Cuddle Buddies offer comfort for autistic children

New toy bringing comfort to anxious and autistic children.
New toy bringing comfort to anxious and autistic children. Photo: Supplied

Craftholic Cuddle Buddies are a series of large-as-life loveable characters recently arrived in Australia from Japan. The four friends from Planet Craft - Korat Cat, Loris Monkey, Rab Bunny and Sloth Bear - were created by Japanese artist Ikuko Yamamoto as children’s playthings but are finding a role to comfort children with autism and anxiety disorders.

Behavioural Therapist Hollie Draper is an early interventionist helping preschoolers manage different degrees of autism. “Children with autism learn differently, typically needing more cues, more explanations and more explicit instructions than non-autistic children, usually coupled with lots of compression to help manage their emotions,” says Hollie. “Large soft toys with friendly expressions such as the Craftholics are useful for helping children learn safe compression techniques. The long limbs allow children to be wrapped in a fully enclosed hug which is safe and reassuring.”

Hollie has been working with Max*, a 5-year-old non-verbal autistic boy, for twelve months.  “Max* has poor communication skills and gets frustrated because he can’t express himself. He loves compression to relieve stress,” says Hollie.  “At times of over-stimulation or high anxiety Max* needs to apply a “stim” or “self-stimulatory behaviour”. When I first started working with him he used to apply pressure to his own body, forcing his fists tightly into his jaw. We have worked hard to eliminate this inappropriate and potentially harmful behaviour, replacing it with a more appropriate and natural behaviour of hugging and wrapping himself in his new favourite compression toy, a 110cm Rab. High anxiety and the need for this type of “stim” can occur several times throughout the day but being able to give a strong squeeze to Rab calms him and frees up space in Max’s brain for other learning.”

When Sydney mum Angela Briggs brought home a cuddly bear the same height as her 9-year-old autistic son Thomas, she couldn’t have anticipated the positive effect it would have on his behaviour; she is thrilled by the level of comfort and stimulation her son receives from his new friend.

“I am very careful with my choice of playthings for Thomas, making sure his toys provide adequate stimulation without over-exciting him,” says Angela. “He is a very active boy and had previously shown no interest in quiet games with soft toys but since the arrival of Sloth he has started to demonstrate care and empathy which is hard for autistic children to reveal.”

“In times of high stress, I used to have to lie on Thomas to apply the right pressure to comfort and reassure him,” says Angela, “Sloth is soft yet heavy enough to become my surrogate which has been liberating for both of us.”

“Thomas has speech and language delay,” says Angela, “So we spend lots of time sitting on the floor role playing to help improve his conversational and life skills. Since introducing Sloth as a friend in our games the improvements in Thomas’ speech, language and levels of empathy have been remarkable and I couldn’t be more pleased. His speech is really kicking in and I am falling in love with my son all over again because he is more able to communicate his feelings to me,” says the delighted mum.

Craftholic Cuddle Buddies were introduced to the Australian market last year by Monique Cerrat who came across them whilst travelling in Asia.

“I imported my first shipment in October and they sold out quickly to a range of customers,” says Monique. “What is most rewarding is the positive feedback from parents about how Craftholics are helping children cope with anxiety caused, for example, by moving house, separation of parents, death of a family pet, starting school, going on school camps and even from parents of autistic children.”

Monique says there have been a few surprise customers too. “I have had several women purchasing them for themselves, joking they are husband replacements!”

A Craftholic doesn’t snore, doesn’t leave wet towels on the floor and doesn’t criticise your driving … I can definitely see the attraction.