Best Sensory Toys for Autism

Calming Solutions and Fun Activities for All Ages

Why are we talking about autism and sensory toys? It’s because autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental condition that affects how a person perceives and interacts with the world around them. In fact, one of the core challenges of autism can be sensory processing difficulties. This means that individuals with ASD may experience sensory input – sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, and even internal sensations – in a more intense or overwhelming way than others.

Understanding the Prevalence of Autism

Autism is more prevalent than you might think. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 1 in 36 children in the United States are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. As a result, that translates to roughly 2.3% of all children. In fact, this number has been steadily increasing in recent years, with more awareness and improved diagnostic tools playing a role. However, it’s important to remember that autism can manifest in a wide range of ways, and there is no single “profile” of an autistic person.

Creating a More Inclusive World

By providing sensory-friendly options and incorporating autism-friendly toys, businesses and organizations can create a more welcoming and inclusive environment for everyone. Imagine a child on the spectrum who can finally enjoy a trip to the museum because there’s a designated quiet space to escape overwhelming noise. Or an employee with autism who feels more focused and productive thanks to a calming sensory area in the workplace. These are just a few examples of the positive impact sensory-friendly practices can have.

Beyond Autism: Sensory Sensitivities for Everyone

It’s important to remember that sensory sensitivities are not exclusive to autism. For instance, people with ADHD, PTSD, and other conditions may also experience challenges with processing sensory information. Additionally, sensory sensitivities can be temporary, arising from conditions like concussion or migraines. Therefore, by creating sensory-friendly spaces and offering a variety of sensory toys, we can create a more inclusive world for everyone, regardless of neurotype or diagnosis.

Child's hands playing with sensory friendly toy.

A World of Options: Exploring Different Types of Sensory Toys

While the term “sensory toys” often conjures images of brightly colored gadgets for children, the reality is far more diverse. In fact, there’s a sensory toy out there for everyone, regardless of age or neurotype. So, let’s delve into some popular categories that you might see or hear and explain each one:

Toys for Autistic Adults:

Many adults on the spectrum find comfort and focus through sensory stimulation. Fidget spinners, noise-canceling headphones, chewy necklaces, and calming weighted lap pads are all fantastic options. Moreover, fidget spinners provide a discreet outlet for restless hands, while noise-canceling headphones can be a game-changer in noisy environments. In addtion, chewy necklaces offer safe sensory input for those who crave oral stimulation, and weighted lap pads can provide a calming sense of deep pressure.

Weighted Toys for Autism:

Weighted toys, such as lap pads, stuffed animals, and blankets, provide a gentle pressure that can be incredibly calming for individuals with autism. The deep pressure stimulation can help regulate the nervous system, promoting feelings of relaxation and focus. As well, for children who struggle to fall asleep, a weighted blanket can be a lifesaver, creating a sense of security and comfort.

Tactile Toys for Autism:

These toys focus on stimulating the sense of touch. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and textures, providing a range of sensory experiences. Think squishy stress balls, textured chewable necklaces, soft plush toys, and fidget spinners with bumpy surfaces. Tactile toys can be a source of comfort and self-regulation, helping to reduce anxiety and improve focus.

Sensory Room Toys:

Sensory rooms are dedicated spaces designed to provide a calming or stimulating environment for individuals with sensory processing difficulties. These rooms often contain a variety of sensory toys, including fiber optic lamps, bubble tubes, noise-canceling headphones, beanbag chairs, and crash mats. Visual and auditory stimulation from fiber optic lamps and bubble tubes can be mesmerizing, while noise-canceling headphones provide a quiet escape. Beanbag chairs and crash mats offer proprioceptive input and a safe space for movement.

Sensory Toys for Adults with Autism:

As mentioned earlier, sensory toys are not just for children. Adults with autism can benefit greatly from these tools. Calming chews, fidget rings, aromatherapy diffusers, and weighted lap pads are all fantastic options for managing stress and anxiety in everyday situations. Calming chews provide a safe outlet for those who crave oral stimulation, while fidget rings offer a discreet way to keep hands occupied. Aromatherapy diffusers with calming scents like lavender or chamomile can create a relaxing atmosphere, and weighted lap pads can provide a sense of security and focus.

Person playing with sensory friendly toy.

Calming Toys for Autism:

When someone is experiencing sensory overload, calming toys can be a lifesaver. These toys provide soothing sensory input that can help regulate the nervous system and promote feelings of relaxation. Think weighted blankets, noise-canceling headphones, squishy stress balls, and calming visual aids like lava lamps or aquariums. Weighted blankets offer deep pressure stimulation, while noise-canceling headphones block out overwhelming sounds. Squishy stress balls provide a way to release tension, and calming visual aids can be mesmerizing and promote relaxation.

Sensory Toys for Autistic Children:

Children on the autism spectrum can experience a wide range of sensory sensitivities. Sensory toys can provide a valuable tool for managing these sensitivities and promoting self-regulation. Popular options include fidget spinners, chewable necklaces, textured play dough, noise-canceling headphones, and calming stuffed animals. Fidget spinners and chewable necklaces offer safe sensory input, while textured play dough provides a fun and engaging way to explore touch. Noise-canceling headphones can be a lifesaver in noisy environments, and calming stuffed animals can offer a sense of security and comfort.

Visual Toys for Autism:

Some children with autism thrive on visual stimulation. Visual toys can help them focus, engage their senses, and promote relaxation. Think fiber optic lamps, kaleidoscopes, colorful mobiles, and sensory bottles. Fiber optic lamps and sensory bottles create a mesmerizing display of light and movement, while kaleidoscopes provide a fun and engaging way to explore visual patterns. Colorful mobiles can be visually stimulating and calming at the same time.

Autism-Friendly Toys:

When it comes to sensory toys, variety is key! The term “autism-friendly toys” encompasses any toy that is designed to be safe, stimulating, and caters to a wide range of sensory preferences. These toys can provide a fun and engaging way to explore the eight senses, promoting self-regulation and imaginative play.

Children playing with sensory blocks at sensory processing therapy.

Engaging All Eight Senses: A Guide to Sensory Toys

Here’s a breakdown of sensory toy options for each sense:

1. Visual (Sight):

  • Lights and Colors: Toys with lights, color-changing features, or moving parts can be visually captivating. For example, fiber optic lamps, lava lamps, colorful mobiles, kaleidoscopes, and sensory bottles filled with water, glitter, and colorful objects.
  • Visual Tracking: Toys that encourage visual tracking, like those with rolling balls or spinning elements, can be visually stimulating and aid in focus.

2. Auditory (Hearing):

  • Music and Melodies: Music boxes that play calming tunes or favorite songs can be soothing. For some, upbeat music with a strong rhythm can be stimulating and aid in focus.
  • Noise Reduction: Noise-canceling headphones can be a lifesaver in overwhelming environments.

3. Olfactory (Smell):

  • Pleasant Scents: Aromatherapy diffusers with calming scents like lavender or chamomile can create a relaxing atmosphere. In addition, scented play dough can be a fun way to explore smell for children.
  • Natural Scents: For some individuals, natural scents like fresh flowers or essential oils can be grounding and calming.

4. Tactile (Touch):

  • Textured Surfaces: Toys with a variety of textures, such as bumpy, smooth, or soft surfaces, can provide interesting tactile input. For instance, squishy stress balls, textured chewable necklaces, soft plush toys, fidget spinners with bumpy surfaces, and play dough.
  • Oral Stimulation: Chewy toys made from safe materials can provide a safe outlet for those who crave oral stimulation.
  • “Tactile Toys: Therapy for Tactile Dysfunctions” by Karen Hong (2018) found that tactile input effectively helps to calm children and regulate the senses 1

5. Gustatory (Taste):

  • Chewy Options: Chewy toys made from safe materials can be calming for some individuals.
  • Exploring Food: For young children, exploring different textures and tastes of food under adult supervision can be a fun and engaging sensory experience.

6. Vestibular (Balance):

  • Swinging and Swaying: Indoor swings, rocking chairs, and balance balls can provide vestibular input, which can be calming or stimulating depending on the individual.

7. Proprioception (Body Awareness and Movement):

  • Movement and Activity: Toys that encourage movement, such as mini-trampolines, therapy putty, or beanbag chairs, can provide proprioceptive input and help regulate body awareness.

8. Interoception (Internal Awareness):

  • Mind-Body Activities: Yoga mats, mindfulness exercises, and deep breathing techniques can help individuals connect with their internal sensations and promote feelings of calm.

Remember: When choosing sensory toys, it’s important to consider individual preferences. Some may find bright lights and loud noises overstimulating, while others may crave these types of sensory input. Critically, the key is to offer a variety of options and allow individuals to explore what works best for them.

Young boy and adult playing with sensory friendly toy.

Sensory Superpowers: Alerting, Calming, and Focusing Toys for Autism

Sensory toys are more than just fun and games for autistic children. They can be powerful tools for managing sensory challenges and promoting self-regulation. The key lies in understanding the difference between alerting, calming, and focusing toys, and how each type can benefit the child.

Calming the Chaos: Tools for Sensory Overload

Many autistic children experience hypersensitivity, meaning they find certain sights, sounds, smells, or touches overwhelming. This can lead to meltdowns, anxiety, and difficulty focusing. Calming sensory toys provide soothing sensory input that can help regulate the nervous system and promote feelings of relaxation.

  • Weighted Blankets and Lap Pads: Deep pressure stimulation from weighted blankets or lap pads can be incredibly comforting for children experiencing sensory overload.
  • Fidget Spinners and Chewy Necklaces: These discreet tools provide calming sensory input for hands and mouths, respectively.
  • Visual Aids: Fiber optic lamps, lava lamps, and calming aquariums can create a mesmerizing and peaceful visual experience.
  • Noise-Canceling Headphones: These can be a lifesaver in noisy environments, providing a quiet escape for overwhelmed senses.

Revving Up the Engine: Alerting Activities for Sensory Seekers

Some autistic children experience hyposensitivity, meaning they crave more sensory input to feel engaged and alert. As a result, alerting sensory activities can help them focus and regulate their energy levels.

  • Mini-Trampolines and Therapy Balls: These tools provide proprioceptive input, which helps children feel grounded and aware of their bodies in space.
  • Fidget Toys with Vibration: Fidget spinners or other tools with a vibrating function can provide a stimulating sensory experience.
  • Brightly Colored Mobiles and Play Silks: Visual stimulation from brightly colored objects can be alerting and engaging for some children.
  • Musical Instruments: Playing drums, tambourines, or other instruments can be a fun and stimulating way for children to explore sound.

Finding Focus: Sensory Tools for Concentration

Sometimes, the challenge lies not in over- or under-stimulation, but in difficulty focusing. In fact, sensory toys can also be helpful in promoting concentration and reducing distractions.

  • Fidget Toys with Tactile Textures: Fidget spinners, squishy stress balls, and textured chewable necklaces can provide calming sensory input for hands and mouths, helping children focus on the task at hand.
  • Noise-Canceling Headphones (used strategically): While these can be helpful for calming overload, in some cases, using noise-canceling headphones strategically can help block out distractions and improve focus.
  • Timers and Visual Schedules: Providing visual cues and a sense of time structure can help children stay focused and on track.
  • Balance Balls as Seating: Sitting on a balance ball can engage core muscles and improve focus for some children.

Remember: Every person is unique. The best way to find the right sensory toys is to experiment and observe your child’s responses. Moreover, some children may benefit from a combination of calming, alerting, and focusing toys depending on the situation.

young child wearing noise cancelling earmuffs, content

Fidget Power!

Fidget toys are a popular choice for managing sensory challenges. These small, handheld objects can be manipulated to provide calming, alerting, or focusing sensory input. For instance, think fidget spinners, squishy stress balls, and textured chewable necklaces. The key is to find the right fidget toy for your specific needs.

Curious to explore the world of fidgets in more detail? Check out our blog post for a comprehensive guide to these versatile sensory tools: fidgets! Fidgets: More Than Just Child’s Play

Empower Yourself: Take Our Training Courses and Unlock Sensory Solutions!

Ready to create a more inclusive and sensory-friendly environment? Our comprehensive courses in training membership offer valuable insights into sensory processing differences and practical solutions. From Sensory Friendly 101 to specialized workshops, we have the resources to equip you with the knowledge and skills to make a difference. Explore our courses today and empower yourself to build a more welcoming and understanding world!

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  1. Hong, K. (2018). Tactile Toys: Therapy for Tactile Dysfunctions. International Journal of Technology and Inclusive Education, 7(2).
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