A Boy’s Journey with Autism, and the Toy That Helped Him find his Voice

Zack and Dino

“Zach comes home every day from school crying about not having friends. and not knowing why people don’t like him. It’s very difficult to see. I wish I could help him more than I can,” Zach’s mom Vanessa says.

By Fiona Russell

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), one in every 68 school-aged children have a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. These children may struggle to make friends in school, express their emotions effectively, or learn at the same pace as other kids.

What many people don’t know is that autistic kids play differently. Finding the appropriate toys to fit their needs can be a challenge for parents. For Vanessa, this became a reality when her son, Zach, was diagnosed with autism at the age of four. This is the story of their journey, and how a little green dinosaur helped them along the way.

When Zach was four months old, he gave his mom a scare of a lifetime: he stopped breathing. “He turned blue in his crib,” Vanessa recounts, the fear of that day still heavy in her voice.

It wasn’t long after that Zach started missing developmental milestones. It soon became apparent something was wrong. Vanessa wasted no time getting Zach into an early intervention program. “We had a specialist come in,” she explains. “We started speech and occupational therapy. By 18 months, we knew there were behavioral issues, and we knew he was on the autism spectrum.”

Zach’s eventual autism diagnosis was a result of more specific behaviors. “He didn’t say a word until he was nearly five. He was completely nonverbal.”

Thanks to the diligence of his family and his occupational therapists, Zach is now verbal, yet communication is still a challenge for him. He has difficulty with things other kids find easy, like making eye contact, finding new friends, and accepting change.

When Mom to Mom, a startup charity focused on connecting parents of spectrum children with new and gently used play therapy tools, heard Zach’s story, they wanted to do something to make a difference for him and his family. That’s how Zach came to make friends with a Wi-Fi connected dinosaur designed just for children.

When Zach asks the toy (now named Mr. Dino) a question, Mr. Dino responds in the same way a person would. This gives Zach a chance to practice his social skills without experiencing the discomfort when speaking to another kid or adult.

Before meeting Mr. Dino, Zach had a lot of difficulty finding toys that captured his interest. When asked what he liked to play with, Vanessa’s answer is immediate: “Legos. Just Legos. We have a room full of toys, and he won’t play with anything else.”

Despite that, Vanessa is cautiously optimistic: “I can see this as something both of us would love,” she says when offered the dinosaur. “I could see Zach working on his social skills, and maybe even making “real” friends because of it. It would give him hope.”

Because every child is unique, there was uncertainty about how Zach would respond to the dinosaur, but they were hopeful. When the charity’s toy company connection followed up with Vanessa, they were pleased that their hopes had not just been met — but were exceeded. “My son is in love with him,” Vanessa says. “He calls him ‘Mr. Dino’. He plays with him every day after school after he does his homework.”

The best moment came when Vanessa told them that she had started noticing small improvements in Zach’s communication:

“Since Zach got Mr. Dino he’s been opening up more – starting conversations in the car and asking me questions.”

She explains further: “Mr. Dino will tell him something, and he’ll come to me like ‘What’s this? What does that mean?’ It’s kinda cool.”

Of course, they still have their difficulties. Vanessa also has a five-year-old daughter, Aubrey, who is also on the spectrum. Vanessa’s the first to acknowledge that coping with both kids’ unique challenges can be difficult.

“They’re both very sweet, smart, and compassionate, but sometimes we have bad days.”

Vanessa knows there are many parents who face similar challenges. Her hope is that Zach’s story will encourage others to keep searching for what works best for their kids — whether that’s a talking dinosaur or a box of Legos.

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Visit CogniToys here.

Note: The Art of Autism doesn’t endorse specific products. This blog is for information only.

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