A Great Toy Is a Sensory Feast for Kids



When buying toys for children with autism, parents may wonder what specific considerations to keep in mind. Are there special sensory toys for kids with autism? Toys with certain textures or sounds that might fare better with autistic kids? Turns out choosing the right toy for a child with autism is a lot like picking out a toy for any other kid. Let the child’s interests guide you just as you would with a neurotypical child, says Kristie Patten Koenig, Ph.D., an occupational therapist and associate professor at New York University. There’s no such thing as the perfect toys for autistic kids, so lean into what actually interests them.

“With autism, kids have preferred interests. They may be focused on one thing. Some paradigms say to expand their play repertoire. I tend to look at that differently. If they are interested in trains, it’s a great avenue for learning and a way for parents to connect with their kids,” Koenig says. “Just remember that there’s no magic toy that helps autism.”

Mandi Silverman, Ph.D., a child psychologist who specializes in autism, suggests that parents follow their kids’ lead. “Buy toys your kids like. You follow their interests. That said, I would tell parents to get toys that encourage your kid to engage with you or other kids. That’s the goal.” Certain toys are better than others at encouraging collaborative play, when children interact with each other, as opposed to parallel play, in which children play near each other but independently. When buying gifts for any children, including those with autism, opt for toys that can be shared between kids and encourage the use of imagination, such as dollhouses and play kitchens.

Parents might also look for toys that encourage physical activity, such as swings or balls. As far as sensory toys go, books with sounds or textures are great for engaging kids’ senses. Most importantly, choose toys that don’t have a hyper-specific use but rather allow for creativity and open-ended play, so kids can use them however they want in developmentally appropriate ways. 

Kids give their senses a workout with these texture blocks. The squishy, multi-colored blocks feature a different animal and number on each side.

The Dimpl toy encourages fine motor skills, sensory exploration, and cause-and-effect learning. Kids pop the silicone bubbles, which make a satisfying noise, and the silicone feels smooth against kiddie hands. The repetitive actions can also offer stress relief.

A tactile delight, this toy challenges toddlers to hide the Spikes in their tree house, then find them based on their five very different textures.

Both a sensory toy (the bean bags) and an active toy (the action of throwing the bean bags), this set encourages kids to get moving by playing hopscotch. To up the ante, they can practice hand-eye coordination by throwing the bean bags and trying to get them into each square.

Swinging can be soothing to a child because of the smooth back and forth motion. It also helps with the development of coordination and gross motor skills. This outdoor swing has stay-put shoulder straps for babies; they are removable for older children. It’s unbreakable and can hold up to 50 pounds.

Part hangout pod, part swing, this one hangs in your doorway, is a haven for when your child needs quiet time, and has a weight limit of a whopping 220 pounds.

This best-in-class ball pit has a non-skid bottom, zips up when done, and helps kids with sensory development. As for the stuffed animal, it works on hand-eye coordination as they feed it sea creatures by inserting them into its belly.

Not only does this curved board help kids develop a sense of balance and figure out their center of gravity, but it also doubles as a house, bridge, or tunnel for play.

A tactile and visual feast, this soft toy has high-contrast black and white graphics, soft blue-green backing and internal crinkle film, so it stimulates the senses.

Kids develop sensory vocabulary when they toss around these mini beanbags, which are bumpy, furry, fuzzy, nubby, and scratchy. And tossing them around is always a good time.

A soft, soothing, calming toy for kids to carry around or snuggle when they get stressed. This dinosaur is like the toy version of a weighted blanket.

Not only is this a fantastic tactile and sensory toy, but it’s also non-stick, it never dries out, and it can be formed into anything. Again, there’s no limit to how you can play with this toy, which is key. Bonus: It’s not even remotely as messy as slime.

This beautifully basic, yet hella fun saucer helps stimulate a kid’s vestibular system.

A gorgeous, simple, and non-gendered dollhouse that will get kids to engage in collaborative play. This is a standout toy that encourages kids to use their imaginations and play with others, which is precisely what you want. It comes fully furnished (and beautifully at that). Dolls are not included.

If you have a kid who loves animals, they will be enamored with this six-piece puppet set, which can help children develop language skills. Kids use puppets to tell stories and act them out. And puppets help kids communicate, express emotions, and connect with others.

This 9-piece puzzle plays the sound of each piece’s corresponding animal when it’s placed in the right opening. Kids are encouraged to keep playing and learn about animal sounds and cause and effect.

This train set is sturdy enough for little hands and encourages kids and parents to play together. Kids can play alone or with others to create entire worlds centered around trains. It’s a wonderful way for parents to engage with their kids.

This sweet toy has multiple textures and materials to engage a child’s developing tactile sensitivity.

Here’s another great open-ended construction toy to stimulate kids’ senses and encourage open-ended play. Kids build and build and build with these magnetized blocks that are the same shapes but different colors. The blocks also help develop their fine motor skills.

Kinetic sand helps a child develop manipulative skills by having them use rakes and molds to create whatever they can imagine. The sand is a great sensory tool because it’s soft and easy to shape, then reshape again.

With this Infantino set, you get a nice, simple selection of tactile balls in different shapes and colors. These BPA-free balls are easy to grab and help develop your child’s tactile senses.

Kids can take a break and have some alone time in this tent, made from cotton canvas. These types of tents, ‘are really good for when children want some quiet alone time and they’re on sensory overload and want to sit alone. It’s a sectioned-off quiet space,’ Silverman says.

When kids jump around on this trampoline, their joints will be stimulated, and they’ll learn how to balance. A small trampoline with a bar is a great choice for kids, as long as you monitor what they’re doing to avoid accidents. It’s a winner because it’s physically engaging, Silverman says.

This is a strategy game where kids create a lattice of sticks, top it with marbles, then remove sticks one by one, trying not to let the marbles fall. It’s Jenga meets Don’t Break The Ice, and it presents a great opportunity for kids to play together collaboratively while still getting to make decisions on their own.

Babies and toddlers learn about textures and colors with this board book. Silverman encourages parents to load up on books, books, and more books. Then, interact with them by reading with your kids, exploring the books’ themes, and talking about them.

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