originally written for and published on Harkla.co
There’s a lot to consider when selecting toys for children with autism.
Children with autism can have limited language, social, and/or sensorimotor skills needed to purposely engage with toys in ways that neurotypical children do. Many of their specific interests have a sensory component that directs what gains their attention and keeps them engaged - whether it be flashing lights, repetitive music, or some kind of sensory feedback. For some children, preferred characters, colors, or themes will make the toy a must-have favorite! Each and every child is different, so consider your child’s strengths, interests, and abilities when determining which of these recommendations is best suited for him.
For ease of understanding the “why” behind some of these toys, we’ve grouped them into categories based on sensory input and skill development (social, cognitive, language, motor).
Top 10 Toys for Vestibular Input:
These toys allow for gross motor activities that target whole body movement and provide vestibular sensory input. Many of these activities combine proprioceptive and vestibular input that can have an organizing effect on the child. When choosing your vestibular toy, consider your child’s sensory profile and how they respond to different types of movement. Remember that the effects of rotary vestibular input (spinning) can be observed for up to 6-8 hours following just 15 minutes of spinning, so be sure to limit this activity and incorporate some deep pressure following spinning! For more information on vestibular processing, check out our article here.
Top 10 Toys for Tactile Input:
A tactile toy is sometimes referred to as a fidget. Fidgets are objects that aid with focus and attention by allowing the brain to filter extraneous sensory information. By keeping the hands engaged in simple, repetitive motor movements, the user is able to “tune out” what would otherwise be distracting -- lights, sounds, smells, movement, close proximity to other people. Sometimes, these distractions become too overwhelming. For children with autism, these tactile fidget tools often become “stim toys” that help them with self-regulation. Keep it simple and low cost for these small sensory toys. For more information, check out our articles on Stim Toys and also on Fidgets.
Some of our top tactile tools are fidgets, others use the sense of touch to support gross and fine motor skills.
Top 10 Toys for Visual Stimulation:
Some children with autism like to watch things spin, move, light up, and flash. These toys appeal to strong visual interests and make them instantly appealing! Here are some of our favorites:
Light up blocks
Scarves for shaking
Spin Again Toy
Top 10 Toys for Proprioception:
Proprioceptive activities provide input to the body’s muscles and joints. This sense has a calming, reorganizing effect that helps children to regulate their arousal levels. Children with autism can have difficulty with self-regulation and overstimulation, so proprioceptive toys provide for deep touch pressure and input that is much-needed!
Weighted lap pad
Weighted stuffed animal
Top 10 Toys for Oral Sensory Input:
Occupational Therapists know that integration of the mouth and the suck, swallow, breathe sequence is critical to promote regulation with children who have sensory processing dysfunction (which the majority of children with autism do). Chewing, sucking, and blowing are all motor movements that, especially when used safely in conjunction with other sensory activities, can play a key role in helping your child maintain focus, participation, and regulation. During times of transition or periods of uncertainty and anxiety, some children revert to sucking and chewing on clothing, hair, or fingers to self-soothe. Here are our favorite “toys” for oral sensory input:
Chewable Fidgets that can attach by lanyard or carabiner
Chewable pencil toppers
Bite Saber sensory chewelry
Jigglers - oral vibration
Dinosoars - oral motor toy
Alligator Eye Pops - oral motor toy
Puppy Slide whistle
Soft Chewelry necklace-style
Top 10 Toys for Auditory Sensory Input:
Repetitive, rhythmic auditory feedback can attract some kids to a specific toy. It may drive you a little nuts having to listen to the same musical sounds playing, but your child will be engaged and that’s what is most important! We’ve included a link to a book about Kids, Music, & Autism for parents to read more about including auditory input and music for teaching and playing! Also, because not every child with autism tolerates auditory sensory input, we’ve included sensory-friendly headphones and noise reduction headphones in our Top 10!
Skoog music cube
Mozart Munchkin Music Cube
Crayola - my first touch art pad
Sensory Songs for Tots (CD)
Sing, Sound, and Count with Me (CD)
Foldable music mat
Top 10 Toys for Fine Motor Development:
Fine motor skills can range from basic to more complex, given the age and development of the child. Some of the toys work on cognitive development and can be fun ways to work on imitation, design copying, building, and turn-taking. When looking at toys in terms of fine motor skills, consider how your child will manipulate the toys/pieces - using a whole hand, two hands together, or using a more refined grasp like that needed for writing. Add a bit of fun with wiggles or colors to challenge little fingers to move in new ways. It’s important to choose toys that are roughly at your child’s developmental or motor skill level so you provide a “just right challenge” that keeps him engaged while learning/playing.
Squiggle Vibrating Pen
PlusPlus - large ones
Double sided easel
Travel-sized games like Connect 4, Checkers (be mindful of small pieces though!)
Top 10 Toys for Gross Motor Skills:
Toys that challenge gross motor skills work on balance, coordination, muscle strength, endurance, motor planning, and problem solving! When kids move their bodies in new ways, their brains are learning through movement and sensory feedback. All of our favorite gross motor staples can grow with your child and be used to expand on language, social, cognitive AND motor skills!
Tunnel & Tent set
Tactile stepping stones
Sensory balance beam
Magic Moves Electric Wand
2- or 3-wheeled scooter