What are the Best Toys for an Autistic Child?
The best toys for autistic children are sensory toys. Because children with autism often have difficulty with their senses, sensory toys are in fact extra helpful. Sensory toys engage the senses: what you see, hear, taste, touch, smell, but also how you move your body and head and even how you feel “inside”. That is because there are eight senses. There are many autism sensory products, sensory tools, and sensory toys available. Remember that every child is different and will have different sensory preferences (things they like and dislike). But you can use sensory toys to be extra engaging for learning and play.
Let’s go through the senses and describe an example of a sensory toy for each.
- Visual (vision, see, sight, eyes): Something with lights, lights that turn on or off or change color. A toy with a moving part that you can watch, like a bubble tube.
- Auditory (hear, ears): Something that makes a sound or different sounds, like a music box. Find one that plays a favorite tune or song.
- Olfactory (smell, nose): Something that has a smell (usually a pleasant smell), like scented stickers or markers.
- Tactile (touch, feel, skin): Something interesting to feel, different things to touch, such as a stuffed animal made out of different materials.
- Gustatory (taste, mouth): something that goes in the mouth like a chewy toy. Also something with taste, so even exploring food can be a sensory “tool”.
- Vestibular (balance, head movement, inner ear): something that makes you move your head in space, like an indoor swing.
- Proprioception (muscles, joints, body movement, move in space); something that encourages you to move, like a mini-trampoline.
- Interoception (breathe, hunger, thirst, toilet, internal organs): Something that helps you connect with your inner body, like a yoga mat or yoga video or yoga book. Doing yoga helps you connect with your inner body.
The Best Sensory Toys for Autism
Autistic children derive extra benefit from sensory toys, sensory tools, or sensory products. That is because they can be part of a calming sensory activity or an alerting sensory activity when senses are a problem in autism.
Calming sensory activities are used for autistic children. In particular, children who experience hypersensitivity or who over-respond to sensory input. An example of a calming sensory activity using a sensory toy might be slow rocking in a rocking chair or watching a bubble tube. Children with autism also are prone to anxiety. Sensory toys that calm are helpful.
Alerting sensory activities are also used for autistic children. Specifically, for those who experience hyposensitivity or who under-respond to sensory input. An example of an alerting sensory activity is jumping on a mini-trampoline listening to music. Autistic toys or autism toys are toys that are most often used to address sensory disorders in autism.
You might have also heard or seen a sensory walk or sensory wall. That is a series of sensory toys, which often engage many of the senses along a walk or a walk for a child to explore and play with. A sensory walk or a sensory wall can be indoors or outdoors. It can involve a few senses or all the senses. Furthermore, it can be something permanent or something temporary or something you create differently every time.
What are Fidget Toys?
One of the most common sensory products or sensory tools is a fidget toy. Essentially, a fidget toy is a small toy, that fits in one hand and that you can “fidget” with. Fidget means to make small movements with the hands. Fidget toys are popular for children with autism. Furthermore, fidget toys can also combine more than one sense even though they are handheld, they can combine what a child feels, holds (movement), hears, sees, and even smells. Thus fidget toys are sensory toys. Finally, fidget toys can help a child with autism stay calm or be focused on learning.
A common DIY fidget toy or do-it-yourself fidget toy is to fill a balloon with flour or cornstarch and tie the end. It makes a squishy, fun toy. Of note is that it is also quiet and inexpensive! Children, including children with autism, will enjoy making their own fidget toys like this.
One of the most commonly purchased fidget toys in recent times is a fidget spinner. It involves the senses of vision (watch it spin), proprioception or movement (make it spin), and even sound (hear it spin, although this may not be loud).
Did you know that there are adult fidget toys too? Adults also things other than toys to fidget. Adults might jiggle coins or keys in a pocket. Hold a pen or pencil and move it around in their hands.
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Christel Seeberger worked as an occupational therapist for more than 25 years helping people with sensory sensitivity who experience sensory overload. Christel has sensory sensitivity herself; she has hearing loss and wears hearing aids. She founded Sensory Friendly Solutions in 2016. Sensory Friendly Solutions brings together people around the world looking for sensory friendly living and businesses and organizations who offer sensory friendly experiences.