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. 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. Plus, it gets kids moving when they have to climb in and out.
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.
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.
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.
- Players tap out ice blocks one by one
- To win, keep Phillip the Penguin on top
- Play with 2-4 players
- Includes 2 mallets, ice tray frame, 4 ice tray legs,1 large ice block, 32 small ice blocks, Phillip the Penguin figure, and instructions
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, with a max weight limit of 50 pounds, is a fun way for kids to help improve their vestibular function while developing visual, spatial, perception and postural control abilities.
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 and learn about 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. 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. It's a winner because, says Silverman, it's physically-engaging.
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.
- Let the kids cook for you for a change! Place the pot and pan on the stove, and listen as food starts to bubble and sizzle! Realistic lights and sounds add to the pretend play fun!
- Use the included coffee pods to make a cup o' joe! Enjoy at home in a small mug or take it "on the go" in the included travel cup.
- Start a game of "restaurant" - take orders over the included play phone, then use the oven, stove and microwave to whip up whatever comes to the imagination!
- When the cooking is done, kids can clean dishes in the swivel sink! Storage bins and molded-in shelves and dish rack make organization a breeze!
- In the box: Step2 kitchen, two storage bins, five toy condiment bottles, two place settings with plates, bowls, cups, forks, knives and spoons, salt & pepper shakers, colander, pot & pan set with lids, two serving spoons, one slotted spoon, one spatula, three coffee pods, one travel coffee cup with extra lid and sleeve, and one play phone.
- Note from Step2: All Step2 kitchens come with listed accessories for no added charge.
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.
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