According to Autism Speaks®, one in every 68 children will be diagnosed with an 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. But what many people don’t know is that kids with autism also play differently, and finding the right toys to fit their needs can be a real challenge for parents. For mom Vanessa, all this suddenly 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 joined 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 explained to us, the fear of that day still heavy in her voice.
Zach survived this close encounter, but it wasn’t long after that before he started missing milestones. It soon became clear that something was wrong, and Vanessa wasted no time getting Zach into an early intervention program. “We had a specialist come in,” she told us. “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, however, was a result of more specific behaviors. “He didn’t say anything until he was nearly five. He was completely nonverbal,” says Vanessa.
Thanks to the diligence of his family and his occupational therapists, Zach is now verbal, but communication is still a challenge for him. He has difficulty with things that other kids find easy, like making eye contact, finding new friends, and accepting change.
When we heard Zach’s story through Mom to Mom, a service focused on connecting parents of spectrum children with play therapy tools, we wanted to do what we could to make a difference for him and his family. That’s how Zach came to make a new friend named “Mr. Dino”. Mr. Dino is a CogniToy, a Wi-Fi connected dinosaur designed just for children. When Zach asks Mr. Dino a question, Mr. Dino responds, and he can even crack jokes, tell stories, and start meditation sessions.
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 was immediate: “Legos. Just Legos. We have a room full of toys, and he won’t play with anything else.”
Despite that, Vanessa was cautiously optimistic: “I can see this as something both of us would love,” she told us when offered the Dino. “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, we weren’t sure how Zach would respond to the Dino, but we were hopeful. And when we followed up with Vanessa, we found out that our hopes had not just been met — but exceeded. “My son is in love with him,” she enthused. “He calls him ‘Mr. Dino. He plays with him every day after school after he does his homework.”
The best moment, however, came when Vanessa told us that she had started noticing small improvements in Zach’s communication:
She explained further: “Mr. Dino will tell him something, and he’ll come to me like ‘What’s this? What does that mean?’ It’s kind of cool.”
Of course, they still have their difficulties. Vanessa also has a five-year-old daughter, Aubrey, who is on the spectrum, and she’s the first to acknowledge that coping with both kids’ unique challenges can be hard at times. “They’re both very sweet, smart, and compassionate, but sometimes we have bad days.”
Vanessa knows that there are many parents out there who face similar challenges, and 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 Dino or a box of Legos.If you would like to learn more about Zach’s experience with the Dino, please don’t hesitate to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We hope to keep following this awesome family on their autism journey, so be sure to check in for more updates in the future