Best Toys for Kids With Autism
Kids with autism are just that—kids. And they want to play! So what are the best toys for autistic kids to encourage that exploration through play? “Their toys don’t have to be fancy or special ‘learning toys.’ They simply need to be toys that your child enjoys and that are developmentally appropriate,” says Jamie Winter, PhD, a psychologist at the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in White Plains, New York. In fact, the toys commonly found in playgroups, preschools and playrooms of neurotypical toddlers are the same kinds of toys that are beneficial to children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). “Puzzles, blocks, balls, cars and books are a great place to start for all kids,” Winter says. That said, the best toys for kids with autism do have some common threads. Here, some guidelines for selecting toys for autistic children, and some suggested toys to try out.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN TOYS FOR AUTISTIC KIDS
Before you start filling you virtual shopping cart with special needs toys, know this: First and foremost, toys for children with autism need to be fun! Here’s what else to keep in mind:
• Embrace high-interest toys. Children with autism can become very interested in one thing, like trains or dinosaurs. “Sometimes parents try to stop the intensity of their child’s interest, thinking it’s a habit that needs to be broken,” says Rondalyn Varney Whitney, PhD, OTR/L, associate professor of occupational therapy at the West Virginia University School of Medicine in Morgantown. “But interest is interest, and you should go with it. Simply think about ways to use that interest to expand play and learning.”
Avoid overstimulating toys. “Many children with autism spectrum disorder become overstimulated by electronic toys with a lot of lights, sounds and moving parts,” Winter says. Playing with these can not only lead to meltdowns, but children often also focus exclusively on the toy and don’t pay any attention to other children or adults around them.
• Think beyond age-grading. Toy manufacturers age-grade their toys so parents can understand what’s age-appropriate—both from a safety and developmental standpoint. But when it comes to toys for autistic kids, as long as they don’t pose a safety hazard for your child, so what if the toy packaging reads 5+? Only you know what playthings are truly appropriate for your child’s developmental stage. “Some children with autism have intellectual disabilities—and some don’t,” Whitney says. “In fact, many have at or above intellectual ability.” Bottom line: Trust your gut and pick toys that meet your child where they are developmentally, keeping safety top of mind.
• Choose no-wrong-way-to-play toys. Toys that can be played with in a lot of different ways are among the best toys for kids with autism. “They’re especially good for children who have inconsistencies in their development,” Whitney says.
• Look for just-right sensory stimulation. Children with autism typically crave a particular sensory input. Some gravitate toward the tactile (perhaps touching certain textures is calming), while others prefer to stimulate their proprioceptive system, which is basically joints and muscles (spinning or jumping might regulate their mood). And many have various sensory needs. “Look for toys that have lots of sensory pieces that your child will enjoy,” Whitney says.
• Limit available toys. “It’s often problematic to have many toys out and available at the same time,” Winter says. “Containers with lids, cabinets or shelving to put toys away will help you teach your child to clean up and to limit distractions.”
BEST TOYS FOR AUTISTIC KIDS
Your playroom can be stocked with the very best, but to make your collection of special needs toys truly impactful, get down on the ground and play with your child. “Playing with toys with others is an important way that children with ASD can learn,” Winter says. And don’t forget: Singing songs and playing with your child without toys is fun and important too! When it comes to the best toys for autistic kids, here are some of our top picks.
Melissa & Doug Make Your Own Monster Puppet
There are literally hundreds of play possibilities with this silly monster, making it a standout toy for autistic kids. This 30-piece set comes with many interchangeable eyes, ears, mouths and more to help children start to identify facial expression, a skill deficit that often goes hand-in-hand with autism diagnosis. “When kids stick on the mouth that looks like a happy mouth, it helps them recognize what happy mouths look like in real life,” Whitney says. Plus, taking the Velcroed features on and off uses the same muscle group that’s needed to hold a pencil or button a button, bolstering fine-motor skills.
Fat Brain Toys Dimpl
Some of the very best special needs toys are really just awesome toys, no matter who’s playing with them. Take the Dimpl from Fat Brain Toys. The concept is simple: five colorful silicone bubbles for toddlers to push, pop, poke and grab. Here, autistic and neurotypical toddlers alike learn cause and effect (push this and it makes a noise), engage their fine motor skills and explore sensory stimulation. All kinds of wins!
Fisher-Price My First Thomas & Friends Railway Pals Destination Discovery
Looking for toys for autistic toddlers? Try this train set. Many children with autism adore trains: The wheels go round and round, they lend well to categorizing and train schedules make the concept of time less abstract. But more complicated tracks can cause more frustration than fun. To up the enjoyment, take your play beyond simply chuga-chuging around the tracks. “Talk to the train, tell stories about the train, build an imaginary scenes with the train,” Whitney says. “Use the trains as a stepping stone for more play.”