When buying toys for children with autism, parents may wonder what specific considerations to keep in mind. Are there special sensory toys for autism? Toys with certain textures or sounds that might fare better with autistic kids? Turns out choosing the right toy for a child with autism is a lot like picking out a toy for any kid. Let their interests guide you just as you would with neurotypical children, says Dr. Kristie Patten Koenig, an occupational therapist and associate professor at New York University. There’s no such thing as the perfect toy for autistic kids, so lean into what actually interests them.
“With autism, kids have preferred interests. They may be focused on one thing. Some paradigms say to expand their play repertoire. I tend to look at that differently. If they are interested in trains, it’s a great avenue for learning and a way for parents to connect with their kids,” says Koenig. “Just remember that there’s no magic toy that helps autism.“
Dr. Mandi Silverman, the senior director of the Autism Center at the Child Mind Institute, suggests parents follow their kids’ lead. “Buy toys your kids like. You follow their interests. That said, I would tell parents to get toys that encourage your kid to engage with you or other kids. That’s the goal.” Certain toys are better than others at encouraging collaborative play, when children interact with each other, as opposed to parallel play, in which children play near each other but independently. When buying gifts for any children, including those with autism, opt for toys that can be shared between kids and encourage the use of imagination, like dollhouses and play kitchens.
Parents might also look for toys that encourage physical activity, like swings or balls. As far as sensory toys go, books with sounds or textures are great for engaging kids’ senses. Most importantly, choose toys that don’t have a hyper-specific use but rather allow for creativity and open-ended play, so kids can use them however they want in developmentally-appropriate ways.
This colorful horse is part stuffed animal, part ride-on toy and part sensory toy. It features tabs, rattles, and fringe with a variety of textures, and makes different horse sounds when squeezed.
A soft, soothing, calming toy for kids to carry around, or snuggle with they get stressed. This dinosaur is like the toy version of a weighted blanket.
Creativity is king with this toy, which lets kids create a custom puppet. It comes with 30 interchangeable pieces, including self-stick eyes, ears, antennae, and suction cups for display. It's a sensory toy by default, and lends itself to imaginative play as kids can use the puppet to act out emotions or stories.
Not only is this a fantastic tactile and sensory toy, it's also non-stick, it never dries out, and can be formed into anything. Again, there's no limit to how you can play with this, which is key. Bonus: It's not even remotely as messy as slime.
The Dimpl toy encourages fine motor skills, sensory exploration, and cause-and-effect learning. Kids pop the silicone bubbles, which make a very satisfying noise, and the silicone feels smooth against kiddie hands. The repetitive actions can also offer stress relief.
This beautifully basic yet hella fun saucer helps stimulate a kid's vestibular system.
A gorgeous, simple, and non-genderized dollhouse that will get kids to engage in collaborative play. This is a standout toy that encourages kids to use their imaginations and play with others, which, per Silverman, is precisely what you want, as opposed to parallel play. It comes fully furnished, (and beautifully at that) just note that dolls are not included.
If you have a kid who loves animals, he or she will be enamored with this six-piece puppet set, which can help children develop language skills. Kids use puppets to tell stories and act them out. And puppets help kids express emotions, connect with others, and simply communicate.
This train set is sturdy enough for little hands and encourages kids and parents to play together. Kids can play alone, or with others, to create entire worlds centered around trains. It's a wonderful way for parents to engage with their kids on a very playful level.
This sweet toy has multiple textures and materials engage a child's developing tactile sensitivity.
Here's another great open-ended construction toy to stimulate kids' senses and encourage open-ended play. Kids get magnetized blocks that are the same shapes but different colors. They build and build and build. And they help develop their fine motor skills.
Kinetic sand helps a child develop his or her manipulative skills, by having them use rakes and molds to create things. The sand is a great sensory tool because it's soft, easy to shape, and then reshape again.
Many kids with autism need to develop their fine motor skills, so manipulative toys like WikkiStix can help.
With this Infantino set, you get nice, simple selection of tactile balls in different shapes and colors. These BPA-free balls are easy to grab and help develop your child's tactile senses. Stress balls in general are a decent choice if they have texture to them, per Silverman.
This 9-piece puzzle plays the sound of each piece's corresponding animal when it's placed in the right opening. Kids are encouraged to keep playing and learn about animal sounds and cause and effect.
Kids can take a break and have some alone time in this tent, made from cotton canvas. These types of tents, says Silverman, 'are really good for when children want some quiet alone time and they’re on sensory overload and want to sit alone. It’s a sectioned-off quiet space.'
When kids jump around on this trampoline, their joints will be stimulated, and that can help regulate inner balance. A small trampoline with a bar is a great choice for kids, as long as you monitor what they're doing to avoid any accidents. It's a winner because, says Silverman, it's physically-engaging.
This is a strategy game where the goal is to knock out the blocks of ice. It moves play from parallel to collaborative, which is great because the intent is to get the child playing with other people.
Babies and toddlers learn about textures and colors with this board book. Silverman encourages parents to load up on books, books, and more books. And then, interact with it by reading with your kids, exploring the book's themes, and talking about it.
Sure, it might take you a month to put this together (we kid, we kid). But the payoff is worth it. A kitchen like this one encourages imaginative and collaborative play. And because it looks like a real kitchen, it helps kids make sense of the adult world around them.
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