April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day, which is when you’ll spot lots of blue ribbons and lights to recognize people living with the disorder. The CDC defines it as a developmental disability that can cause social, communication and behavioral challenges. And the CDC estimates that one in 59 kids has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and it’s about four times as common in boys than girls.
But kids are kids, and kids want to play. So when buying toys for children with autism, 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. “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.”
And that’s why, says Dr. Mandi Silverman, the senior director of the Autism Center at the Child Mind Institute, some toys can be more helpful and therapeutic than others, but ultimately, “buy toys your kids like. You follow their interests.”
Based on expert recommendations, as well as those of Autism Speaks, here are some solid toy picks.
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. “They could potentially be good for tactile sensory input,” says Silverman.
Games like Don't Break the Ice encourage collaborative play, and are simply fun.
This is a strategy game where the goal is to knock out the blocks of ice. “It moves play from parallel to collaborative. The intent is to get the child playing with other people,” says Silverman.
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.
The sensory rollers are made with good-grade silicone, and help develop tactile learning and pretend play, as well as teaching cause and effect.
You get three uniquely-shaped silicone spheres that have chimes hidden inside. And the chimes make a noise when you roll the toys around. Stress balls in general are a decent choice if they have texture to them, per Silverman.
According to Autism Speaks, this molded-plastic swing is a fun way for kids to help improve their vestibular function while developing visual, spatial, perception and postural control abilities.
The baby swing grows with your child. When he’s a baby, the shoulder straps hold him in place. When she grows older, T-bar that rotates down for loading and unloading, and the shoulder straps are adjustable. The swing holds a max weight of 50 pounds. “A swing with support is good for children to help with poor core strength and to help them with conditioning,” says Silverman.
This indoor ball pit tent features six large mesh windows for visibility along with fabric doors for keeping balls inside ball pit.
Yes, they can be germ-laden, but this tent is easy to wipe down. But forget all that, because ball pits “are really engaging and make kids move around and they have to get in and out,” says Silverman. Be advised that the balls are sold separately.
This is an eight-piece puzzle and the pieces match the sound of tools when they're placed in the right opening.
Kids match the pieces with their corresponding openings, and are rewarded with realistic sounds. So, they’re encouraged to keep playing. “Sound puzzles show cause and effect. Puzzles could often be interesting to kids,” says Silverman.
The LCD screen changes colors, so it keeps your child's attention when he or she problem-solves their way through numbers, letters, phonics, typing, and music.
Plus, according to Autism Speaks, the touch-screen, QWERTY keyboard reinforces cause-and-effect learning as kids directly experience cause and effect between what they press with their fingers and what happens on the screen. The volume is on the lower side.
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. And you can fill them with liquid timers, that have the vibe of a lava lamp. They’re interesting and relaxing. Put those in the tent. And also include stress balls or sensory balls, where they have texture to them.”
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. “There’s vestibular input and it’s fun. It’s something that’s physically engaging. And they’re getting physical activity,” says Silverman.
You get a fully-loaded set ready for adventure, with more than 35 accessories including a table, plates, pots, sleeping bags, and maps.
Yes, these toys are adorable. But per Autism Speaks, they also help with imaginary play, as well as language and vocabulary development, as children tell travel their stories about camping outings. Just note that actual Calico Critter critters are sold separately.
Kids can explore the textures of their favorite animals on the farm with this book.
Silverman encourages parents to load up on books, books, and more books. “Don’t buy a kids book and have them sit with it. Interact with it. Have them hold the book, especially if the books have tactile things in them. Board books with sensory options are great,” she says.
The play kitchen features an electronic stovetop burner with working lights and sounds.
Sure, it might take you a month to put this together (we kid, we kid). But the payoff is worth it. “Imaginative and collaborative play are skills we’re wanting to enhance. So I’d say get a dollhouse, or a play kitchen,” says Silverman, which will encourage your kid to engage with you or other kids. This dream kitchen includes a chalkboard, a kitchen clock with movable hands, recycling bag, and pots and pans, utensils, dinnerware, flatware, and even a pot holder.
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