Do you have an autistic child on your holiday or birthday-gift list? Are you struggling to figure out what type of toy he or she will enjoy? Even parents of autistic children stumble over what to do when it comes to buying toys their child will actually play with. Children with autism have very few interests, so it’s important to find out what they’re fascinated with, if possible. However, since sensory issues play a major role in autism symptoms, it’s also essential to consider any sensory problems before making the final choice.
Toys for Autistic Kids
Toys that Come Recommended by Parents of Autistic Children
If you’re the grandparent, aunt, close friend of the family, or a parent of a newly-diagnosed autistic child, finding good ideas can be as easy as asking. Parents are more than happy to tell you what their child wants. Listen to them, even if what they ask you to buy sounds odd.
While you can generally be safe with typical childhood toys like Legos and building blocks, bubbles, paints and markers, homemade cloth books, or bath toys, you still need to focus on the child’s special interests and keep their autism symptoms and quirks in mind. Board games, for example, might not be as acceptable to autistic kids since they require social interaction, cooperation, taking turns, and most of the time losing.
The following toys come highly recommended by many parents of autistic children:
Little Tikes Easy Score Basketball Set: This durable basketball hoop, backboard, and soft 6-inch ball makes a nice gift for a younger child. It’s portable, can be used outside, and adjusts from 2-1/2 feet to 4 feet to match the toddler’s height and experience. The downside is that it doesn’t have a break-away rim, and you need to fill the base with sand to keep it from toppling over. Also, when assembling, make sure you push the rim far enough back into the slot so it is even with the back of the backboard, or it will fall off. When assembled properly, you’ll hear it “snap" into place.
Foam Tabletop Unit Blocks: This 68-piece block set is made of machine-washable, soft foam rubber, but looks like the traditional, colorful small wooden blocks that many typical children busy themselves with for hours. They are about 1-5/8 inches by 3-1/8 inches – just the right size for a small child’s hand – and come with a plastic tote for easy storage. These blocks are indestructible. They won’t rip apart, even when chewed on. Unlike regular wooden blocks, they are quiet, and can be stacked quite high. The child can also throw them without hurting anyone. Blocks are a great idea for children with stimming urges like lining toys up in a row.
Crayola Magnetic Double Easel: This plastic, sturdy 43-inch easel with rounded edges is double-sided. One side is magnetized for magnetic letters and numbers, and set up for erasable-marker art projects as well. The other side is a regular chalkboard. Both sides have a built-in clip to hold paper, four detachable storage bins, and an eraser. Assembly is quick: just snap the arms into the plastic pegs. For easy storage, the arms lift so the easel folds back down flat. Art supplies are not included so make sure you have supplies on hand. Also, when assembling, reach behind, and inside, the easel to snap on the storage bins. They don’t just sit in place. If you don’t snap them down, they will fall off.
Sensory Toy Companies
Almost all autistic children have one or more sensory integration problems. Getting those issues under control helps improve behaviors. While some children suffer from overstimulation and sensory overload, others need additional input. When looking for toys, always keep the child’s sensory needs in mind.
Sensory Interventions: This online company focuses on sensory integration toys that therapists and parents can both use. Therapy time doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, Sensory Interventions believes therapy should be fun, as well as improve developmental problems. A few of the toys they offer are:
- kids’ floor puzzles
- lacing activities
- chew sticks and chewlery (necklaces/bracelets)
- tunnel tents and parachutes
- visual perception toys
- bath and water toys
- patterns and matching games
- balance toys
- fidgets and stress-relief toys
- tactile toys like finger painting and tub crayons
- geometric puzzle boards
SenseToys: SenseToys is another online company that specializes in sensory and educational toys, Montessori supplies, and other intervention activities that increase social interaction and communication skills. They have a newsletter, a clearance sale area, an Editor’s Choice pick, and a list of top sellers like their:
- Animal Shape Sorter
- Latches Board
- Green Knobby Chewy Tube
- Toilet Time Resource Pack
The Sensory University Toy Company: This company is run by Peach State Pediatric Therapy, Inc. Initially it focused on special needs toys and products for the children treated in their facility, but today it has grown to include a wide range of educational and pediatric products. These products include the development of strength, gross motor abilities, cardiovascular fitness, and help for sensory issues. A few examples are:
- hand exercisers
- chewy charm necklaces and biting sticks
- physics kits
- hydroponic sensory sand
- vibrating pillows
- sensory stuffed bears
- sandscapes sensory scenes
- original Big Wheel with a hand brake
- puffer balls
- balance boards
Sensory toys can help introduce children with disorders like tactile defensiveness to the disagreeable sensations of touch in a less threatening way. They allow kids to explore those sensations at their own pace. They can also offer extra visual and audio stimulation, as well as help kids with the need to stim find more appropriate outlets to relieve their stress. Also check Sensory Toy Warehouse.
Autism Toys and Games Lists for Additional Help
In addition to parental recommendations and sensory toys, many autism organizations and toy manufacturers offer specialized lists to help parents and other relatives and friends purchase toys for autistic children.
Autism Speaks Toys & Games List: Autism Speaks, founded by Bob and Suzanne Wright in 2005, the grandparents of an autistic child, is best known for its autism advocacy, awareness, and fund-raising activities. In the Research Library section of their website they have a listing of 25 companies that offer toys and games, computer learning tools, therapy aids, GFCF-safe (gluten-free, casein-free) art supplies, toy storage solutions, a video game that teaches autistic children piano, and a web browser specially designed for children with autism, plus more.
Able Play: The National Lekotek Center is a nonprofit organization that evaluates toys used during therapy sessions to improve delayed development or sensory issues of children with physical or mental disabilities. They seek out exceptional quality and use a very specific criteria when evaluating toys. Able Play has a listing of the top 10 newest products independently evaluated by the NLC.
Toys"R"Us: When Charles Lazarus was alerted by customers and store employees to the challenges and difficulties of buying toys for special needs children, he launched the Toys"R"Us Toy Guide for Differently-Abled Kids in 1994 to help parents find suitable toys for their child’s ability. This guide is distributed annually in September, and can be found in Toys"R"Us or Babies"R"Us stores. Toys"R"Us also provides an online list of the top Ten Toys That Speak to Autism.
Know What the Child Loves
The easiest way to buy toys for autistic children is to ask their parents what their special interests are, if you don’t already know. However, that is not always possible. By using recommendations from other parents, sensory toy companies, and autism toys and games lists, you can more easily find a great holiday or birthday gift idea that the autistic child will play with and love.