Playing is one of the best and most important parts of being a child. The freedom to create and use your imagination using the toys around you or getting attached to a specific toy is something many of us have enjoyed growing up.
For your autistic child, this can be the same. Play is important not only because it is fun and provides enjoyment, but because playing is where we learn and enhance our motor skills. During your autistic child’s developmental stage, playing plays an important role in language development and social interaction. With this in mind, this article rounds up some of my favorite toys for kids with autism. Please note, none of the toys listed below are endorsed by or affiliated with Autism Parenting Magazine.
Why sensory play is important
Toys are great entertainment for kids and a fantastic way for them to use their imagination. When choosing a toy for kids with autism spectrum disorders, their enjoyment and comfort come with what that toy can do for them. It is not news that children with autism generally get the most enjoyment out of toys that engage their five senses (sensory toys).
Since many kids autistic children are either hypo or hypersensitive, they tend to engage with toys that specifically bring them more stimulation, or specifically less stimulation. For instance, kids who are hypersensitive might find enjoyment in weighted blankets, toys with light texture, and toys that you can take apart and put back together. Whereas, a child who is hyposensitive might get the most enjoyment out of toys with sound, vibration, or a toy that would require movement, such as a trampoline.
Sensory toys for children with autism are also helpful for sensory processing and practicing social and communication skills.
The best toys for kinesthesia
Another word for kinesthesia is proprioception: it is an awareness of the position and movement of the parts of the body by the sensory organs in the muscles and joints. The word might sound intimidating, but most toys for kinesthesia can be found in any store with a toy section and won’t put a major dent in your wallet.
Toys for kinesthesia include:
Jump Rope – Jump rope requires kids to use both gross motor skills and fine motor skills. A bonus is that it is a great way to get your child to exercise whilst enjoying themselves.
Modeling Clay – Modeling clay is a favorite among children, both non-autistic and autistic kids. Modeling clay teaches creativity, hand-eye coordination, and fine motor skills.
Bean Bags – Many kids with autism enjoy playing with toys that have weight as they provide comfort. Bean bags are great for the development of fine motor skills in toddlers and many games that include bean bags require the participation of other children, allowing your autistic child to learn social skills.
Bean Bag Chairs – Bean bag chairs encompass the person sitting in them, mimicking a hug. These are often a good choice for autistic kids as the heavy-encompassing feeling can make them feel safe and protected.
Building Blocks – Building blocks are excellent for encouraging creativity and letting the child use their imagination whilst enhancing fine motor skills. Building blocks can include Legos and wooden blocks for toddlers. These building blocks allow for creative play and can be a great gift for children with autism.
The best toys for movement
The following toys make use of the vestibular system: structures within the ear to pick up movement.
Sensory toys for movement are extremely popular among kids with autism. The motions of swinging, jumping, rocking, or spinning are repetitive movements that bring comfort and are generally good for kids with sensory sensitivities.
Autism toys for movement include:
Fat Brain Toys Teeter Popper – These teeter poppers exercise core strength as they require a good amount of stability and balance. Teeter poppers are good sensory toys because they require the user to rock from side to side, needing a good amount of focus. The suction cups attached to the bottom make noises, providing a fun experience for autistic kids who love different sounds.
Compression Therapy Swings – These therapy swings are made of a soft and stretchy material that cocoons the person inside of it, making it a great toy for your child to relax. These therapy swings have no weight limit and provide a gentle swinging motion, instantly comforting the person using them. Parental supervision is required for younger kids.
Platform Swing – These platform swings are large enough that many children can use them at once making them a great toy for social interaction. The different hard webbing provides sensory stimulation and allows for kids to sit or lie down while swinging.
Trampolines – Trampolines are a fun toy for kids and adults alike. Many children with autism spectrum disorder find it hard to communicate their anxiety, leading it to build up. Trampolines are an excellent tool to use to release pent-up energy and feelings of anxiety in kids with autism.
Radio Flyer Spin N Saucer – The saucer has 360-degree wheels allowing your child to spin as much as they want. The Spin N Saucer is particularly good for toddlers as it is low to the ground for safety and the child is able to choose how fast or slow they would like to go.
The best toys for tactile stimulation
The tactile system includes the entire surface area of your skin, even your tongue. Tactile stimulation is dependent on different textures, vibrations, and weight.
When you think of tactile toys, you might think of fidget toys!
According to an article by Lindsey Biel: “Fidget toys have long been recommended by occupational therapists, mental health counselors, and some special educators as a means to help kids stay calm and self-regulated in order to focus, attend, listen, and participate.”
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Tactile toys for kids with autism include:
Snap and Click Fidget Toys – These snap-and-click fidget toys are a favorite among kids on the spectrum. These fidget toys are highly beneficial as they develop fine motor skills, bring a sense of calm along with the very satisfying click of the pieces connecting, and release stress.
Therapy Putty – Therapy putty or “Theraputty” as it is sometimes referred to, is harder than regular putty. The hardness of the putty requires the child to put effort into pulling the putty apart, strengthening the hand muscles, and developing fine motor skills.
Slime – Slime is a fun toy for both non-autistic and autistic children alike. Like the Fidget Spinner, slime has become increasingly popular on social media and become a must-have toy in households. Slime comes in a variety of colors and, with its popularity, slime makers now put small objects inside the putty, providing a different texture and a fun surprise.
Pin Art Board – A pin art board is a fantastic gift for autistic teenagers. Hard plastic frames a board with metal pins on it, if you push the pins you can make all kinds of shapes and artwork, making it look 3D.
Stretchy Strings – Stretchy strings are fun fidget toys to take with you for long car rides. These stretchy strings should keep your child preoccupied and busy when they are stuck in a stuffy car for a long period of time. The soft rubbery texture provides sensory input and allows for kids to pull till it stretches, making it a fun game since it won’t break.
Chew Necklace – Chew necklaces are a crowd favorite among autistic toddlers. There are different kinds of chew necklaces with different textures. The texture of the silicone round beads is great for fidgeting and benefits autistic kids who are soothed by chewing on something.
OrthoDon Sensory Mat – The OrthoDon Sensory Mat is interesting because each block of the mat is a different texture, making it a good tactile toy for autistic children. This mat can be used at home and at school as it helps many autistic children to focus, calm down, and relax. Each block of the mat fits together like puzzle pieces, making it engaging and fun.
Many children with autism find sound soothing, especially kids who are hyposensitive. In cases like these, toy musical instruments might be beneficial. There are also many toys that make noise that your autistic child might love.
Some toys that make noises include:
Edushape Rainmaker – The Edushape Rainmaker is a cylindrical tube that has many colorful round beads inside. Whenever you turn over the cylinder, the beads pour to the bottom making a soft rain sound.
Toy Instruments – Toy instruments are generally loud and chaotic in the hands of children, and they can be overstimulating for the hyposensitive. However, toy instruments can also be a great way for children to release some pent-up anxiety and use their creativity.
Many autistic kids enjoy toys as much as non-autistic kids, and most of the toys mentioned in this article can be enjoyed by all children, as well as being very easy to find. Many toys are specifically created to develop motor skills in young children, making the need to find toys for motor skill development very easy.
If you are looking for the perfect toy for your autistic child, it can be a very hit-and-miss process. As all children are different, chances are your child might not like what their autistic peers might love. That being said, the need to spend an exorbitant amount on toys is not necessary. When buying toys, take into account what your autistic child generally responds to, and what kind of behavior different types of products tend to incite.
Biel, Lindsey. Fidget Toys or Focus Tools. Sensory Smarts, 2017