Jamilah Rahim decided to open a toy store geared to children on the autism spectrum after working as a home behavioral therapist. Rahim noticed that in the homes she visited with autistic children, the parents tended to order toys online—and the children often didn’t warm to them.
Because people with autism often have sensory processing disorder, in which they feel either overstimulated or understimulated by their senses, they might shun or crave specific sensations. For instance, a child on the autism spectrum may be overstimulated by sound and become very upset by loud noises, or understimulated by taste and constantly seek out new or stronger flavors. Toys that are meant to calm or fulfill these sensory disorders, such as compression vests or objects to chew on, can help—especially when a child can test them out to see what most appeals to their senses.
In Chicago’s Roscoe Village neighborhood, Rahim recently opened a store dubbed Spectrum, where children can do just that. One of only a handful of such toy stores in the country, Spectrum also partners with the nonprofit Children’s Advanced Recreation and Education (CARE) to offer group or individual sessions in which children practice communication, cognitive skills, social skills, and motor skills—while using the store’s merchandise. “We try all the toys out in these sessions before we put them on the shelf,” says Rahim. “We don’t sell anything we wouldn’t use in our own program.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that around 1 in 68 American children are on the autism spectrum, an alarming ten-fold increase over the past four decades. While the causes of autism are still somewhat unclear, researchers have been able to identify some gene mutations that are associated with the disorder. Scientists generally concur that these autism risk genes, in conjunction with environmental factors, such as difficulties during birth in which the brain is deprived of oxygen, cause most cases of autism.
Some studies have also pointed to an urban-rural disparity in the prevalence of autism, with a higher number of cases in cities, causing observers to wonder if there’s something about urban life that makes autism more common in denser areas. As Rahim says, “For children with sensory needs, a city can be overwhelming.” However, it’s generally thought—and Rahim concurs—that the main reason for these study results is that cities on the whole provide better services for people with autism. Such access to services means that more cases are identified.
Still, even more services are needed, both in and out of cities. The fact that families are driving for hours to Rahim’s store from all over the Midwest—“they come from southern Indiana, Wisconsin, even St. Louis,” Rahim says—is telling. With the continued rise in the number of cases, other retailers are taking note and starting new initiatives. Toys “R” Us, for example, has held “quiet hours” in its stores in the U.K., during which it dims the lights and refrains from playing background music, and is planning to do the same in the U.S.
While Rahim says she’s glad the giant toy retailer has started such a program, she notes that what makes Spectrum and similar, smaller stores particularly effective is the sense of kinship they foster. “When kids come in here with behavioral needs, and they’re flapping their arms or screaming, it’s 100 percent acceptable,” she says. “No one is staring at them. It feels more like a community here.”