them into the funnels and missed a lot. Soon she figured out pinching was the best way to take the marbles from their holder and get them into the small funnels. Pincer grasp, hand-eye coordination practice, looking up during an activity, all while having a good time…score! For the next phase I need to get a marble run set which is easy to put together and has a final structure with a motivating spin as the reward. If you have a suggestion for this type of toy, please leave a comment on this post or my Facebook page.
My friend introduced me to gear building toys, which work great for spin stimmers like Beth. Here are some examples of Beth and I building with gear sets (2, 3).
A giant gum ball machine in a local ice cream shop was a huge spin stim hit. Beth learned to put in the quarter and work a handle that was very difficult to turn in order to dispense the gumball down a giant twisty slide in the bottom of the gumball machine. Normally she would have given up on a handle that difficult to turn, but seeing that gumball spin around and around coming down the slide was very motivating to her. She could care less about eating the gumball, so she won’t dispense gumballs in machines without the twisty slide.
Spin Stim for Relaxation
In addition to being a good motivator for play and hand use work, spin stim is very important tool for relaxation. For example, Beth does best in restaurants that have fans running because she can gaze at them to relax. Also, spin toys have another purpose other than play…they help Beth relax before bowel movements. The tough part about using stim toys for relaxation is when and how to make them available so that Beth is not using them all day long. Recently I have put the Pop-Onz, gears, and marble run up on bookshelves and I only bring them down if she asks for them or if I think she needs to relax before a bowel movement (or if I want to initiate a building session).
I feel we would have been better off if we had included spin stim as a motivator for play and hand use development from the start of therapy (as long as the building sets were easy and at Beth’s skill level). I do feel the stims have a purpose, and my child’s brain is wired to enjoy the spin. I feel my role is to understand the purpose of my child’s stims, be creative about how to use them help my child develop, and create a balanced approach that includes a time for all activities, including those with stim.