When you’ve met one autistic child, you’ve met one autistic child.
When it comes to selecting toys for autistic kids, this phrase is especially true. Each child not only has specific needs, but also their own preferences and personality. All of these factors should be taken into consideration when choosing a toy or game.
What are sensory toys?
Sensory toys are toys that engage the senses, with the majority of sensory toys focusing on what is visual (seeing) or tactile (touch). Sensory experiences are vital for all children because they stimulate the brain and promote learning and brain development. Sensory play and the resulting stimulation of your child’s senses is an important part of cognitive development and is closely related to acquiring the many skills that each child needs to become a fully functional adult. Being able to process stimuli and respond appropriately affects all areas of learning, from writing to reading, and cutting to climbing.
Sensory toys for autism
Autism is commonly accompanied by sensory issues. Hypersensitive children are overly responsive to stimulus (also called sensory overload) and can be easily overwhelmed by noise, light, smell, touch, or movement. Hyposensitive children are under-responsive to stimuli and may have low response to pain and struggle with responsiveness to body signals that affect balance and coordination.
Sensory toys for kids promote cognitive development and they also provide the sensory feedback that many autistic kids need. When a child is busy looking for the sensations they like, they are distracted and unable to focus on other important tasks like listening, following instructions, focusing on a task, sleeping, eating, or socializing. They may also engage in unsafe behavior in an attempt to get the sensory stimulation they need. Using sensory toys for kids with autism is a way of providing the sensory stimulation needed in a safe way.
When looking for a sensory toy, think about the child the toy is for, and what sensations they both seek and avoid. If your kid loves to touch things, cuddle, and feel different textures, then consider a toy that is tactile. Tactile toys for autistic kids should ideally be durable and provide various tactile experiences.
If your child is averse to different textures or tactile stimuli, then it is a good idea to avoid toys that may be overstimulating in this area.
Likewise, if your child is visually oriented, loves bright colors or bright lights, then it is a great idea to consider toys that provide interesting visuals and are pleasing to the eye.
Kids that love movement (swinging, climbing, jumping) need toys that provide motor stimulation and for those that love loud music or noises, a toy that gives auditory stimulation is ideal.
It’s really important to remember to never force a child to use a particular sensory toy. Even if it seems to be the perfect toy, there may be something about it that makes them uncomfortable. For one child, putty may be the perfect tactile toy, while another child may prefer moon sand. This doesn’t mean that children shouldn’t be slowly encouraged to try things that are out of their comfort zone, but you should take the lead from your child on this one.
There are so many benefits of sensory toys for autistic children. Sensory toys help with relaxation, focus, and calming. Sensory toys also help develop social learning skills and aid in the development of gross and fine motor skills.
Choosing toys for autistic toddlers and children
Things to take into account when selecting a toy for autistic children include
- The child’s unique needs: What does the child like? What is the child interested in? What sensory stimulation does the child need?
- Stage of development: Sometimes, autistic kids may be at an earlier or different developmental stage than their same age peers. It is important to make sure that the toys you choose are suited to the child and where they are at developmentally.
- Learning through play: All children learn through play, and games that focus on development of language and social skill can be of great benefit to autistic kids.
- Safety: Toys, especially special needs toys, must be safe, fun, and appropriate.
- Educational value: Does the toy stimulate emotional, physical, and cognitive growth? Does the toy foster imagination and development?
Sensory toys buying guide
Toys for autistic toddlers
- Weighted stuffed animal: Weighted toys, like weighted blankets, are great for kids who need calming or soothing. They provide pressure to help wriggly or bouncy legs and can assist with proprioceptive input (knowledge of where your body is in relation to other things).
- Wooden knob puzzles and busy boards: These early-stage puzzles provide plenty of tactile input and are a great way of improving fine motor skills.
- Dimpl: A Dimpl is a fidget toy that has 5 silicone dimples of various sizes to push in and out. Varies resistance provides tactile feedback and is quiet and durable.
- Play piano: Play pianos are great for learning about cause and effect, while providing both auditory and tactile stimulation.
- Kinetic (moon) sand is less messy than regular sand and is great for imaginary and tactile play.
- Balance beam: Using a balance beam not only improves balance, but also other important skills like crossing the midline (a skill integral to reading) and a knowledge of where the body is relative to the environment.
- Textured balls: These balls are inexpensive and give plenty of tactile feedback.
Toys for autistic kids
- Balance boards: Balance boards and other balance toys are fun, provide motor stimulation, and strengthen core muscles.
- Yoga ball: Yoga balls are great for core strength and can be used in so many ways.
- Mini trampoline: Mini trampolines don’t take up too much space but are great for burning off excess energy and give tons of sensory input.
- Fidgets: It may take a bit if trial and error, but finding the right fidget can be a great help for some kids.
- Ball pits: Not only are ball pits fun, they also provide lots of deep pressure stimulus, which for most kids has a calming effect.
- Climbing pegs: When attached to a swing set or low wall, climbing pegs can be great for kids who love climbing and navigating obstacles.
- Pin Art: The ability to capture 3D images makes the sturdy, tactile toy ideal for creative kids.
- Sand trays: Sand trays are an inexpensive but effective way for sensory learners to explore letter formation.
- Art sets: Art allows for freedom of expression without the restraints of rules.
Gifts for Autistic Children
- Motion lamps or lava lamps: These are great gifts for children who like color and movement.
- Spinning tops: Spinning tops are great for kids of all ages who love visual stimulation and have the added benefit of improving fine motor skills
- Weighted toys, lap pads, or blankets: Weighted blankets and toys are not only great for calming but have also been shown to assist with managing conditions such as anxiety, ADHD, and chronic pain.
- Therapy putty: Therapy grade putty is long lasting, thick, and hard to pull. It is great for calming and gives plenty of proprioceptive and tactile input.
- Cocoon swings and sensory tents provide a refuge when thing become overwhelming. They are a safe, calming space.
- Rain tube: The soothing sounds made by a rain tube are calming, while the colors are visually appealing. The tube can be used effectively as a diversion from a meltdown and encourages self-soothing.
Chew toys for kids (Chewables)
- Chewelry (or chewable jewelry) items are great for kids who love to chew their cuffs, pencils, hoodie tags, toys, etc. They come in the form of necklaces, pencil toppers, and hoodie lace ends. (It’s important to remember though that these items are not indestructible and care should be taken when selecting the appropriate item).
- Chew bracelets: Made from non-toxic silicone, these bracelets are designed with moms who have babies that love to chew on their jewelry in mind.
- Chewy tubes are a resilient, non-food surface used to distract children who chew on items like clothing.
- Super Chews and super chew noodles are great for aggressive chewers. They are heavy duty, with a textured design that gives plenty of sensory input while being durable and solid.
Best toys for kids with nonverbal autism
All children need the opportunity to express themselves. These toys and activities are perfect for non-verbal autistic kids.
- Easel with storage: All art supplies in one place with a sturdy easel ready for creating.
- Building blocks: Whether plastic (like Lego) or foam, building blocks are great for non-verbal playtime.
- Peg Boards: Shape and color peg boards provide tactile stimulation and teach about patterns and colors.
- Conversation or flash cards: These cards give children the opportunity to practice their communication skills.
- Sign language letter flash cards. Non-verbal kids might find communicating in sign language helpful. These cards are a good starting point.
- Rubik’s cubes and other brain teasers. These puzzles and brain teasers provide great visual stimulation and are intellectually challenging.
Great games for autistic kids
When considering games, here are some things to remember:
- Is the game very busy? A board that is visually overstimulating can be confusing.
- Games that are won by chance (e.g., by throwing dice or using a spinner) can be frustrating as there is no control over the process.
- Card games that have too many rules can be confusing and autistic kids may struggle to follow the rules. If the game is very abstract, adapted may need to be made to make the game more concrete.
- What is the developmental level of the child? If a game is too difficult, kids will not get any enjoyment.
The following games are suitable for autistic kids:
- Old Maid: Old Maid does not require the same language, memory, or player perspective required in many other games. This game gives children a good chance to practice social skills (such as taking turns) with peers.
- Memory: Any memory games can be great for kids who are strong with visual memory. If a child has poor memory skill or difficulty with special awareness (knowing where things are in relation to one another), memory games might be frustrating, but are nevertheless a great tool for developing this skill. The game can be adapted by using fewer cards and increasing numbers of pairs gradually.
- Sensory Detective: For this game, use items you have at home (small toys, beads, dried beans, rice, or wheat) and place them in a deep bucket. Make sure the toys are buried properly among the beads, beans, rice, or wheat. The child needs to close their eyes and retrieve the toys in the order you ask for them.
- Hopscotch: All you need for a great game of hopscotch is a flat piece of tarmac or paving, chalk, and small objects like stones. Hopscotch is great for improving coordination, muscle tone, and for social interaction.
- Scavenger hunts: With a few chocolate bars (or other treats), balloons, inexpensive toys, box of crayons you can create a scavenger hunt that is age appropriate. Children can be directed to find items in a specific order and then to return them to a sorting point to be categorized.
- Feelings Flash Cards: These cards let kids learn to identify and name the different emotions and practice their own emotional responses.
- Counting and sorting games: There are games specifically for sorting and counting, but you can also create your own sorting and counting game with colored discs, building blocks, or beads.
- Texture boxes: You can either buy a box of texture squares or create your own. Kids learn to identify different textures and interact with a variety of different “feels.”
- Legos or any other building blocks are a wonderful toy or game because there are no rules and kids are free to build what they like. There is no right or wrong way to build. Sets that require specific construction may prove frustrating.
From the toys and games listed, it is easy to see that autism toys are really just toys that provide great sensory feedback. Toys are often created with a specific goal in mind, such as being visually stimulating or offering plenty of different textures. There are many toys on the market that look suitable, but may not be of the high quality and durability required for the unique needs of autistic kids. Where possible, ask for suggestions of trusted brands used by other parents of autistic kids.