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Fun and Creative Learning Toys for Autistic Kids

written by: Barbara Smith • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 11/11/2010

The best learning toys for autistic kids are ones that meet their sensory needs and are fun and stimulating. These beneficial toys may be purchased through specialized catalogs, stores and websites, from regular toy stores or can be home made.

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    Toys for Babies and Toddlers

    Babies and toddlers are attracted to toys with bright colors and moving parts that encourage grasp and manipulation. Learning toys for autistic kids help to develop visual attention, object exploration and provide sensory stimulation that promotes brain development. Toys that promote visual attention include:

    • Crib mobiles
    • Play mats with suspended toys to reach toward
    • Mirrors
    • Finger puppets
    • Spiral ball sets where balls are dropped in and roll down a spiral tube

    Visual tracking toys can also be made by placing tiny colorful objects inside a clear tube (with ends closed securely) and slowly tilting it so that the child can watch the objects slide across.

    As toddlers start to explore objects with both of their hands offer toys that can be pulled apart, pushed together and pressed. These actions stimulate the child’s muscles helping to develop body awareness.

    Young children who are super busy crawling and running may better tolerate sitting briefly for hand activities while positioned inside a swing or other movement apparatus. Toys that make funny sounds or music after a task is completed (such as stacking rings or placing puzzle pieces in a board) are also a great way to motivate children with autism to complete fine-motor activities.

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    Toys for Children Aged Two to five Years

    Children with autism often crave movement, and toys that provide sensory stimulation to their muscles, joints and inner ears help them to become more organized to focus and learn. Toys that provide sensory input and develop motor skills include

    • Hopping balls
    • Sit and spin
    • Ride-on toys, tricycles and bikes
    • Small trampolines
    • Small slides

    These types of learning toys for autistic kids provide special kinds of sensory stimulation called “vestibular ” and “proprioceptive" stimulation. The vestibular sense organ in the inner ear is responsible for balance and responds to changes in movement and the proprioceptive sensory receptors in joints and muscles tell a child where body parts are and how they are moving. Toys that stimulate these senses help children develop coordination between the two sides of the body in order to perform skills such as jumping, walking up steps and stabilizing paper with one hand while coloring.

    Children with autism are often motivated to engage in fine-motor activities that have sensory components such as music, extra weight or vibration. Suggested sensory adaptations include:

    • Purchasing or making blocks that are heavy (i.e. filling small containers with sand)
    • Magnetic and snapping blocks
    • Toys that involve ripping apart Velcro (such as on Dressy dolls)
    • Toys that take force to connect or pull apart such as Pop-It-Beads or Play dough

    Insertion tasks can be made to vibrate by placing the motor to an electric toothbrush inside a shape sorter or other container. The sound and feel of the vibrating container may help children to focus on the task. An example of a simple home-made insertion is to cut an opening in a coffee can lid to insert small magnets (adding the motor as shown in the photo below).

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    Toys adapted with sensory components

    Large blocks weighted with sandMagnets inserted into container with motor
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    Toys for Grade School Children

    Many arts and crafts and manipulation activities can be adapted to be more easily used by children with motor coordination challenges. Try to purchase or make your own lacing boards with extra large holes. Use cord instead of flimsy string for lacing and stringing activities. Games that involve use of large tongs (i.e. the game “Operation”) help to strengthen the fingers used to grasp pencils. The following adaptations may help children with autism both play and succeed in school:

    1. Use of a motorized writing pen
    2. Coloring on paper placed over textured surfaces (this is called “embossing”)
    3. Using adapted squeeze scissors to make collages
    4. Stand-up or table easels for writing, painting, coloring activities

    Costumes and dress-up toys with snaps, zippers, buckles and ties are great for children who still need to practice opening and closing fasteners, while at the same time promoting social and communication skills. Continue to offer lots of small manipulatives such as Legoand K’nex and movement toys such as sleds and skates that develop body awareness and coordination.

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    Toys for Older Children

    Older children with autism continue to benefit from toys that provide sensory stimulation but their age-appropriateness should be a consideration. This is a great time to explore new sports such as skiing or weight lifting. Many individuals with autism have exceptional visual skills and may enjoy playing with three-dimensional puzzles such as the Rubik's cube or crafts such as carpentry or origami.

    Regardless of the child’s age, learning toys for autistic kids that provide lots of sensory input promote motivation, attention and motor skills. Providing these toys and activities at a very young age prepares children to develop the fine-motor skills they will need in order to play, perform daily living skills and succeed in school.

    Information and ideas in this article are based on the author's professional experience.

    Photograph credit: Barbara Smith, M.S., OTR/L