A child’s job is to play. The act of playing helps children develop physical coordination, emotional maturity, social skills, and the self-confidence to try new experiences and explore new environments.
For children with autism, it is important to provide toys and activities that are designed to foster these skills. By learning critical play skills children with developmental disabilities can increase the complexity of their language, imagination, and creativity. Learning appropriate play skills also provides opportunities for observational learning, increased social interactions, and aid in decreasing self-stimulatory behavior.
“Children and adolescents with developmental or mental health issues often have a variety of complex sensory and motor challenges,” says Tina Champagne, occupational therapist and Chief Executive Officer at The Cutchins Program for Children and Families, a member-school of the Massachusetts Association of 766 Approved Private Schools (maaps). “These challenges can impact the ability to demonstrate safe behaviors and functionally perform daily activities and routines, such as school participation, in addition to being barriers to social and emotional learning.”
One way to counteract these challenges is by selecting autism toys and activities that involve similar skills that children are working on at school. If you are looking to have your child work on academic skills, below is a brief list of toys beneficial for children with autism:
Jumbo Magnetic Letters
Jumbo magnetic letters are one of the simplest toys to teach letters and simple words. It familiarizes children with the alphabet in an interactive way and demystifies potential frustrations that come with learning a language. Learning activities include sorting the letters in alphabetical order, spelling their name, identifying and naming each letter, and pronouncing the sounds each letter makes.
For less word-centric activities, try sorting by color, counting the letters, or playing a game of hide and seek with the letter magnetized around the house. The bright colors and shiny or foam texture of the letters makes them easy to see, hold, and understand.
Matching games can be found in many forms, but all play a similar function in helping a child with disabilities strengthen fine motor and visual perception skills. Games like “Letter Match,” “Match Me,” or “Letters on the Loose” are all great for classroom or at-home use and can be played individually or with a group.
The games require coordination to select different cards, letters, or numbers, which strengthens the dexterity of children who struggle with fine motor skills or muscle development. In forming a match, children exercise their retention skills for future learning.
Pegboards, or number pegboards, are typically wooden counting games that use small, colored pegs and indentations to help understand number concepts and counting. By placing the proper amount of pegs into the corresponding holes, children grasp the association of numbers to quantities, numerical orders, and simple addition or subtraction. Pegboards are ideal for understanding the concepts of tallying and calculating – all of which are disguised through to the joy of play.
A different type of counting is best done through a piggy bank, which teaches a young child the beginnings of financial literacy and money management. Children can learn to identify the different types of coins, how much they are worth, and how to tell them apart. Certain piggy banks provide better features for these lessons, such as providing a clear storage or showing the sum of the coins put into it. Other toy piggy banks provide colored or numbered plastic coins for better identification of denominations.
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The classic game of Jenga is a hands-on game that requires concentration, body awareness, and fine motor skills. The game’s structure helps with social learning and turn-taking, and the game’s design—and conclusion—also help with tolerating loud noises and disruption. Alternative versions of the game have questions on each block like “What’s your favorite color” or “What’s something that smells good?” to prepare children with conversation skills.
There are many tooth-brushing ‘buddies’ on the market, but all of them serve the same purpose: to promote hygiene in a fun and easy to understand way. Typically, a tooth-brushing buddy is a stuffed animal with a plastic set of teeth that comes with an enlarged toothbrush to help simulate the act of teeth brushing. Tooth-brushing buddies help children follow directions, learn proper brushing techniques, and appreciate oral health and self-care.
Lacing Kits, also known as String Alongs, come in a variety of shapes and configurations, all designed to strengthen the self-care skills like shoe lacing, knot tying, and buttoning a shirt. By practicing lacing a string through the holes in a variety of arrangements, a child is developing their hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, and pattern recognition skills.
A sensory table is a small table filled or covered with different materials such as water, sand, rice, beans, or other substances. They serve as a contained and clean environment for children to explore different touches, smells, and consistencies, and familiarize themselves with different textures. They make an excellent setting for finger painting or other arts-and-crafts lessons, and learning activities can involve mixing two substances together, separating different materials, or trying to guess the items on the table based on only touch or smell.
This article was featured in Issue 95 – Managing Autism Together