I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard or seen parents of children with autism spending hundreds of dollars on beautiful toys and their child’s favorite is a cardboard box, string, or kitchen utensil. If this sounds familiar, you’ve probably felt like shopping for gifts is a futile task. You may feel torn, wanting your child to have something that brings them joy, but also wanting to provide appropriate toys. If you’re searching for ideas for your child, or attempting to advise family and friends on what to get, our gift guide below can help. I would recommend a variety of types of toys. I’ve listed ideas by category, including things to think about when looking for each type, as well as links to examples.
Sensory toys are probably going to be the most appealing to your child with autism. If your child seeks sensory input, such as movement, visual stimulation, auditory stimulation, etc., you might want to think about toys or activities that provide this. Even if your child doesn’t necessarily seek this input, many of these toys and activities are fun for all children. The ideas below are divided by type of sensory activity.
- Therapy or exercise ball: Great for bouncing, rocking, etc.
- Therapy swing: Depending on your child’s needs, this can be a very calming activity.
- Magic Tracks: Visual stimulation with an automatic car on a track
- Clear LED flashing tambourine: Visual and auditory stimulation with this light-up musical instrument.
- Light up spinner toys: These aren’t necessarily the most functional toys, but in small doses, they can be used as potential reinforcers for a child seeking visual stimulation.
- Spinning tops: Classic spinning tops also provide that visual enjoyment without lights.
- Gears: This one can be put together as an independent activity and enjoyed for it’s visual stimulation.
- Xylophone: Musical instruments are a great way to get that auditory stimulation and xylophones are easy enough for children to play themselves.
- Kinetic sand: Kinetic sand is a great way to target any tactile sensitivities and create at the same time. Since it sticks together, it’s also a lot less messy.
It’s important for all children to learn to play independently, but this is especially important to keep in mind for children with autism. Independent activities may serve as replacement behaviors for a child’s inappropriate behavior. The more occupied with appropriate activities, the less likely a child is to engage in inappropriate behavior. As a parent, it also never hurts to get a free minute to accomplish other tasks.
- Shape sorters: Classic shape sorters are great for beginning toy play.
- Puzzles: Puzzles have a beginning and an end, which makes them great independent activities. If your child is still learning how to complete simple puzzles independently, you can think about presenting it with several of the pieces already together, so that your child only has to put in the last few.
- Sorting tasks: Great for learning to categorize
- Simon: Simon is an easy, independent activity that is more appropriate for an older child who may not be developmentally ready for more complicated toys.
- Stringing beads: Independent task that’s also great for fine motor.
Pretend Play or Sociodramatic Play
There are so many great pretend play sets and toys out there. Pretend play and sociodramatic play are integral to a child’s development. The one thing I would urge you to think about is that a lot of these are things that children with autism need to be taught how to play with. If your child receives ABA services, you might think about talking to your child’s supervisor to see if these are things that can be taught in therapy or if they have suggestions about what might be developmentally appropriate.
- Little People sets are always great for pretend play. Below are some great examples:
- There are a variety of other toys that can be used in sociodramatic play (where a child takes on a role). Think restaurant, grocery store, doctor sets, etc. Below are some of my favorites.
Again, so many great options. I like the classics of Lincoln Logs, Legos, and wooden blocks, as they can be both an independent and collaborative activity. These are also activities that may need to be taught. Your child’s therapists can help you learn to teach this through imitative building and matching skills and later move this to a more symbolic play program.
Other Reinforcing toys
Games with Rules:
Finally, I would think about some games. Again, these need teaching, but can be a great way to work on a variety of skills, such as categories, matching, and counting in addition to turn-taking and rule following. Some of my favorites:
- Hullabaloo: focuses on categories and following instructions
- UNO: turn-taking, rule following, number and color matching
- Spot it: matching
- Monopoly Junior: easier version of monopoly
- Zingo: matching
- Headbandz: categories, features, functions
- Hi Ho Cherrio: turn-taking and counting
- Sneaky Snacky Squirrel: turn-taking, matching
- Yeti In My Spaghetti: easy turn-taking game
Sometimes the fanciest toys aren’t all that functional. Hopefully, this guide will help you find toys your child will love in addition to helping them learn. Happy shopping and Happy Holidays!