Raising children is hard. Raising children with autism involves an entirely new set of challenges on top of the usual ones! These little ones need much more specialized care and when it comes to playtime, social interaction, and choosing toys, there are many factors that need to be considered. The individual child’s likes and dislikes are what are most important though!
We know you want to buy quality toys that your autistic child will enjoy, but where do you start? There are so many options out there! To help make things a bit easier, we’ve scoured the internet, read all the reviews, and compiled this list of amazing toys that are well suited for children with autism.
In a Hurry? Here’s Our Top Picks…
1. Melissa and Doug Sound Puzzle
The reward of an auditory response is a great way to reinforce learning for children with autism! Vehicles like airplanes, motorcycles, and fire trucks make zooming, revving, and siren sounds when placed in their proper spots. All of these sounds are realistic and quite loud too, and easy for little ones to mimic. Each piece is realistically drawn, brightly colored, and has a peg that makes it easier for small hands to grasp. The wooden construction of the set makes it extra durable.
Most sound-making toys require batteries and this puzzle is no exception. Malfunctions happen occasionally if the batteries are dying and you may hear random vehicle noises coming from the puzzle. Also, sounds are triggered simply by touching the mechanism, not actually by fitting the correct piece on top of it. This means your child may learn that simply touching the spot with different objects will make the desired sound effect, instead of learning to fit the pieces into their specifically-shaped spots.
- Loud, realistic sounds
- Wooden construction makes it durable
- Helps with problem-solving and improves memory
- Sounds can be easily triggered by other objects
- Children lose puzzle pieces easily
2. Hopper Ball
If you’re looking for a safer, smaller alternative to a trampoline, hopper balls are the answer. They take up far less space, can only accommodate one user at a time, and cost considerably less! In essence, these are therapy balls with handles, which make them easier for autistic children to navigate as they bounce. Simply hopping around on this bouncy beauty will help improve coordination, balance, and muscle tone. As crazy as it seems, these bouncers can also help children to focus better.
On the downside, the sound of a constantly bouncing ball can be rather annoying for parents! Creating an outdoor obstacle course is one way to avoid the sound ringing through your house, but be sure to wipe down or otherwise clean the ball before you bring it back in. It can also be a challenge to keep the ball properly inflated. This one comes with its own pump, thank goodness, but others may not.
- Good for indoor or outdoor use
- Available in many sizes for users of varying ages and weights
- Doesn’t hold air as long as it should
- Handle is flimsy
3. Squigz Suction Cup Toys
Who doesn’t love playing with brightly colored suction cups? These super fun construction toys will stick to any flat surface and to each other, making a loud POP sound when pulled apart. They’re safe to play with when your child is in the usual play spaces such as classrooms and playrooms, and even in the bathtub! Cleanup is easy since they can safely be put through the dishwasher.
Not only are they convenient and cool to play with, but they are also wonderful tools for sensory stimulation. Autistic children can indulge in playtime while also strengthening their hand-eye coordination, motor skills, and concentration abilities. It’s important to encourage children with autism to engage in social interactive play and Squigz are especially good toys for group play and teamwork.
These aren’t toys that small children should be given, however, as there are small pieces in the set that are choking hazards. As there are 75 pieces in this particular set, keeping track of all of them can be tricky for both parents and kids. Although the set does come with a bag to contain all the pieces, it’s not a very large or sturdy bag, so alternative storage is recommended.
- Offers great sensory stimulation
- Dishwasher safe for easy cleaning
- Encourages cooperation during group play
- Not suitable for small children
- Storage bag not very sturdy
4. Pencil Nose Game
Although it can be difficult for children with autism to play board games (learning to take turns, understanding the rules, and battling their short attention spans is tough!), it’s still a great way to engage them with family and friends. This hilarious game involves wearing a pair of glasses that have a dry erase marker attached near the nose area. You use the marker to draw pictures on a special drawing board. Imagination, communication, and concentration are important aspects of this game, making it a good choice for entertaining and engaging your autistic child.
If you or your child already wear glasses, this game may not be for you. The glasses included in the game box do not fit well overtop of regular spectacles. The 30-second timer often doesn’t give enough time to finish the drawing, so using an alternate timer for a longer period is recommended. Also, many of the cards suggest words/items that are difficult to draw even for the brightest children, so coming up with your own suggestions might be a better idea.
- Easy to get the whole family or a group of friends involved
- Strengthens communication and concentration abilities
- The game’s glasses won’t fit over a child’s pair of regular glasses
- Many cards/ideas may be too hard for kids to draw
5. Play Foam
Just like making sandcastles or mudpies, this colorful foam is so much fun for kids to mold and form into cool shapes – and it doesn’t require a trip to the beach! Whether playing indoors or outside, kids can squish, squash, sculpt, and shape the foam in all sorts of fun ways! All kids love this stuff, but Playfoam is especially good for children with autism as it is a unique sensory learning tool that encourages tactile exploration, creative play, and artistic expression.
It’s important to provide autistic children with opportunities that engage both their hands and mind, and Playfoam does just that. No need to worry about cleanup or having it sit out for too long – the foam never dries up, doesn’t stick to surfaces, and is easily portable for playtime on-the-go.
Although it doesn’t stick, the tiny balls that make up the Playfoam do tend to get left behind! And while it is non-toxic, the balls are small enough that particularly curious small children might put them in places they shouldn’t go – like up nostrils, ears, or even mouths – so proceed with caution.
The packaging says it’s not safe for children under three years old and consumers have said it’s best for those over the age of five. Also, when it’s first taken out of its packaging, the Playfoam can be quite smelly, and this is definitely not good for sensitive autistic children!
- Fantastic opportunity for creative play
- Comes in 8 fun colors
- Doesn’t leave a residue or stick to surfaces
- Tiny pieces are dangerous for small children
- Has a stinky smell when first opened
6. Lego Kits
Lego is basically everyone’s favorite toy. They come in crazy fun colors, have unending construction options, are easily portable, can be played with either indoors or outdoors, and have universal appeal for both boys and girls – and adults! Since the kits can be assembled, disassembled, and reassembled for infinity, the entertainment is virtually unending.
This particular kit contains 230 pieces for making a shark (with a moving mouth!), a crab, and a treasure chest – all of which can be redistributed to create a giant anglerfish or squid! Lego play is proven to help develop fine motor skills, improve socialization and cooperative play, exercise problem-solving abilities, enhance communication, and provide an incredible sense of pride and better self-esteem.
Be careful because Lego is recommended only for kids ages 7 and up. Duplo is great for younger kids, but the youngsters are often drawn to their older sibling’s Lego sets, so make sure you know where all the pieces are. Although the box for this set may imply that all the sea creatures can be constructed simultaneously, kids might be disappointed to learn they can only make one at a time.
- Can be reused and reconstructed many times
- Great for independent or cooperative play
- Pieces are easily lost
- Can only build one sea creature at a time
Playtime is important for all children, but for autistic children, in particular, it can be so much more than just “downtime.” It’s a golden opportunity to help them learn, observe, and interact in non-threatening ways. One Australian parenting site put it well: little ones with autism often have difficulty copying simple actions, exploring new environments, sharing objects with others, taking turns, and responding to others – but all of these can be overcome with some patience and playtime!
Courtney and Phil have lots to say about playtime for autistic children. In this video, they discuss tips for playing with your kids, so that you can engage with them in non-threatening ways to foster a stronger relationship. In yet another video, the couple discusses why playtime is so important for autistic kids.
The Raising Children website explains that exploratory play, cause-and-effect play, toy/functional play, constructive play, pretend play, and physical play is all ways to help autistic children learn and navigate the world around them. Taking the time to understand these different types of play can help you to truly understand and help your child learn through and enjoy playtime.
Exploratory Play happens when your child is inspecting or exploring certain toys instead of playing with them. This can easily be encouraged and modeled by parents and caregivers.
This type of play occurs when your child interacts with toys that require an action to produce a result, such as a jack-in-the-box. This will encourage them to explore the concept of actions and effects in the greater world around them, and these situations offer opportunities for your child to learn to ask for help.
Toy or Functional Play
Functional Play happens when your child learns to play with a certain toy as it was intended, like putting a toy phone to their ear. This type of play usually requires someone else to show them how to do it and is best accompanied by praise and rewards when the desired outcomes are achieved.
This type of play happens when your little one builds or makes things, like Lego sets or jigsaw puzzles. It might require some parental instruction or examples, but sometimes just looking at a picture is enough.
Physical Play involves running or other physical activities that exercise the body and helps to develop gross motor skills.
Pretend Play is an opportunity for children to use their imaginations, like when they pretend to feed a doll or drive a car. Role-playing is a great way for parents and caregivers to get involved in the child’s pretend play by encouraging them to act out their favorite stories, etc.
Understanding Toys for Autistic Children
Now that you know about the different ways autistic children play and learn, turning your head towards purchasing appropriate toys is the next step.
Perhaps even more than with average children, choosing quality over quantity is important when buying toys for your autistic child. Most kids play with a handful of toys more than all their others, and your autistic child is even more likely to become extremely attached to a few special items. This means that your money is best spent on toys made from durable, quality materials so that you won’t have to replace them in only a few months. Look for things that will engage your child’s imagination, develop sensory-motor skills, improve language skills, and enhance their problem-solving abilities. A toy is worth a high price tag if it offers any combination of these opportunities!
The toys you bring home for your autistic child should stimulate their senses in some way. Playtime is a great opportunity to introduce a sensory-challenged child with new sensations since it’s a non-threatening environment. Introducing toys with different bumps, cloths, fur, foil, ridges, etc., offer new tactile sensations that your child might balk at if he or she encounters it somewhere else. Board books with touch-and-feel pages are good for this, as are musical toys and fidget cube-type toys.
Toys That Encourage Social Behavior
Little ones with autism often find it difficult to interact with others of their age group and it falls upon the parents to encourage as much social interaction as possible. This means that providing toys that offer opportunities for social play are important. Toys like Lego and other building blocks, craft kits, child-sized kitchen sets, and dress-up sets like doctor outfits and carpenter belts are all great for group play.
Card and board games are wonderful for bringing families and friends together and the selection is virtually endless. There are old classics like Candyland, which is great for practicing turn-taking, and Battleship, which encourages strategy and patience. Jenga and Animal on Animal are fun ways to practice patience and caution while also improving hand-eye coordination. Guess Who is a cute way to practice verbal skills, and Sequence (the kids’ version) requires visual matching and forward-thinking. For older kids, Ticket To Ride is an easy-to-learn option that involves strategy and offers feelings of great satisfaction when individual train routes are completed.
Terri Matthews hosts a fantastic YouTube channel devoted to “all things autism.” She has reviewed several games suitable for autistic children and two favorites are Bunny Bedtime and Spot It. These two games provide wonderful opportunities for your child to play, learn and bond with family members in the comfort of their own home!
Toys That Develop Fine Motor and Organization Skills
Toys that help develop fine motor skills are also handy. Lace-up cards or games, bead mazes, wooden pattern blocks, Lego, magnetic puzzles, and shape sorters are all great options if you’re looking to improve your autistic child’s motor skills. Organizational skills should also be encouraged, and toys like building blocks, floor puzzles, dollhouses, and games like Scrabble and Chess are perfect for this.
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and autism are often linked, and a study by the Mayo Clinic shows that being in motion engages the brains of autistic kids and those with SPD even more than when they’re sitting still. Occupational therapist Diana Henry agrees with this finding. “There is a neurological pathway that goes from your body’s balance and movement system to your alert system in your brain. Movement actually allows for alertness and attention,” she says. The means that keeping your child’s body busy is important for keeping their mind busy and focused too.
All of this may seem daunting – like it will be impossible to choose the right toys to suit the needs of your autistic child. If you understand where your child falls on the autism spectrum, what their likes and dislikes are, and what makes him or her feel most comfortable, choosing appropriate toys should not be difficult at all! Doing the research is important, but knowing in your heart what will make your child happy is what will guide you to the right products.
The 5 Best Brands
- Fat Brain Toys: What was once a basement-based operation in Nebraska has become a seller of more than 7500 toys, games, and gifts. Fat Brain Toys has a collection of their own original toys that they sell alongside toys from other manufacturers. Ordering from Fat Brain Toys online is easy, and their products are also sold at premier locations such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Barnes and Noble, and the Smithsonian.
- Melissa and Doug: Yes, Melissa and Doug are a real couple! They were business partners first, in 1988, and became partners in marriage a few years later. They started out making wooden puzzles and now have a variety of products that enables them to compete with giants in the industry like Mattel and Lego.
- Alex: There are eight very recognizable names that encompass Alex Brands, including Slinky and Backyard Safari. It was founded in 1986 and now has an estimated yearly revenue of $14 million. Besides making quality toys and games for kids of all ages, Alex also works with community partners like Toys For Tots and the Community Food Bank of New Jersey in an effort to make “play possible for all.”
- Vtech: Established in 1967, Vtech manufactures and distributes consumer electronics around the world. Their headquarters is in Hong Kong, there’s a manufacturing facility in mainland China, and there are employees and operations in 13 other countries, including Canada and the U.S. As of September 2018, Vtech was worth HK$22.7.
- Fisher-Price: Herm Fisher joined forces with Irving Price back in 1931 to create Dr. Doodle and Granny Doodle, two adorable duck toys. Since then Fisher-Price has become a household name that provides quality, recognizable toys like Power Wheels, Little People, and Thomas & Friends. Fisher Price’s goal is to “keep enriching the lives of young families,” and to “keep bringing joy to generations.”
Q. Where can I buy toys for my autistic child?
A. The easiest place to purchase these toys is going to be online, specifically through Amazon. It’s recommended that you read many reviews before making a purchase so that you know the specific toy you’re considering will be good for your autistic child and his or her specific needs. Besides Amazon or going to the specific toymaker’s website, most recommended toys for children with autism can be found at Walmart, Target, Barnes and Noble, or Kohls. Independent local toy stores also offer an incredible selection of top-quality toys for all ages.
Q. How can I encourage my autistic child to play with his or her toys?
A. There are many different ways to encourage play. Active For Life published a guest post by behavior analyst Lauren Keating that has some great advice on this topic. Keating says that making the unknown more familiar is a good step. This might mean showing your child pictures or instructional videos of how to build their new Lego set. You can also incorporate favorites into any activity, like pretending their new doll goes on adventures like Dora the Explorer (if Dora is their favorite character).
Celebrating small successes and building on them is important, such as rewarding them for playing a card game with you so that they will be more likely to play the game with other friends and family. Also, remember that if things don’t go well the first time, try again! Your child may not like the texture of Play-Doh at first, but if they see their parents or friends playing with it and receive gentle encouragement, they may slowly learn to enjoy playing with it.
Q. What are some toys for autistic teenagers?
A. There are some great options out there for teens with autism! Lego sets are always a great idea, especially since they come in specialized sets for different age groups and have different difficulty levels. Board games or card games (like Color Smash, Kanoodle, or more complicated strategy games like Dominion or Splendor) are always a fun option, especially when you’re trying to encourage social play. A Perplexus puzzle ball is visually appealing and offers a good challenge. A Pin Art set is a great way to encourage their artistic side while also exercising patience.
Q. What are some good birthday gift ideas for kids with autism?
Any of the toys mentioned in this article make great birthday gifts! Sensory Sox are fun for children still developing body awareness. A Monkey Balance Board is a colorful, fun gift for tykes that helps improve balance and coordination. A set of quality headphones like these also make a great gift, or maybe a weighted blanket to help with anxiety issues.
There are many factors that go into choosing the right toys for children with autism. However, as a concerned parent or loved one who understands how they play, why they play, and what types of play that you should encourage, the field of options becomes narrower. When you then consider the personal likes and dislikes of your little loved one, the choices become clearer still.
Don’t feel that you have to get your autistic child the newest and greatest toy on the market. Of all the toys listed above, Lego is the most timeless and cost-effective toy available for autistic children. There are countless different sets and kits available for purchase, from simple sea creatures to Star Wars ships.
For toddlers sand smaller children, you can always purchase the larger Duplo blocks instead. Some Lego is designed specifically for young boys, while the Friends Lego sets were created specifically for little girls. There are simple building instructions, such as for a house (like this one), and there are sets with many more steps that requires much more patience, like making the Taj Mahal! And, of course, a simple box of assorted Lego in different shapes and sizes (like this) can keep children busy for hours.
So there you have it. Lego for the win! We hope you enjoyed our article covering the best toys for children with autism!