Chestnut Hill: An Alternative for Autistic Children

Children gather around and sing Ol McDonald Had a Farm.
Fran O'Donnell hosts a music hour for children and their parents every Tuesday and Thursday.

O’Doodle’s, a Chestnut Hill toy store since 1997, is not your typical children’s store with video games and electronics. Instead, owner Fran O’Donnell tries to concentrate on selling more traditional and interactive toys that allow for more creativity and physical involvement. With this concept, he tries to encourage the community, specifically parents with autistic children, to come to his store and participate in playing games that involve more social interaction instead of just playing computer games.

“Defining play as being on the computer is so mechanical. I want to bring kids back to the days when playing with toys involved more creativity and interaction,” said O’Donnell when asked why he did not carry video games.

Before O’Doodles became a toy store, it was essentially a stationery store started by O’Donnell’s father, Henry, who first moved the family business into Chestnut Hill in 1954. In 1989, Henry’s secret success in selling stationery was discovered by Staples, which moved in just around the corner. The family then had to change the store’s concept to fit the changing personality of Chestnut Hill. After two tries, O’Donnell found a new niche. One day he noticed the increasing number of strollers and families walking the cobblestone streets. That was when he decided to open the toy store, which has been successful ever since.

While Fran O'Donnell played his instrument, he encouraged the toddlers to join in with other small instruments as well.

Today Fran O’Donnell keeps his father’s store alive by becoming more interactive with the community through programs such as the one he is currently trying to model for autistic children and their parents. Every week there is something new for the children to do whether it’s a chess tournament, a music hour or a reading time.

O’Donnell said he hopes to create an environment that teaches children how to develop social skills, which is something that most autistic children struggle with. In past events, some of the activities included yoga, acting and building cities out of Legos. By having these types of activities, O’Donnell not only wants to help autistic children socialize, but also to help their parents find different ways to learn about other people’s experiences and find a better means of raising an autistic child.

“Let’s face it. When you have an autistic kid, you’re not just raising a kid, you’re raising a family. I want to help these kids and their moms by giving them an alternative of somewhere to go that provides activities that help to developed social skills for these kids,” said O’Donnell.


Children gathered around to sing Ol' McDonald Had a Farm.

The entire second floor is dedicated to fun workshops for the many programs that O’Donnell wants to host. Currently, he is working to not only involve other programs, such as Spectrum Fundamental and La Salle’s Ladder program, which also works with autistic children, but he is also trying to involve various therapist as well.


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