Best Sensory Toys for Kids with Sensory Processing Issues and Autism
Does your child with autism struggle with sensory input?
Many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience problems processing sensory input. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), “hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment (e.g., apparent indifference to pain/temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fascination with lights and movement)” need to be present in an individual at the time of diagnosis (American Psychiatric Association).
Additionally, some children with autism may receive a secondary diagnosis of sensory processing disorder (SPD). While a secondary diagnosis may seem redundant to many parents, it can be beneficial to ensure the child gets access to the accommodations he/she deserves in school. He/she can also gain access to more therapies and services that may be helpful.
It is important to remember that not all individuals with SPD are diagnosed with autism, and not all individuals diagnosed with autism receive a secondary diagnosis of SPD. But the vast majority of children with autism struggle with sensory input to some extent.
How does autism relate to sensory processing disorder?
Autism exists on a spectrum so each child’s experiences with SPD will vary as well. Some children with autism may struggle with certain senses more than others. Tactile input may be challenging for one child to process, while visual input may be harder for another.
Some children struggle with all five senses. According to Chantal Sicile-Kira, an autism consultant and author, “Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a neurological disorder that causes difficulties with processing information from the five senses: vision, auditory, touch, olfaction, and taste, as well as from the sense of movement (vestibular system), and/or the positional sense (proprioception).”
For those with SPD, sensory information is sensed but is not perceived in a typical manner. Unlike blindness or deafness, people with SPD do receive sensory input. The difference is that information is processed in an unusual way that causes distress, discomfort, and confusion. (Sicile-Kira, 2010)
For a child with autism, distorted sensory input can challenge many aspects of life. This includes social interaction, proprioception, and even safety. Distorted sensory perception paired with an inability to communicate their discomfort can often lead to tantrums in young children, toddlers, and babies. Early intervention can be key to helping your child make better sense of his/her environment and finding the best ways to communicate.
How can sensory toys help children with autism?
Sensory interventions can be stressful times for children with autism and their families. It is ideal for families to insert consistent interventions into their child’s routine. Oren Steinberg, co-founder of SensoryTreat, and Amy Owens, ORT, Executive Director of Infant Toddler Services of Johnson County, says that:
“Sensory-based intervention has been shown effective. A family-centered approach emphasizes parental coaching in the natural environments of the family. Despite the importance of intervention carryover, adherence is believed to be low. This is due to the overwhelming nature, required commitment, and lifestyle changes asked of children and their parents.” (Steinberg & Owens, 2016)
Occupational therapists are now recommending the use of sensory toys. These sensory toys come in many shapes and sizes, including spinners, chew toys, cubes, rings, and hand toys. Sensory items work to engage a child’s preferred sense in a way that is enjoyable and makes sense to him/her. They may help children with autism focus, calm down in stressful situations, and/or relax. As a child can process a sense better, autism toys highlighting other senses or variations of a sense may be introduced.
The ultimate goal of sensory toys is to decrease a child’s fear and discomfort around his/her senses through a natural way of learning: play. This may trickle down into other skills such as improved communication due to lowered levels of anxiety or frustration. As mentioned above, consistency is key as with any intervention. Involvement from the child’s parent or caregiver can boost the child’s progress.
The Fidget Spinner Sensory Toys
Spinners, often called “fidget spinners,” have been soaring in popularity since 2016. They became toys (and labeled as classroom distractions) for neurotypical children.
Spinners have been used long before 2016 as a successful intervention for children with autism, attention deficit disorder (ADD), and attention-deficit/hyper disorder (ADHD). Spinners are most often used to keep a child’s hands occupied so he/she can focus on a larger task like listening to a teacher or speaking to a peer or to a group. It’s one of the best toys for sensory processing. Many children enjoy the smooth and fast rotation and the toy’s ease of manipulation. Due to a spinner’s compact size, it can be easy for a child to play with discretely and quietly. This makes them ideal for classrooms and other settings where minimal interruptions are preferred.
As spinners have become more popular, a wider range of novelty designs and colors have become available as well. It is not uncommon to find ones that have movie characters, athletic teams, and even glitter and metallic finishes. Spinners range in price from around $10 to collector’s items priced upwards of $200.
Hand Fidget Sensory Toys
If spinners are not your child’s first choice, but still desires a way to keep his/her hands busy, there are a variety of other sensory toys for kids with autism. An article written by Christina Kozlowski, OTR/L, founder of Sensory TheraPLAY Box, outlines 10 hand toys for children with a variety of sensory preferences. Kozlowski’s recommendations range from balls of yarn to the more traditional stress balls to stretchy and spiky toys. (Kozlowski, 2017)
Fidget toys are seeing a rise in availability at mainstream stores, including chain bookshops in the United States, big-box stores, and Amazon.com. Stress balls filled with gel and beads that pop out through netting when squeezed were a common toy in the 1990s and are seeing a comeback as a sensory toy for autism. While many objects can become a hand toy for children, be sure the item is safe and age-appropriate. If you have any questions, your child’s occupational therapist can offer guidance in choosing the correct fidget toys for sensory processing disorder.
Autism Chew Sensory Toys
A less talked about a sensory toy that can be greatly beneficial are chew toys. Chews are beneficial for developing muscles, refining tongue coordination, and improving motor skills. These toys often take the shape of a necklace with a non-toxic silicone pendant. These chews can be textured with dots, ridges, and patterns, or be smooth if your child prefers.
There are many different chew toys for sensory issues. Chews come in a variety of shapes and sizes beyond necklaces. Silicone pencil toppers, “noodles,” and bars are other popular options. More companies are now making chews with older children, adolescents, and adults in mind. These chews are modeled to look like jewelry, such as a dog tag necklace or woven bracelet.
For children who dislike silicone’s rubbery texture, fabric bands resembling hair scrunchies or ties are available and can often be braided for added texture. High quality, safe chews are typically only available through specialty shops like Fun and Function or Ark Therapeutic Products. When selecting a chew for your child, it is especially important to be sure its size and shape are appropriate for the child’s developmental level and will not present a choking hazard. The chew should always be used under the close supervision of a parent or caregiver.
Cube toys, like spinners, have gained popularity with many neurotypical adults and children. This surge in popularity has made it easier to find at big-box stores. One of the most accessible cube toys is a die with different buttons, switches, and textures on each side. These dice are usually designed not to emit noise when clicked and manipulated. It is a practical choice for students or those in the workplace.However, more specialized cube toys exist for an array of developmental levels. Wooden shape sorter cubes are a popular option for younger children who are still developing motor skills and learning shapes, colors, and sizes. Traditional building blocks, bristle blocks, and Lego blocks, as well as newer magnetic blocks, are other common options for children who prefer a challenge.
Cube toys come in metal, wood, fabric, and silicone materials so your child can find an appealing texture. Cubes are a great option for parents seeking a way to be involved in their child’s sensory integration therapies. Ask your therapist about games and activities appropriate to your child’s developmental level.
Sensory rings are another great option for children who are not at risk for choking. Rings are often small in size and coiled, like a Slinky for your finger. These rings provide an interesting texture, elasticity, and resistance. They are often sold in plastic or metal and come in a variety of colors.
Another wearable ring has a traditional band but with small balls attached for manipulating. These rings generally lack elasticity, but their moving beads still offer a way to fidget. Non-wearable ring options include tangle rings composed of several movable parts that transform into interesting shapes and sizes. These can be fun for children who love repetitive movements and patterns.
For children who enjoy the die mentioned above, several companies now sell rings with appendages with similar features. The clicking on these rings is also usually silent and appropriate for quiet environments. Silicone rings can triple duty as rings, hand manipulatives, and chews. Be sure to buy one specifically designed for chewing.
The Best Fidget Sensory Toys for your child
Selecting a sensory toy can be a daunting task. Childrens’ preferences and interests often change frequently, so having a variety of toys for different situations and moods can be helpful. While sensory toys are often used in social situations, school, and the workplace, they can also help children fall asleep. Selecting a soft toy safe for a child to sleep with (not to chew) may help your child establish a sleep routine.
The toy can also be a comfort item if he/she awakes during the night. If you don’t know which toys to get, ask your child’s doctor or occupational therapist. Sensory toys are often considered an intervention, but that does not mean they cannot be fun and provide opportunities for a child and his/her parent or caregiver to bond.
Finding the best options for your child may take some trial and error, but as Steinberg and Owens encouraged, repetition and integrating your child’s sensory toy into a daily routine is key to the success of this intervention.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association; 2013.
Kozlowski, C. (2017, December 17). The Best Fidget Toys to Relieve Stress and Anxiety. Retrieved March 2018, from https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/fidget-toys-to-relieve-stress-anxiety/
Sicile-Kira, C. (2010, March 2). What is Sensory Processing Disorder and How Is It Related to Autism? Retrieved March 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-autism-advocate/201003/what-is-sensory-processing-disorder-and-how-is-it-related-autism
Steinberg, O., & Owens, A. (2016, June 26). Simple Ways Sensory Based Intervention Can Change Your ASD Child’s Life. Retrieved March 2018, from https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/sensory-based-intervention/
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