Kids with autism are just that—kids. And they want to play! So what are the best toys for autistic kids to encourage that exploration through play? “Their toys don't have to be fancy or special ‘learning toys.’ They simply need to be toys that your child enjoys and that are developmentally appropriate,” says Jamie Winter, PhD, a psychologist at the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in White Plains, New York. In fact, the toys commonly found in playgroups, preschools and playrooms of neurotypical toddlers are the same kinds of toys that are beneficial to children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). “Puzzles, blocks, balls, cars and books are a great place to start for all kids,” Winter says. That said, the best toys for kids with autism do have some common threads. Here, some guidelines for selecting toys for autistic children, and some suggested toys to try out.
What to Look for in Toys for Autistic Kids
Before you start filling you virtual shopping cart with special needs toys, know this: First and foremost, toys for children with autism need to be fun! Here’s what else to keep in mind:
• Embrace high-interest toys. Children with autism can become very interested in one thing, like trains or dinosaurs. “Sometimes parents try to stop the intensity of their child’s interest, thinking it’s a habit that needs to be broken,” says Rondalyn Varney Whitney, PhD, OTR/L, associate professor of occupational therapy at the West Virginia University School of Medicine in Morgantown. “But interest is interest, and you should go with it. Simply think about ways to use that interest to expand play and learning.”
• Avoid overstimulating toys. “Many children with autism spectrum disorder become overstimulated by electronic toys with a lot of lights, sounds and moving parts,” Winter says. Playing with these can not only lead to meltdowns, but children often also focus exclusively on the toy and don’t pay any attention to other children or adults around them.
• Think beyond age-grading. Toy manufacturers age-grade their toys so parents can understand what’s age-appropriate—both from a safety and developmental standpoint. But when it comes to toys for autistic kids, as long as they don’t pose a safety hazard for your child, so what if the toy packaging reads 5+? Only you know what playthings are truly appropriate for your child’s developmental stage. “Some children with autism have intellectual disabilities—and some don’t,” Whitney says. “In fact, many have at or above intellectual ability.” Bottom line: Trust your gut and pick toys that meet your child where they are developmentally, keeping safety top of mind.
• Choose no-wrong-way-to-play toys. Toys that can be played with in a lot of different ways are among the best toys for kids with autism. “They’re especially good for children who have inconsistencies in their development,” Whitney says.
• Look for just-right sensory stimulation. Children with autism typically crave a particular sensory input. Some gravitate toward the tactile (perhaps touching certain textures is calming), while others prefer to stimulate their proprioceptive system, which is basically joints and muscles (spinning or jumping might regulate their mood). And many have various sensory needs. “Look for toys that have lots of sensory pieces that your child will enjoy,” Whitney says.
• Limit available toys. “It’s often problematic to have many toys out and available at the same time,” Winter says. “Containers with lids, cabinets or shelving to put toys away will help you teach your child to clean up and to limit distractions.”
Best Toys for Autistic Kids
Your playroom can be stocked with the very best, but to make your collection of special needs toys truly impactful, get down on the ground and play with your child. “Playing with toys with others is an important way that children with ASD can learn,” Winter says. And don’t forget: Singing songs and playing with your child without toys is fun and important too! When it comes to the best toys for autistic kids, here are some of our top picks.
Melissa & Doug Make Your Own Monster Puppet
There are literally hundreds of play possibilities with this silly monster, making it a standout toy for autistic kids. This 30-piece set comes with many interchangeable eyes, ears, mouths and more to help children start to identify facial expression, a skill deficit that often goes hand-in-hand with autism diagnosis. “When kids stick on the mouth that looks like a happy mouth, it helps them recognize what happy mouths look like in real life,” Whitney says. Plus, taking the Velcroed features on and off uses the same muscle group that’s needed to hold a pencil or button a button, bolstering fine-motor skills.
Buy it: $24, Amazon.com
Fat Brain Toys Dimpl
Some of the very best special needs toys are really just awesome toys, no matter who’s playing with them. Take the Dimpl from Fat Brain Toys. The concept is simple: five colorful silicone bubbles for toddlers to push, pop, poke and grab. Here, autistic and neurotypical toddlers alike learn cause and effect (push this and it makes a noise), engage their fine motor skills and explore sensory stimulation. All kinds of wins!
Buy it: $15, Amazon.com
Fisher-Price My First Thomas & Friends Railway Pals Destination Discovery
Looking for toys for autistic toddlers? Try this train set. Many children with autism adore trains: The wheels go round and round, they lend well to categorizing and train schedules make the concept of time less abstract. But more complicated tracks can cause more frustration than fun. To up the enjoyment, take your play beyond simply chuga-chuging around the tracks. “Talk to the train, tell stories about the train, build an imaginary scenes with the train,” Whitney says. “Use the trains as a stepping stone for more play.”
Buy it: $47, Amazon.com
DG Sports Pop-Up Kids’ Ball Pit
Large ball pits can be amazing toys for autistic kids. Why? Because squishing down into this colorful pit allows the balls to essentially massage your kiddo’s body, offering a deep-pressure sensation that many children with autism gravitate to and find very relaxing. Playing in a ball pit is also a way for an autistic child to experience other sensory stimuli—visual, tactile and even auditory—in a fun and safe way.
Buy it: $40 Amazon.com
Lakeshsore Learning Bristle Builders
Virtually any kind of building blocks are great toys for autistic children because there are no right or wrong ways to engage—the play possibilities are endless! Plus, blocks are ideal for honing kids’ motor skills. What makes these stick-together / pull-apart blocks especially good toys for children with special needs is the bristly texture that adds some tactile stimuli.
Buy it: $20 LakeshoreLearning.com
Educational Insights Playfoam GO!
Move over PlayDoh! Kids with autism often take a special shine to this (nontoxic) molding foam that can be squished, sculpted and rolled into virtually anything, allowing children oodles of tactile stimulation. Playfoam is among the best special needs sensory toys, but it also provides a great fine-motor and creativity boost too. Other major pluses: It’s not sticky, it’s easy to clean up and it never dries out. (We love the carrying case too, so you can always have it with you.)
Buy it: $15, Amazon.com
Kidoozie Hop & Squeak Pogo Jumper
A lot of children with autism have an over- or under-sensitive vestibular system, which is part of the sensory system involving balance and coordinating movement. “It’s not uncommon for children with autism to either seek movement, like bouncing or rocking— or avoid it—when they’re looking to regulate how they feel,” Whitney says. If you’ve got a seeker, consider adding kid-friendly pogo sticks to your pile of toys for autistic kids. This one has the added cause-and-effect bonus of creating funny noise each time the child lands.
Buy it: $10, Amazon.com
Fat Brain Toys Candylicious Bubbles
“Scented bubbles offer a lot of different sensory stimuli—there’s watching, blowing, smelling, clapping or poking them to pop,” Whitney says. With these Candylicious bubbles, kids can catch them with their tongue too! The set comes with three flavors: tutti-frutti popsicle, chocolate ice cream and cherry gummy bear.
Buy it: $9, FatBrainToys.com
KidKraft Classic Kitchenette
Pretend cooking, serving and turn-taking is fun for all kids. And since playing in this pint-size kitchen mimics everyday life and everyday social interactions, it’s helpful practice for children with special needs. “Here, a child has a safe way to practice social skills and pro-social behavior, where the idea of failure isn’t as overwhelming,” Whitney says. Plus, toys like a play kitchen encourage language and identification skills too.
Buy it: $75, Amazon.com
Abilitations Teacher's Pet Weighted Lap Dog
A weighted stuffed animal is one of the best toys for autistic kids because their just-right heft provides sensory input that works to relax and focus the child’s body and mind. Your kiddo can stroke the puppy (named Dot) for additional tactile input that further decreases stress. At 4 pounds, this pup might just be the perfect for companion for your little one.
Buy it: $23, Amazon.com
Educational Insights Teachable Touchables
Unlike slick, hard plastic toys, this bag of textures is jam-packed with sensory stimuli that are perfect toys for autistic toddlers. There are 20 different pillows and patches featuring tactile differences, like scratchy, silky and soft textures. An activity guide is included to help moms and dads brainstorm different play scenarios.
Buy it: $19, Amazon.com
Lakeshore Learning Jumbo Nuts and Bolts
Nuts and bolts are make for wonderful toys for autistic kids—after all, they’re pretty much the original fidget toy. Plus, there are the added bonuses of fine-motor tuning, open-ended play and the whole no-wrong-way-to-play thing. This bright set includes 80 jumbo-sized pieces that twist together with ease, minimizing frustration.
Buy it: $50 LakeshoreLearning.com
Mirari Pop! Pop! Piano
Here, your kiddo can either press a piano key to hear notes or flip a switch to hear fun sound effects. But really, the most fun cause-and-effect aspect of this toy is that each time a piano key is struck, shooting stars emerge. Grown-ups can also remove the arch to let the stars land on the floor, which encourages toddlers to crawl after them.
Buy it: $22, Amazon.com
Pacific Play Tents Hide-Me Tent and Tunnel
Some kids with autism (and neurotypical kids too) can become overstimulated by their environment and crave a secret hide-out, away from noise and chaos. This hide-me tent and connecting tunnel does just that.
Buy it: $51, Amazon.com
Melissa & Doug Examine & Treat Pet Vet Play Set
Does your kiddo love animals? Let them practice their social-emotional skills with this veterinary playset, complete with a doggie and kitty that need a little TLC to get back on all four paws. Beyond social/emotional skill-building, these sweet animals—in all of their soft tactile glory—may just morph into comfort companions for your child too. The set comes with 24 pieces, including a stethoscope, medicine bottles, thermometer and more.
Buy it: $26, Amazon.com
Matty’s Toy Stop Pull 'N Pop Multi-Color Tubes
Stretch ’em, pop ’em, twirl ’em—no matter how your child plays with these Pull 'N Pop Multi-Color Tubes, they’ll get the one-two punch of auditory and tactile stimulation in one fabulous toy for autistic kids. These 24 simple tubes can be bent, snapped together, pulled apart, twirled around and pushed together and make all sorts of cool sounds. All that finger movement bolsters motor skills too, and the bumpy texture offers a unique tactile experience.
Buy it: $30 Amazon.com
Ark’s Dino Tracts Chew Necklace
Chewing can be a very effective way for kids with autism to calm and self-regulate themselves. To keep your child’s fingernails, sleeves and fingers teethmark-free, turn to chewelry (chew + jewelry = chewelry), a great on-the-go way to get oral sensory input.
Buy it: $13, ArkTherapeutic.com
YUE ACTION Liquid Motion Bubbler
Visual sensory-seekers love toys that offer the calming blub, blub, blub of colorful bubbles moving up and down. This type of visually stimulating toy offers tons of calming entertainment for everyone. (There’s a reason these things are often spotted on the desks of stressed out executives!) When the bubbles stop after two minutes, just flip the toy over and start again.
Buy it: $7, Amazon.com
Fat Brain Toys Squigz
Many top-notch toys for autistic kids simply hand control over to the child. “When children have volition over the toys—when they have the ability to turn it into multiple things—great fun and learning happens,” Whitney says. Squigz, for instance, are a bunch of suction-y shapes that stick together (and to various surfaces) to create, well, anything. There’s no wrong way to play. Plus, the push and pull is great for fine-motor building.
Buy it: $25, Amazon.com
ArtMinds Wood Castle Dollhouse
Start with this blank castle as a canvas to create the play scenario that best resonates with your child. Here, kids can engage in imaginary play and at the same time work on developing social and emotional skills that’ll serve them well outside of the playroom too.
Buy it: $26 Michaels.com
Melissa & Doug Wooden Bear Dress-up
Reading and understanding other people’s facial expressions can be tough for those with autism, so it’s smart to get toys for autistic children that provide fun opportunities to work on this skill at home. Enter: This too-cute bear cub who comes with 18 interchangeable pieces, including different facial expressions, like surprised and sad. It’s also an awesome toy for building hand-eye coordination and dexterity. It all comes in a lidded wooden storage box for on-the-go play.
Buy it: $9, Amazon.com
Published April 2019
Plus, more from The Bump: