As with any kid, there’s no magical way to know if a child with an autism spectrum disorder will love a particular item, but you can improve your chances by putting a little extra thought into your gift choice.
The first thing to note is that buying for a child with autism doesn’t have to be all that different from buying for a child who doesn’t have autism, says licensed mental health counselor Maria Davis-Pierre, whose practice specializes in providing support to parents with children on the autism spectrum. Davis-Pierre also has a daughter with autism.
“Many children on the spectrum like most of the toys neurotypical children enjoy,” she tells SheKnows. “I would simply advise getting a toy that matches their developmental age/stage.”
While chronological and cognitive appropriateness is important, a key factor is the child’s personality and interests, says Ahren Hoffman, director of education and training at the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association. “All kids should get toys that fit their personality,” she tells SheKnows. “Don’t overthink your shopping trip. Just consider the child’s needs and interests. And if in doubt, ask their parents or caregivers for advice.”
Nuts & Bolts Fidget Rod
"Sensory-related toys like fidget spinners can be a great coping mechanism, but they're fun at the same time," says Davis-Pierre. For a twist on the fidget spinner, try the Nuts and Bolts Fidget Rod. It's the perfect on-the-go sensory tool with bright, engaging colors.
Nuts and Bolts Fidget Rod, $9.99 at Fun and Function
The peanut ball, ideal for ages 5 to 8, was designed to help kids build a healthy posture and improve balance. But it's also a great way to "get the wiggles out," and its unique cradling shape provides more stability than a traditional balance ball. The constant ball movement increases blood flow and helps children get back to a place of better focus.
Gaiam kids peanut balance ball, Available on Amazon
Edushape Rainbow Soft Ball
Learning to catch and throw can be more difficult for children with autism due to having difficulty with sustained attention, says pediatric occupational therapist Helen Sadovsky. The added auditory component in this ball (little beads that shake inside) makes the activity more engaging and rewarding and draws children’s attention to play.
Edushape Rainbow Soft Ball, Available on Amazon
50 Counting Bears With Cups
The avid sorter will go crazy for this set, which includes 50 counting bears and five cups.
50 Counting Bears with Cups, Available on Amazon
Playhut Mega Fun Play Tent
With 48 balls and four play zones that can be configured in different ways, the opportunities are endless. While the Playhut Mega Fun play tent addresses sensory issues like providing a snug, safe place for a child, it also encourages social skills — it's bound to be a playdate favorite.
Playhut Mega Fun play tent, Available on Amazon
Mesh Therapy Swing
Kids with autism often highly benefit from movement activities and toys that expose them to the senses of movement and pressure, such as swings, rock walls and hammocks, says Sadovsky. This ultralight mesh therapy swing will be a favorite refuge for a child who wants to feel snug, enjoys spinning and swinging or loves to let their imagination take over.
Mesh therapy swing, $79.99 at Fun and Function
Kinetic sand offers the sensory benefits of playing at the beach without the travel or mess, letting a child's creativity flow.
Wackytivities Kinetic Sand, Available on Amazon
Weighted Disc Blanket
A fun, colorful twist on the typical weighted blanket, this one is easy to clean and highly versatile. It's great for kids with autism, ADHD and sensory integration disorder who benefit from items that have a grounding effect.
Weighted disc blanket, $215.99 at Fun and Function
Kullerbu Windmill Track Set
Not only is the wooden Kullerbu windmill track set beautifully made, it encourages pretend play and promotes fine motor skills.
Kullerby windmill track set, $106.99 at Haba
Conga Band Set
This band set is great for teaching cause and effect and encouraging auditory processing and can be helpful in getting children’s attention," says Sadovsky. The drum can also be used to teach rhythm and imitation.
Conga band set, $39.49 at Amazon
Click n’ Play Foam Pogo Jumper
The Click n' Play Foam Pogo Jumper with flashing lights and sound effects is perfect for kids who just can't sit still.
Click n' Play Foam Pogo Jumper, Available on Amazon
Color Rings Sorting Board
The easy-to-grasp, colorful rings help children learn their colors while appealing to the need for a sense of order.
Color rings sorting board, $19.99 at Lakeshore
Sensory Gel Maze
Manipulating the marble along the twisting path on this sensory gel maze is a fun, comforting activity that helps a child develop hand-eye coordination, strengthens their fingers and improves attention and focus.
Sensory gel maze, $30.99 at Fun and Function
Bead Sequences Set
This Melissa & Doug set of over 45 brilliant-color beads, five dowels and 10 patterns builds complex reasoning and fine motor skills and improves sorting and coordination.
Bead sequences set, $30.33 at Autism-Products.com
Edushape Travel Brix Building Kit
According to Sadovsky, the texture in the Travel Brix building kit provides kids with tactile sensory input, which children with autism often crave. "It’s also simple enough for them to build with on their own, and pushing the pieces together and pulling them apart works on strength and bilateral coordination (using both hands together)," she says.
Edushape Travel Brix building kit, $12.99 at Amazon
Sensory Pea Pod
This gentle, velvety sensory pea pod provides a calming cocoon for kids to read, play on a tablet or do other activities.
Sensory pea pod, $67.99 at Autism-Products.com
Musical Instruments Sounds Puzzle
Realistic sounds are played when the puzzle pieces are properly placed on the board, making this Melissa & Doug toy a fun and unique way to reinforce cause and effect and improve vocabulary and matching skills.
Musical instruments sound puzzle, $13.36 at Autism-Products.com
Giant Vibrating Turtle
Activated by both sound and touch, vibrating toys like this giant vibrating turtle encourage touch awareness, speech and stimuli input.
Giant vibrating turtle, $57.99 at Autism-Products.com
Dragon’s Breath Collecting Game
Hoffman recommends a collecting game like Dragon's Breath to promote fine motor skills, encourage attention and concentration and support sequential thought processing. (And it's perfect for any kid who's obsessed with dragons, of course.)
Dragon's Breath, $19.99 at Amazon
Gifts for Kids With Autism
Don't know what to buy a child with autism? We've got you covered.
If all else fails — or you need a gift fast — don't write off a gift card. The safest gift is the never-fail gift card. "It's the safest gift choice," says Davis-Pierre. "It removes the disappointment that can come with getting a gift they don't like, and it helps with independence skills because the child can go to the store and pick out their own toy within the budget of the gift card."
Gift card, $5 – $1,000 at Target
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