One of the most frequent questions I get from parents and family members of my clients is “What toys should I buy?” And in some instances, I enter a home and see very few toys because parents have not had success with introducing toys and play to their child with autism. Providing toys and opportunity to play is important because children learn very valuable and fundamental skills through play. These skills often go unlearned by kids with autism because play does not always come naturally to them.
Sensory toys (toys that activate or stimulate the senses) are great for kids with autism because they easily capture interest and often encourage growth in critical areas (such as motor skills). Below is 20 of my go-to sensory toys and activities that I use with clients. These toys and activities will promote both enjoyment and skill acquisition through play. Three features that are common among the toys here as well as any other great sensory toy are:
- Versitile. They can be used in a variety of ways.
- Interactive. There are opportunities to engage with others during play.
- Sensory-based. The main purpose is to engage at least one sensory system (i.e. seeing, hearing, etc.)
I have had success using the toys below with most clients, even kids with very limited interest or who would not play with anything other than a few of their favorite objects. But your child may or may not automatically play with these toys when placed in their rooms or play areas. If your child does not independently explore new toys, you can take steps to teach them to play with a variety of toys you have in your home. See our article “Setting Limits with Favorite Things and Activities for Kids on the Autism Spectrum”.
These recommendations assume that children have various levels of cognitive, seeing, hearing, motor, and engagement ability. If you have a hard time picturing you child engaging in the toys listed below, contact us and we can help you discover toys and activities that fit your child’s specific abilities, needs, and interests.
There are two sensory tables which I really enjoy working with. This 2-Sided Activity Table from Step2 has heavy duty plastic construction and includes a cover and an umbrella, making it great to keep outside. You can fill each side with 2 different materials (it doesn’t necessarily have to be water and sand). And the added play surfaces of the roads both in the box and on the cover add variation to play. I also like Jonti-Craft’s Sensory Table for its natural birch wood frame and the see-through acrylic tub which adds another dimension to play (and kids really like to look through the sides).
A fidget that I always keep at hand is Tangles. They are made up of linkable, twistable parts so you can link a few together when discretion is needed or you can make use of as many as you have during play activities. These Pencil Toppers are another great way to incorporate fidgets into classroom settings.
Tips: Partially complete the puzzle before your child begins to make the task easier. You can also incorporate turn-taking into completing the puzzle to make it more interactive.
I recommend this set because it is naturally made of wood and without paint. Guaranteed to be safe for children who may put things in their mouth. The blocks are large enough for young children to safely play and can also be exciting for older children to incorporate into their play. Buy multiple or larger sets for children who like to build large imaginary play scenarios.
Gross Motor Toys
This climbing net is good for people up to 150 pounds and meets ASTM safety requirements. I like this frame because it can easily be installed in a small space or be added to another play structure. It requires an additional beam for mounting the top of the net. If you are not experienced in construction, I suggest getting professional help to install this equipment. And don’t forget to place crash pads beneath the frame for safety.
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (pictured)
I recommend this set by Marble Genius. The translucent structural pieces allow you to see the marbles during their descent through the tubes, 15 glass marbles are included, and the set comes with enough pieces to build elaborate towers.
Musical instruments are beneficial and fun toys in general and they are also useful for sensory play. Other than the obvious auditory input they offer, kids also get tactile input, fine and gross motor movement, and a chance to practice coordination. Playing musical instruments is also a fun activity to practice skills such as imitation and following instructions. Encourage your kid to play along to music as well as create music on their own. Try this Melissa and Doug musical instrument set which has a good variety of types of instruments and has quality construction. I love using music from Putamayo Presents which makes albums with world music for children. I find this music to be exciting for children and it also exposes them to new forms of music from around the world.
Fingerpaint is a messy but wonderful activity. Many kids love the sticky, slimy, smearable medium. Kids get lots of tactile input from finger painting and they get to be creative by mixing colors and creating pictures. Many learning objectives can be incorporated into finger painting activities such as communicating wants and needs (telling someone when you need more paint, or a towel), imitating actions, color identification, sharing experiences, and many more. Some kids may find the feeling of fingerpaint intolerable. If your child resists using finger paint, this may be a good opportunity to work on increasing their tolerance to differing textures. Starts by painting with brushes, sponges, and other objects without asking them to touch the paint. After a few times, ask them to use their finger once or twice during the activity, and allow them to clean their hands after each time if they want. Slowly increase the amount of time or occurrences you ask them to use their fingers each time you do finger painting activities. This Crayola Finger Paint Set comes in a variety of colors and is washable.