Toys for autistic kids are often known as sensory toys for autism. And while there’s no such thing as the perfect toy for kids with autism, some are better than others at firing up their imaginations and encouraging them to engage in collaborative, as opposed to parallel, play.
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. 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.”
And that’s why, says Dr. Mandi Silverman, the senior director of the Autism Center at the Child Mind Institute, “Buy toys your kids like. You follow their interests.”
The CDC defines autism 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.
Experts say you want toys that reflect what kids are interested in, just for starters. If your kid loves toy trains, embrace that caboose. Dolls? Hell yes. You want toys, like swings or ball pits, that get kids to move around and engage with their own physicality. Plus balls get kids to be more social when they throw it back and forth with another child. Dollhouses or play kitchens are fantastic at getting kids to play together and take part in pretend play. Books with sounds or textures are great for engaging kids’ senses; as for sensory toys, they do the same.
Like neurotypical kids, autistic kids learn about their world through play. They learn and practice new skills, and explore new ideas. Based on expert recommendations, here are some solid toy picks.
These flexible, colorful toys suction on to smooth surfaces and pop right off when done.
These wonderful open-ended toys encourage kids to explore and build whatever they want. They’re tactile and make a satisfying popping sound when kids remove them.
This ball pit is a fun way to stimulate all your kids' senses.
This is a great ball pit, with a ton of sensory stimulation. Translation: It’s the opposite of boring. “They are really engaging and make kids move around and they have to get in and out,” says Silverman.
This beautifully basic yet hella fun saucer helps stimulate a kid's vestibular system.
Kids two and up sit and spin on this saucer, which both helps engage the vestibular system and thus helps kids learn to handle movement.
A gorgeous, simple, and non-genderized dollhouse that will get kids to engage in collaborative play.
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.
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.
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.
Another of Fatherly's toys of the year, 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.
The sensory toy has multiple textures and chunky bumps that encourage reaching, grasping, and transferring from one hand to the other.
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. And when you’re done, pack it up in its case.
Many kids with autism need to develop their fine motor skills, so manipulative toys like WikkiStix can help.
You want to get toys that encourage children with autism to use their fingers and hands.
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. Stress balls in general are a decent choice if they have texture to them, per Silverman.
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 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.
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.
Babies and toddlers explore textures and colors with this board 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 helps kids get into collaborative play and because it looks like a real kitchen, it helps kids make sense of the adult world around them.
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.
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