When it comes to play, children with autism are no different than children without autism: they want and need toys that are developmentally appropriate, engaging, and that will test their abilities without proving too frustrating. If you’re searching for the best toys for children with autism, the great news is that toymakers are becoming even more cognizant of the fact that a diverse selection of toys is important. What's soothing to one child may prove too stimulating and distracting for another.
As Barry M. Prizant, Ph.D., and author of Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism explains, toys that are appropriate for a child with autism depend on the types of play a child seeks out and engages in, as well as individual developmental abilities, interests, motor skills and motor coordination and sensory profile (over or under-sensitive to sounds, visual displays, touch, taste and so forth).
"Each child with autism is unique," Prizant says. "In my book I give dozens of examples of children who are so very different from each other. Some children speak, others do not but communicate with gestures or iPads with speech output. Some children have no imaginative play, others display rich imaginations in their play. Some are overly sensitive to sounds or touch, others seek out strong sensory experiences such as loud noises or deep pressure."
Keeping a child's individual needs, preferences, and age in mind, Prizant, who is an adjunct professor at Brown University, says there are three categories of play that should be kept in mind with selecting toys for children with autism: constructive play, exploratory, sensory play, and imaginative play. Each of these types of play can be nurtured by different types of toys.
To help you find the perfect toy, Prizant suggests the best features to look for and explains how they can nurture each type of play:
1. The Best Toys For Constructive Play
These toys include puzzles, Lego sets, blocks, nesting cups and shape sorters. According to Prizant these toys are ideal for kids with an interest in visual-spatial relationships and can be motivating and soothing, while teaching children how things fit together.
Brightly Colored Stacking Cups With Number And Animals
Children will learn about numbers, colors, and sizes while stacking and nesting these 10 brightly colored stacking cups, which are made from non-toxic materials. One randomly selected animal (a frog, bear, rabbit, or tiger) comes with this toy and it can be transported to the bath for water fun.
Stringing Beads In Different Colors And Shapes For Sorting
This Montessori-approved stringing beads toy consists of 30 large, multicolored beads in five colors and seven shapes that are sorted and strung. This activity helps develop fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and dexterity and the accompanying Busy Bag makes it a travel-friendly toy you can take anywhere.
A 3-D Puzzle With Colorful, Texturized Pieces
Resembling a real-life Tetris puzzle game, these soft foam sensory puzzle blocks connect together to form shapes, buildings, and whatever else your child's imagination can create. They're non-toxic, visually stimulating, texturized in a way that soothes and provides comfort, and are safe for non-chewers as young as 2 years old.
A Plush Whale That Teaches Toddlers Basic Life Skills
Keep toddlers focused and teach them valuable basic life skills with this plush whale, which features a zipper pocket and six child-friendly buckles. The whale is adorned with numbers, shapes, and colors and will help strengthen fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, problem-solving, and cognitive skills.
Magical Magnets That Can Be Used To Make A Musical Ferris Wheel
This 52-piece magnet set includes colorfully shaped magnets that children ages 3 years old and up can use to make cubes, houses, stars — even a Ferris wheel that actually plays music. This toy enhances spatial logic and helps develop mathematical and logical skills.
2. The Best Exploratory, Sensory Play, Cause and Effect Toys
Think: Play-Doh, sensory tables with rice, sand, beans, musical toys, wind-up toys, and toys with switches that create displays of sounds and lights. Prizant explains that these toys help with sensory processing and, in general, are more appropriate for younger aged children and children functioning at earlier developmental levels.
A Light-Up Musical Nursery Rhyme Book
There's so much to see and do with this musical rhymes book that it may just keep your young child mesmerized for hours. This toy features more than 40 songs, melodies, words, and phrases, has five piano buttons that make various instrument sounds, and boasts large, easy-to-turn pages that reveal words and images for six classic nursery rhymes.
A Flashing Drum Kit That Has Pre-Programmed Music
Your young musician can bang one of three drum pads or cymbals on this interactive drum set. Lights will flash and the sound of drumming will serve as the backdrop for nine pre-preprogrammed melodies in genres that include rock, dance, and pop. It also teaches letters and numbers. This toy, ideal for ages 2 years old to 5 years old.
A Sensory Box With Tools And Texturized Objects For Budding Scientists
Children 3 years old and up can explore the many different textures, colors, and shapes in this sensory play box, which contains modeling sand, rocks, beans, figures, and water beads. This box comes with tools like a magnifying glass, bubble grabber, and rake to help transform young children into curious scientists.
Play-Doh Fun Factory For Hours Of Colorful Crafts
Sure, it can be messy and a pain to pick up from carpets, but Play-Doh is the classic toy that provides hours of fun for children of all ages — which kind of makes it worth an extra vacuum here and there. This set comes with six colorful Play-Doh tubs and various cookie cutters and a gadget that lets little ones create texturized shapes.
Wind-Up Ladybugs That Teach About Cause And Effect
They're simple and straightforward, but these colorful wind-up ladybugs teach young children about cause and effect and they'll love repeating the movement to see these cute little toys scatter across the floor. Each order comes with 12 ladybugs, which reviewers say move for about five to 15 seconds before having to be wound up again.
Soothing Tangles That Can Be Molded And Re-Shaped Over And Over Again
Dubbed the "original fidget spinner," these super-stretchy tangles can be manipulated into different shapes, turned into puzzles, used as part of a creative art project, and reused over and over again. They provide fun and stress relief for older toddlers and children of all ages — just make sure your little one is out of the chewing phase before giving them these tangles to enjoy.
3. The Best Toys For Imaginative Play
Imaginative play refers to activities that involve pretend actions or real life events. Dolls, cars, trains, kitchen sets, stuffed animals, puppets and play sets with houses, people, and farms all fall into this category.
"Pretend activities of real life events tends to be an area of challenge for many young kids with ASD, but are important for peer interaction and preschool/kindergarten settings," Prizant says. "Books can also be used to support imaginative understanding and play, and books a child can engage with, with touch pads that create sounds, animal noises and so forth, might be very helpful. Imaginative play helps to support language and peer interaction."
An Educational Craft Toy That Teaches About Emotions
If you've got a crafty kid, this educational toy, which combines drawing and a game, explores the concept of empathy and teaches about emotions and reading facial expressions. It's perfect for ages 3 to 6 years old and helps reinforce social skills they'll need to adjust to a school setting.
Foam Blocks That Attach Together With Velcro And Can Be Used To Make A Toy Car
One part car for imaginative play and one part soft, lightweight blocks that can be used to construct the car of their dreams, this building set toy includes 22 interchangeable pieces that attach together using Velcro fasteners. The foam blocks make it easy for small hands to hold and create their own vehicle, but to avoid frustrations, this toy is best for children ages 3 and up.
A Family Of Cute Puppets For Imaginative Play
This collection of six finger puppets includes grandma, grandpa, mom, dad, and a brother and sister. They're durable, made from soft cotton, and fit around your child's fingers so they can use them to create imaginative scenarios that mimic real life.
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