Best Toys for Autism

I used to dread holiday shopping and buying birthday gifts. A phase where I loathed walking through the baby/toddler department of a store, looking for toys for my son who is neither a baby nor a toddler. But I got over it.

Now, having this blog for almost 10 years, parents often ask me, “What are the best toys for an autistic child? What sensory toys do you recommend for autistic kids? What if they are non-speaking?”

Stacking toys teach fine motor, math skills and more.

Step 1: Always ask them first! Pointing to a picture, enjoying a particular tv show…all of these things can give you clues if the child is non-speaking.

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This list was put together by one of my son’s team members, a former special education teacher. Over the years, OTs and others have seen the list and said, “ooh, you have to add…” and now it’s a very big list! I have a separate list of adult sensory toys.

Best Toys for Autistic Children

This list is geared towards toddlers and 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 says.

At the end of the day, who cares if an 8-year-old boy plays with dolls? There is so much to be learned in the process. Your kids are hard at work building and acquiring skills as they learn about the world.

Now that I have 3 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 about holiday shopping.

Best Puzzles for Autistic Toddlers

With this puzzle, children with autism and other developmental delays can work on:

Foam Puzzles

Foam puzzles are great for:

  • fine motor skills because of the little bit of extra effort that foam affords you
  • 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

Pop Beads for Sensory and Fine Motor

Pop beads are a great toy for:

  • fine motor skills
  • putting together and taking apart
  • can incorporate skills that involve colors and shapes
  • reasonably priced, durable and usually in a decent container

Lacing Beads and Cards

Beads and Cards are 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”. When you select your beads for stringing, pick ones that can be used in different ways. You can use beads for:

  • sorting by color, shape, item, etc.
  • some beads have pictures on them or beads that are small objects
  • the child can request or identify beads by attribute, item, etc.

Toys for Non Speaking Kids

“Real Life Toys” are toys that mimic every day life.

Using real-life versions of toys is a great way to:

  • promote communication
  • identification skills
  • pretend play skills or life skills

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.
  • 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 allow practice with:

  • fine motor skills
  • communication
  • cognitive skills
  • colors
  • shapes
  • real life items
  • matching and physically putting things together
  • used as a tabletop activity for more intense teaching
  • skill acquisition

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 communication skills
  • can be used outside the context of a game
  • have your child match pictures as a tabletop activity
  • to be done independently, or if your child is not currently able to match a picture to picture, you can use the Memory cards to work on this important matching skill

Light Up/Interactive Toys

Great For: kids with autism or 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.

Works on:

  • fine motor purpose by putting the coins in
  • color identification
  • math skills, “put two coins in”

Leap Frog Leaping Letters works on:

  • identify letters
  • identify sounds
  • very early learner is just working on putting something into something else
  • gives instant feedback for “putting in” with sound

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 provides

  • many communication opportunities
  • fine motor opportunities because of how relatable the toy is to the natural environment
  • For the beginning learner who has minimal to no play skills-touching the different buttons, such as ringing the doorknob 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
  • talk about what you are playing with, where you can find those things around your own house
  • continue building communication skills

Note: Showing the Fisher Price version because the Leap one is discontinued. Look for it at yard sales and consignment sales.

Finding Educational Value in Traditional Toys

Legos/Blocks– Blocks and legos are just awesome, plain and simple. Kids are working on

  • fine motor skills
  • problem-solving
  • improving cognitive skills
  • imitation-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. So much cognitive appeal here with these classic toys!

Melissa and Doug also have 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 communication 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.
  • talk about what hurts

Mr. Potato Head– you can reinforce

  • identifying body parts
  • requesting those body parts
  • help pushing them in because it’s not so easy for little ones that have fine motor delays

Shape Sorters for:

  • fine motor
  • problem solving skills
  • identify or choose the pieces
This iconic Tupperware shape sorter helps practice many different skills.

Books, Stickers, Sticker Books for:

  • fine motor
  • communication
  • cognitive development

Books with large, easily identifiable pictures is a great way for you:

  • to read to your child
  • let your child be involved
  • having your child identify those items and actions
  • helps build their receptive and expressive vocabulary
  • repetition

Books that are repetitive will help you work on your child’s communication 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.

With sticker books, you can:

  • categorize
  • sort
  • identify
  • fine motor skills

Matching Puzzles

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). The skills addressed by matching puzzles:

  • communication and cognitive skills
  • matching
  • associations
  • sequencing
  • usually cheap!
  • 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 $300+ 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 $16, which is better)

Toys for Gross Motor Skills

  • 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.

More Autism and Sensory Toys

No information provided here after the excessive details up above – but these all hit gross motor, fine motor, cognitive and communication skills. Any of these toys can be found at Amazon, Target or Kohl’s.

  • Bead maze
  • Infant activity table
  • Activity cube
  • Easel and chalk
  • Sidewalk Chalk
  • Wagon
  • Tent (with or without ball pit balls)-amazingly, these are under $40!
  • Fisher Price Little People Toys
  • Construction Toys
  • Vehicles – all kinds
  • Shopping cart
  • Lawn mower
  • Bead maze
  • Infant activity table
  • Activity cube
  • Easel and chalk
  • Sidewalk Chalk
  • Wagon
  • Kid sized table
  • Kid friendly book shelf
  • House keeping toys
  • Dramatic Play costumes
  • Toy phones
  • Riding toys (in the 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.

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 the things parents already have to do.

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 your child.

So, happy playing and happy shopping this holiday season! Bridget M., M.Ed

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.

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