Let’s get back to the water toys. The examples of children used in these posts represent composites of the responses of actual children. No identifying information regarding individual children is used; the names and physical descriptions of the children are literary devices.

In my team evaluations with children—anywhere from preschool age to upper elementary age—starting the evaluation session with a water toy on the table works really well.

Peter, a preschooler with a sturdy build, serious demeanor and suspected autism, is nonverbal but enjoys watching children’s animated programs at home. When he entered the evaluation room, the water toy was the only object on the table.

I started my conversation with Peter by pushing the button on the green water ring toss game several times, causing the rings to flutter through the water. His gaze immediately focused on the visual motion and he sat at the table to examine the toy in more detail

By the way, I didn’t start talking until Peter was already engaged in his play with the water toy.

He reached for the base and pushed the button, gaining control over the cause and effect loop. I began to label the colors, introducing some language, and he stayed with me. When I paused and did not label a color he briefly glanced in my direction; his way of requesting that I keep up the established routine.

I leaned over and placed my face on the far side of the translucent plastic and greeted him as a way to sample how captured he had become by the motion of the colored rings. As is often the case for children with autism, Peter was so focused on the visual movement that he was unable to extend his gaze or attention to include a person.

If I had been asked to draw a circle around Peter’s range of focus at that point, it would have included the toy but not the people in the room. This toy consistently provides a gauge of the child’s sensory engagement and simultaneous absence of social engagement.

Next: using the “Ball of Whacks” toy with a pre-adolescent child with suspected Asperger’s syndrome.

© 2010 Marilyn J. Monteiro, Ph.D. All rights reserved.