The following is from my son’s BSC. I asked her what she felt are some of the best toys for kids with autism, intellectual disabilities or developmental delays, and she just started spouting off suggestions. From there, it evolved from a conversation and thankfully she was willing to turn it into a blog post! She added a personal note that I’m not sure she wanted to be included, but I felt it should be, because I agree with the sentiments. I also want to add that many of these toys have the rich, saturated colors that are preferred by kids with CVI or cortical visual impairment for other benefits.
Best toys for kids with autism, intellectual disabilities and other developmental delays
I hope that your readers find this list helpful and not overwhelming. I feel like I could literally walk through a toy store and pull items off the shelves and talk through the good and bad about that particular toy per a specific child’s needs. I tried to keep these toys general, entertaining and educational all in one. This list is geared towards younger children with developmental delays or older children who are functioning on a lower level than their peers. I would suggest not reading too much into age ranges or what gender a toy is geared towards. At the end of the day, who cares if an 8 year old boy plays with baby dolls when there is so much to be learned in the process and no worries when your little girl is having the dinosaurs stomping through the farm, eating all the sheep or if she’s hammering away at something special with the construction toys. Your kids are hard at work building and acquiring skills as they learn about the world.
Every year Toys R Us puts out a toy shopping guide for children with special needs and every year I cringe when I see this list that may be driving the choices for toys that parents make. Not that it’s the worst list, but there’s no real help about why and how. Now that I have two children of my own, I have a real appreciation for the thought, energy and hard earned dollars that go into buying toys. With this perspective, I have made a point of talking to all of the families I work with this year about holiday shopping and hopefully helping them in any way I can in picking out toys that serve as many needs as possible for their children, while not draining the holiday fund completely for things deemed “educational” (which typically carry a heavier price tag). Furthermore, educational toys do not have to equal “no fun”. There are plenty of toys out there that are multipurpose, fun-fulfilling toys that are complete with a functional purpose that won’t leave you feeling that you may have wasted your money.
I have been lucky enough over the years to work with some amazing co-workers. Without the teachers, speech pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists and school psychologists who have shared their toy/play skills wisdom along the way, I would not be as helpful in toy areas. Also, to share credit where it is due, these toys are all inspired by the developmental assessments VB MAPP by Mark Sunberg and the ABLL’s R by James Partington. That said, this is not an autism specific list. This list of toy suggestions is for any child that may be developmentally delayed, visually impaired or other disabilities.
Disclaimer: I am not endorsing any of these brands or toys specifically. I just hope they inspire you to look at toys differently and that they help you pick out what is right for your children based on their interests, strengths and areas of need.
Puzzle suggestions for kids with autism and other developmental delays
Fine motor needs are one of the easier skills to work into things you would typically play with. Every kid should be attempting puzzles and puzzle possibilities are endless. There is a range of skills that are addressed in puzzle play. From simple puzzles like the large knob, single inset puzzles to a foam puzzle set like this Lauri Toddler Tote where one foam piece goes into one small square. With this particular toy, you have tackled fine motor skills, cognitive matching skills and it also served the purpose of a simple compliance talk to be completed. The pegs in this set are an added bonus with the same possibilities.
This Imaginarium foam puzzle is at Toys R Us for $9.99 and it comes in a set of 3 puzzles. It’s great for fine motor skills because of the little bit of extra effort that foam affords you and it give you something to talk about because some of the animals are identifiable (a few are hard to make out) which gives you more possibilities in the way of purpose and function. (Side note, the toy brand Imaginarium at Toys R Us is reasonably priced and can serve many educational needs, while providing a lot of fun.)
Pop beads are a great fine motor toy for both putting together and taking apart. Again, you can incorporate skills that involve colors and shapes depending on the set that you find. Another nice feature is that they are reasonably priced, durable and usually in a decent container.
Lacing Beads and cards for fine motor skills and sequencing
Beads for stringing/lacing are also great for fine motor needs. When selecting your beads for lacing, I would suggest that you think “function” and “multi-purpose”. For example, beads to be stringed are great for fine motor skill and can usually be found on an IEP compliments of your occupational therapist. When you select your beads for stringing, pick ones that can be used different ways. You can use beads for sorting by color, shape, item, etc. Also, there are beads that have pictures on them or beads that are small objects and this will help prompt communication skills and language acquisition. Your child can request or identify beads by attribute, item, etc.
Real life toys-mimicking every day life-help develop language and cognitive skills
Using real life versions of toys is a great way to promote language development, cognitive ID skills, pretend play skills and more. Animal Planettoys at Toys R Us have all sorts of animals and dinosaurs that are tons of fun, and provide so much opportunity for skill building.
Also, adding items to toys/activities you may already have such as kitchen items or baby doll items can make them educational. With kitchen items and baby dolls there are a lot of functional imitation skills you can work on (with real life objects, doing real life things), on top of the pretend play skills you are developing and the ID skills you are building with these toys. There is a lot of vocabulary that is functional and important to be used with these toys. You are now exposing and talking about everyday items and the actions that go with these toys with your child. So add some more food or a tea set to that kitchen. Consider getting your child’s baby doll a stroller, crib or highchair.
When you are adding food to that kitchen, keep an eye out for items such as the following:
Each of these can be found on Amazon at decent prices. They are great for pretend play in the kitchen, but they will also tackle fine motor skills, language and cognitive skills as well. You’ve managed to pack in colors, shapes, real life items, matching and physically putting things together. Also, these can be isolated away from the kitchen and used as a tabletop activity for more intense teaching – skill acquisition and for compliance purposes.
Games for taking turns and socialization
When it comes to games, you should pick a focus. Do you want your child to be involved with their siblings in some way, learn/practice turn taking, improve cognitive skills? If you ask yourself what you want out of a game, it may help you make a better choice when selecting games. Games like Honey Bee Tree and Crocodile Dentist are great for turn taking and require minimal skills to participate.
The Memory Game is good for cognitive and language skills. Plenty of items or people are identifiable in Memory. Memory can be used outside the context of a game too. You can have your child match pictures as a table top activity, to be done independently, or if your child is not currently able to match picture to picture, you can use the Memory cards to work on this important matching skill. On Amazon you can find all kinds of Memory Games to suit your child’s interests.
Light Up/Interactive Toys for kids with autism and vision impairments
This Fisher Price pig is a favorite for a number of clients of mine. The great thing about this pig is he is entertaining on his own. For a child who has minimal to no play skills, this is the kind of toy that is great to start with. You are simply putting coins in and getting an interactive sound. You’ve managed to hit your fine motor purpose by putting the coins in, but by adding just a few demands to a child with some basic play skills, you can easily tackle other areas such as compliance, color identification and even math skills, “put two coins in”.
Leap Frog Letters is another favorite item of kids that I’ve worked with over the years (previously the fridge magnet letters). Whether I’ve used the ABC song button just as a reinforcer or we’ve used the toy the way it was designed, this toy serves many different functions. You can identify letters, identify sounds or maybe your very early learner is just working on putting something into something else. This toy gives instant feedback for “putting in” with sound. Pair that automatic reinforcement with a reinforcer you are using to teach play skills and before you know it, you may find your child playing with this toy independently. The bucket is an added bonus for teaching your child to clean up when they are finished.
Leap Frog My Discover House– This toy provides all of those fun sounds and lights that are always attractive on toys; that your child will probably love. This toy, however, like all of the rest on this list, will provide you tons of language opportunities and fine motor opportunities because of how relateable the toy is to the natural environment. For your beginning learner who has minimal to no play skills, you can work on just touching the different buttons, such as ringing the door knob and turning the light on, and teaching those cause and effect relationships that provide tons of entertainment. This same cause and effect relationship with lights and sounds will likely reinforce independent play later or self stim behaviors that may drive you crazy (a hazard with this kind of toy). However, you could always hide it and play with it when you have the time to help your child play with it appropriately or use it as a reinforcer for things you are teaching outside of play skills. Take it a step further for the your child who has mastered playing with this toy and talk about what you are playing with, where you can finds those things around your own house and continue building those language skills.
finding educational value in traditional toys
Legos/Blocks– Blocks and legos are just awesome, plain and simple. To start, they are all different colors and shapes, broken record here, but kids are working on fine motor skills, problem solving and improving cognitive skills. Can your child build the same three piece building you have made? Can your child imitate banging on the table with that long yellow lego versus the tiny red one? Can your child request those blocks you’ve kept on your side of the table? Request any of them by color? And as far a multi purpose goes, feel free to add legos and blocks to the list of things you have them sort and categorize. There is a ton of cognitive appeal here with these classic toys.
Melissa and Doug also has a great selection of blocks.
Who doesn’t love a Doctor’s kit? Lots of pretend play skills to be had here. That baby doll is just waiting to get their shots and have their temperature and blood pressure taken. It’s a toy that has always been around, because it’s always been fun, and meanwhile you are sneaking in language development by talking to your child about what we do at the doctor’s office, why we go to the doctor and what we find at the Dr. and most importantly, talk about what hurts.
Mr. Potato Head– you can reinforce those body parts and accessories that we come in contact with every day by identifying body parts, requesting those body parts and of course, asking for help pushing them in because it’s not so easy for little ones that have fine motor delays.
Shape Sorters for fine motor and problem solving skills
This toy addresses problem solving and fine motor purposes and have your children identify or choose the pieces you have presented them to be put in.
Books, Stickers, Sticker Books for fine motor, language, cognitive development
Books with large, easily identifiable pictures is a great way for you to read to your child and let your child be involved by having your child identify those items and actions which helps build their receptive and expressive vocabulary. Babies first word books are always great, as well as books that are repetitive. Books that are repetitive will help you work on your child’s intraverbal skills. Brown Bear books are a good option. Let your child fill in the “what do you see” parts, or any other part they might know. Repetition is good!
Stickers are the ultimate stocking stuffer! Stickers are an underrated item to be used for fine motor skills. Big stickers, little stickers, base it on your child’s needs and interests.
Sticker books are the best! Melissa and Doug have a ton of sticker books that are a lot of fun. There are tons to choose from out there. From funny faces to underwater scenes, construction sites to mealtime activities (placemats, cooking, baking, etc) – the possibilities are endless. I have also taken some of these sticker books and laminated them and their parts, added velcro and used them in my classroom and with clients. I have found sticker books to be one of the best, low cost, educational tools because they are usually motivating and when you are looking for it, you can find stickers with the pictures that look like real life stuff. You can categorize, sort, identify all while improving your fine motor skills with a sticker book.
There are many different Match It puzzles out there. They range from puzzles that are simple 2 part puzzles (such as the heads and tails) to the higher skilled puzzles (such as counting and matching words to their pictures). They address language and cognitive skills, such as matching, associations and even sequencing. Another nice thing about these puzzles are they are cheap. The last use for these puzzles are for independent task completion. I work with older children who work on these as independent activities at a table while their parents attempt to cook dinner or squeeze in a phone call.
Yard Sale Finds
If you come across the game, Hullabaloo by Cranium grab it! It is so much fun and it tackles so many skills that have been discussed in this article. It currently runs for $72.00 on Amazon and I don’t think any game is worth that much, but if you stumble across it at a yard sale or resale event, don’t hesitate to buy it if all of the parts are there. (Blog owner’s note: I did see it on ebay for $40, which is better than $72 but still not great.)
toys that help build gross motor skills
I didn’t forget about gross motor. I don’t have a ton to offer other then the obvious. Make sure your child has balls to throw, kick and catch. Something to ride on or climb outside are also good options. This one is easier to save money on as a trip to the playground covers a lot of the gross motor skills that your physical therapist is likely targeting. If you have a child who is a sensory seeker, you could try a trampoline or swing in your home. But talk to your OT and PT first, let them get back to you before you install something in your home or invest in something that takes up a lot of space. Your therapists may have the best options for you with this category depending on your child’s needs.
Quick List of other great toy suggestions for kids with autism and developmental delays
No information provided here after the excessive details up above – but these all hit gross motor, fine motor, cognitive and language skills. Any of these toys can be found at Amazon, Kmart, Toys R Us, or Sears.
· Tent (with or without ballpit balls)-amazingly, these are under $40!
· Fisher Price Little People Toys
· Vehicles – all kinds
· Infant activity table
· Kid friendly book shelf
· House keeping toys
· Dramatic Play costumes
· Toy phones
· Riding toys (in house)
· Riding toys (outside)
· Climbing toys (inside or outside)
· Basketball net/soccer net (inside or out)
· Balls (various kinds)
· Sand/water table
· Shelves and clear bins to house toys out of your child’s reach to encourage requesting and as a way to rotate toys out if you need to.
*I’m sure I may be missing some obvious toys, so I apologize! I’m a little toy delirious at the moment. Hopefully I covered enough for you have an idea about what you are looking for with your child.
The last thing I want to do is sound preachy, I promise, so I apologize if that is how I sound. It’s not easy to play with your children as much as you would like with all of things parents already have to do before the day is over, let alone parents of children with special needs who may not know where to start when it comes to “play” which their child may not be able to do. These toys are only as good as the help they get from you playing with them together with your children. If you are not trying to teach your child how to play with these toys or if you don’t put some demands on their play while they are on the floor or at the table, the toys won’t serve all of those functions you were looking for and your hard earned dollars spent may be wasted.
If you aren’t sure where to start in teaching your child how to play with toys or if you aren’t sure if your child will like something, talk to your teachers. Other than you, there’s no better reference about what your child likes and doesn’t and what toys might serve him or her skill wise. Your teachers should have a good idea already about what your child is drawn to and what things they steer clear of. It never hurts to ask and they are in the business of improving your child’s skills in the first place.
So happy playing and happy shopping this holiday season!
Bridget McNelis, M.Ed, BSC