Looking to get the best toy for your child with autism? How about the perfect sensory game? There is certainly no shortage to choose from. But finding the right ones for your child’s age, interests, and abilities is not always so easy. Particularly when considering the needs of kids with autism.
Not all autistic kids toys are created equal. Nor should they be.
Some autism toys and games serve very specific purposes. Others are more educational. There are those designed for nonverbal autism and those intended to help with certain areas of development. And of course there are toys and games that are appropriate for some ages but not others.
Below, instead of just throwing a random “best of” list at you, we’re going to look at the top toys and games according to specific needs, ages, and function.
Hopefully, this will help you find an activity that is both fun and beneficial for your child with autism.But before diving into the toy box, here’s a preview of the types of toys and games we’ll cover. Click one to jump ahead.
3. Best Game for Nonverbal Autism
4. Best Fidget Toy for Children and Teens
5. Best STEM Toy for Children with Autism
6. Best Game for Preschoolers with Autism
7. Best Educational Toy for Autistic Child
8. Best Toy to Improve Executive Functioning
9. Best Video Game for Children with Autism
Now let’s gain some insight into how to find the right toy for your child with autism.
The Myth About “Autism Toys”
We’re going to let you in on a secret that you probably already know:
Autism toys aren’t actually a thing.
They’re just toys.
They are toys that any child can enjoy and play with.
Whether they’re “mainstream” toys or toys marketed for autism, they are toys that are fun for everyone. Balls, blocks, puzzles, dolls, trains, planes, cars — they are all great toys for all kids.
The last thing you want is your child’s room looking like a behavioral therapist’s office. You want it to look like a kid’s playroom, with some awesome toys that your child loves.
So when we say this article is about “the best autism toys” or the “the best autism games,” what we really mean is that these are some of the most enjoyably beneficial toys for children with autism.
This does not mean “fake” toys like weighted blankets.
A weighted blanket is not a toy. It is a useful, cozy covering, but tell a kid you’re giving them a toy only to hand them a blanket instead and you’ll see one sad kid.
No, we mean actual toys that kids like to play with.
Dr. Mandi Silverman, the senior director of the Autism Center at the Child Mind Institute, says some toys can be more helpful and therapeutic than others, but ultimately “buy toys your kids like. You follow their interests”
Every kid is different, and every kid has their preferred interests. So at the end of the day the toys and games they play with should be the ones they find most engaging. Although, as we’ll see below, some toys have been specially designed with autistic children in mind.
And these not only engage, but help with development.
Case in point: sensory toys.
Why Sensory Toys are Great for Autistic Children
Sensory toys are specially designed toys to engage a child both cognitively and physically by stimulating one or more of the five senses:
Oh yeah, and the sixth sense:
Over the recent years, sensory toys have grown wildly popular. (We’re looking at you fidget spinners.) There’s even an entire section dedicated to sensory toys on Amazon.
While everyone from stressed out 9-to-5ers to bored high schoolers and aching seniors are benefitting from sensory toys, they hold a special place in the playrooms of autistic children.
Many kids with ASD experience problems processing sensory input. Sensory toys address these issues and in some instances even overcome them.
Some of the benefits sensory toys and sensory games provide for children with autism include:
- Enhanced focus
- Calm in stressful situations
- Improved motor skills and bodily control
- Decreased fear or discomfort around intense sensory stimuli
One study found that sensory toys can encourage social interaction in children with autism.
Another autism sensory study concluded play structured around sensory activities can improve sensory awareness, and actually change how the brain reacts to touch, sound, sight, and movement.
And because they can be so captivating, sensory toys can be effective reinforcers as well.
It’s not hard to see why sensory toys for autism are so popular.
Of course, some are better suited to autistic kids than others.
So let’s examine more closely the key things to keep an eye out for when choosing a sensory toy or game for your child with autism.
What to Look for in Toys for Kids with Autism
First thing’s first. Kids with autism are — you guessed it — kids. They just want to play. So the toys and games you choose should be above all else, FUN!
Next, toys and games should reflect what your kids are interested in. If certain toys are particularly engaging, introduce others like them.
They should also be safe. Though that probably goes without saying.
Beyond that, toys for autistic kids should seek to provide a calming influence, advance social interactions, encourage good behavior, and foster sensory and language development.
Some key things to look for in toys and games are:
- Visually Stimulating: Children with ASD tend to crave motion, and if they can’t be moving, they enjoy looking at and playing with moving objects. Toys or games that move, light up, spin, revolve, and the like can be very appealing.
Requires Spatial Orientation: Our vestibular senses provide information related to movement and head position. Toys that involve fine motor skills and require balance, like trampolines and the game Twister, are great at honing this sense.
Requires Physicality: Toys that stimulate muscles and joints, as well as require understanding one’s own strength and relative position of body parts, are very beneficial. Crash pads and weighted wagons work well.
Tactileness: Toys and games that require repetitive touching and keep the hands engaged help develop tactile awareness, as well as improve motor skills, size discrimination, hand-eye coordination, and desensitization.
Orally Stimulating: Some children with autism, especially younger ones, may have issues with oral sensory or sensitivity. Non-toxic, chewable toys can help with proper biting and chewing skills.
Auditory: Kids with autism are attracted to rhythmic and repetitive sounds. Non-irritating toys that deliver these types of sounds like pop tubes and rainmakers will usefully engage your children’s auditory senses.
- Parent-Proof: Sometimes the best toys are the ones we can play with together. Researchers have found the benefits of play for children with autism spectrum disorder are increased when adults join in. In other words, science says we should all play. Who are we to argue with science? But remember, there’s a good chance as a parent you will either have to play with these toys often, or at least hear them a lot, so sometimes the best toy is one that doesn’t drive you insane.
It is typically best to look for several different kinds of toys and games, each focusing separately on one or two of the items listed above. That way you don’t run the risk of overwhelming a child with autism with too much sensory stimulation.
What’s important is that these autism toys stimulate at least one of the five senses.
And of course the sixth — our sense of FUN.
It also helps if they are the right kind of toy.
Speaking of which….
Open-Ended Toys vs Close-Ended Toys: Which is Better for Autism?
Close-ended toys are toys that have a clear end point.
These include puzzles, shape sorters, most board games, etc. Once you put all the pieces of a puzzle together it’s finished and there’s nowhere else to go but start over again.
Open-ended toys are toys that do not have a definitive end point. They can be played with in many different ways according to the kid and their imagination.
They include building blocks, playsets, action figures, etc. Some things, like video games, can be both open-ended and close-ended.
Although some people will tell you one type of toy is better than the other, really they both have their benefits in helping children with autism develop.
It just depends on the circumstances.
It all comes down to what skills you're are hoping to foster. If you’re trying to teach your child about the benefits of cooperation, a close-ended board game is ideal where by completing the game they receive a reward for teamwork.
If you’re trying to help your child stay calm then an open-ended fidget toy that can be used endlessly would be ideal.
Ok, enough discussion.
Best 9 Toys and Games for Kids with AutismBelow are a list of toys and games that are fun to play with and can aid in your child’s overall development.
We start the list off with some of the best autism toys for specific ages, and then share some games and toys related to areas of development and education levels.
1. Best Sensory Toys for Autism By Age
Best Toy for Baby or Infant with Developmental Delay: Activity Center
Activity Centers are a must for any baby or infant, but they are especially beneficial to children with autism or developmental delay. Also known as Activity Tables, these all-in-one fun factories can simultaneously engage sight, sound, and touch in a non-overwhelming environment.
As an added bonus they provide a level of control that allows a baby to dictate what happens next. (As much as any baby dictates anything, of course.)
Best Toy for Autistic Toddler: Shape Sorters
Shape sorters are ideal for autistic toddlers (usually defined as being between 1 to 4 years old) or toddlers with developmental delay. From wooden blocks to plastic rings or something in between, match-and-fit toys help build fine motor skills and problem solving.
Once your toddler has mastered basic shape sorters, they can move to Mr. Potato Head, which has the added benefit of teaching them about their own body. For toddlers over the age of 3, you could also introduce some early proprioceptive stimulation with a weighted stuffed animal.
Best Toy for Autistic 5 to 6 Year Olds: Legos
Five years old is a turning point. Your child is no longer a toddler but not quite a big kid, so finding age-appropriate toys that work well is tricky. That’s why we love Legos, one of the best open-ended toys out there. Studies have shown the promise of Lego Therapy for children with autism, which often starts at around age 5 and 6.
Not only does building with Legos teach problem solving and encourage creativity, it helps with communication and social skills. Their near-inscrutability is also a perk as your child grows stronger during this time. To further help with your child’s growing physicality and need for tactile manipulatives, you could also try introducing squeeze toys.
Best Toy for Autistic 7 to 8 Year Olds: Trampoline
Trampolines offer a fun physical activity in a safe, pressure-free environment, but they can also provide stress relief and improve sensory skills for children with autism. Specifically, the up and down motion helps make a mind-body connection that aids in interpreting physical signals in place of fidgeting or rocking.
Best Toy for Autistic 9 to 12 Year Olds: Playmobil Figures
Playmobil figurines and dolls provide sensory friendly world-building. They also add a new element to those Legos they played with when younger, through creating houses and buildings and whatever else the mind can conjure for their figures to interact with.
To a certain extent these figures can even become comforting companions to your child as they begin to interact more with the real world. Take the touching story shared by a mom about her 10 year-old son and his plastic best friend.
Best Toy for Autistic Teenagers: Smart Speaker
We couldn’t agree more, robots are taking over the world. But hear us out on this one. You might not think of a smart speaker like Amazon Echo as a toy, but you’d be surprised at the number of games they offer. Not to mention talking with Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant helps with auditory stimulation, nonverbal communication, listening skills, and socialization, all while keeping your kid screen free! They also shape responsibility and self-driven routine management.
As a final bonus, you can use one to have groceries delivered to your house, freeing you up to play.
2. Best Overall Sensory Toy for Autism: Play-Doh
You know how there are “superfoods,” well Play-Doh is a super toy. It’s been around forever. (We’re pretty sure cave children used to play with it.) Not only does it encourage children to use their imaginations, but it provides several important benefits including improving calmness, hand strength, social interactions, fine motor skills, and overall sensory development.
Best of all, nearly every age from 2 year olds up can safely enjoy this toy (and benefit from it). Get it store bought, or create your own homemade play-doh for an added learning activity. It’s worth a note of caution about a potential choking hazard or if a child has wheat allergies, play-doh may not be the best for your child.
3. Best Game for Nonverbal Autism: Feelings Card Game
Some children with autism have a difficult time communicating or expressing themselves. So games that encourage both those through communal activities are ideal for nonverbal kids. MKgames Feelings is one the best games for nonverbal autism. This matching and memory card game promotes social interaction and cognitive skills by requiring players to pair expressions shown on cards and name the feelings. For added fun, players can even imitate the facial expressions on the card. Games like these are also great for family bonding.
Another fun game in the same vein that helps nonverbal autism is the Kids on Stage charades game. If you’re looking for one of the best toys for nonvberbal autism we recommend the LeapFrog Spin and Sing Alphabet Zoo.
4. Best Fidget Toy for Children and Teens with Autism: Dimpl
You might have thought we were going to go with Fidget Spinners. But that’s not really a toy. It’s more of a gadget. The Dimpl on the other hand is a small compact toy containing five silicone dimples each providing a different amount of resistance. It’s perfect for early tactile development in infants, while also improving motor skills for older children. And of course, being a fidget toy, it helps focus and calm.
The greatest toys appeal to all ages. And although the Dimpl is marketed mostly to babies, it’s actually a huge hit with every age right up to teens and beyond. Dimpl keychains are even popular for adults with autism.
5. Best STEM Toy for Children with Autism: STEM Learning Linx
What is a STEM toy? STEM toys are educational toys involving Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Whether you’re an advocate of STEM education or not, these toys are perfect for children with autism as they encourage self-motivated critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creative expression.
The Jarrby STEM Learning Linx are a set of interlocking blocks that are very versatile through stacking, sorting, building, counting, reading, and more. Because of its design element, it can also be considered a STEAM toy (the ‘A’ stands for art). Why settle for four letters, when you can have five?
6. Best Game for Preschoolers with Autism: The Missing Cupcake Game
With the best game or toy for preschoolers with autism, you want one thing above all else: sociability. When your child enters preschool, very likely it will be the first time they come into direct contact with a group of strangers — both kids and adults. So it is important to prepare them early on to not only interact with others, but cooperate with them.
Social board games built around team play are a fun way to help a preschooler with autism prepare for nursery school, kindergarten, and the like. These games are less structured around competing with one another and instead depend on teamwork to succeed.
Pete the Cat’s The Missing Cupcake Game has players work together to get cupcakes back from Grumpy Toad through singing, charades, reading, memorization, and, best of all, cooperation. The other reason why this game is so great for your preschooler with autism is because it incorporates so many different sensory activities, right down to the satisfying tactile cupcake pieces.
7. Best Educational Toy for Autistic Child: Kitchen Playset
When we think of the best educational toys for autistic children we often think in terms of school and academic development. But perhaps even more important are educational toys that prepare them for independent, everyday living. That’s why toys centered around “pretend play” (role-playing real world activities) are so great. Even studies show pretend play is a critical part of an autistic child’s development.
You probably know it better as “make-believe,” but whatever you call it, pretend play is a fun and creative way to help your child learn life skills they will need when they are older, like preparing food, cleaning, and navigating the home.
That’s why we love kitchen playsets so much. They offer so many different opportunities to teach your child with autism about vital self-sufficient activities, all while having fun! If you can, try to find one that combines several activities into one, like the kitchen and mini-supermarket playset.
8. Best Toy for Executive Functioning in Autistic Children: Jigsaw Puzzle
It has been reported that up to 80% of autistic children also have executive function disorder. Often mistaken for laziness or disorganization, executive function disorder relates to a neurological disruption or delay in normal cognitive processes typically located in the prefrontal cortex that help us regulate, control, and manage our thoughts and actions.
- Problem solving
- Working memory
- Cognitive flexibility
While there are several things a parent can do to help their child develop their executive functions, probably the funnest way is by incorporating toys and games into the mix.
You might be surprised at how healthy doing a jigsaw puzzle is for our children’s minds. Scientists have found that trying to fit a bunch of jagged pieces together to make an image taps into multiple cognitive abilities that might actually protect our brains against aging.
Jigsaw puzzles also teach autistic children independence, persistence, confidence, social skills, attentiveness, sorting, fine motor skills, memory development, problem solving… the list goes on. All of which means jigsaw puzzles are one of the best ways to improve executive function.
If you’re looking for a more action packed executive function enhancing activity give Jenga a try.
9. Best Video Game for Children with Autism: Minecraft
Understandably some parents have trepidations about video games. And while certainly screen time should be closely monitored, studies show children with autism spectrum disorder can benefit greatly from playing video games. From self-control to cognitive flexibility, sustained attention, persistence, and social skills, there are few toys or games with an ability to captivate, educate, and engage as video games.
The important thing is to pick the right one for your child.
Minecraft is an ideal video game for autistic kids. This highly-engaging open-ended game allows children with autism to learn how to interact with their environment and others. It is also a particularly powerful aid in treating children displaying executive function disorder.
Crucially, the best video games are an extension of real world activities that can be easily transitioned into physical play and learning practical skills. (Sorry Mario, hitting blocks with your head is not a practical skill.) Minecraft particularly shines in that department as it promotes play with other non-screen-based toys we listed above, like Legos. There is even a series of Minecraft toys that further the real world connection.
Autism and Gamification: How to Make Everyday Life More Fun
Video games seemed like the perfect way to round out our list of the best autism toys and games. That’s because as a final note, we would like to touch on how to extend playing beyond a single toy or game, and into you and your child’s everyday life through gamification.
Specifically, in how you manage tasks and routines.
Trust us, it’s a whole lot easier creating a good routine for children with autism when it’s a game.
In the mid-2000s cognitive psychologist James Tanaka developed a series of games to help autistic children recognize faces and interpret expressions. At first they hadn’t planned on designing games for the task but as Tanaka quickly found out, “if you want an effective intervention, you’d better gamify it; you’d better make it fun for kids.”
Hard to argue with that.
Gamification is the act of applying game elements and principles to solve problems in non-game contexts.
Everything from college lectures to selling Starbucks coffee and getting an Uber are taking advantage of gamifying their otherwise non-game activities.
In fact, at their core, each of the toys we listed above use gamification to help autistic children in their development process, be it sensory awareness, executive functioning, or social interaction.
All under the guise of fun.
We’re usually too busy playing to realize this, but a lot of times the things we (or our children) engage with most strongly are made possible by some form of gamification.
Remember the Oregon Trail?
It was one of the first educational computer games in schools. But students were too busy trying to beat the game by hunting bison, rafting across rivers, and avoiding dysentery to realize they were actually learning about the realities of 19th-century pioneer life on the American frontier.
As James Tanaka found out, the same principles can be applied to helping children with autism.
Because, although not technically a toy or game, many educational aids effectively blur the lines between education, play, fun, and development.
And many are finding the most success doing so via screen-based technology.
It is very common for children with ASD to be fascinated by screens. So it is valuable to find ways to use this technology to teach children with autism life skills.
This digital autism visual scheduler gamifies daily routine management with your autistic child.
The purpose of the Goally handheld device is to make it fun to build routines and give kids a sense of independence. Kids earn points and can unlock points and rewards (like entertaining jigsaw puzzles) when they complete their daily routines on time.
In other words, a child with autism using Goally is:
- Motivated to complete a routine task (thanks to gamification)
- Rewarded with an actual game (the jigsaw puzzle) or points
It just so happens that the fun reward is also amazingly good for their cognitive development.
And all the while they think they’re just playing.
It’s like the Oregon Trail of child development.
And as a bonus, while the kids are “winning” their daily routines, the parents are enjoying plummeting stress levels. Not that’s a game everyone can enjoy!
Conclusion: Find the Right Autism Toy for Your Child
We hope our list of the 9 best autism toys and games gave you some ideas, and will make playtime with your child all the more fun.
But like we said at the start, what matters most is that your child enjoys the toys they play with. They know what toys they like best, and those will always be the best toys for them.
Just don’t limit it to one type. Introduce a variety of activities.
Try both open-ended and close-ended toys. Try board games that require a group and devices that can be played alone. Even consider educational tools that “gamify” learning and development.
The more well-rounded your playroom the more opportunities your child will have to grow.
And most important of all have FUN!
Editor's note: This information is not meant to diagnose or treat and should not take the place of personal consultation, as needed, with a qualified healthcare provider and/or BCBA.