Sensory Toys for Autism: A Holiday Gift Guide

Sensory Toys for Autism: A Holiday Gift Guide

‘Tis the season for gift-giving! However, finding the right gift for kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may be challenging as they have special needs that “ordinary” toys may not cater to. Sensory toys for autism, on the other hand, make great gifts for kids on the spectrum! 


Children with autism often have issues with sensory processing, which leaves them trying to cope with hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity. Sensory devices for autism are intended to match your child’s preferences and interests while beneficially engaging their senses.


Keep reading for an overview of both hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity in autism. We’ll also share examples of the types of calming or stimulating sensory toys to look for when selecting gifts for children with autism.


Let’s start with a look at what sensory toys are and their benefits to children on the spectrum.


What are sensory toys for autism?

Sensory toys for autism are objects or materials designed to engage one or more of a child’s senses. That includes the five common senses of sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing. 


Sensory toys may also cater to a couple of other senses we don’t usually think about - proprioception and the vestibular sense. These two senses help with self-movement, body position, coordination, balance, spatial orientation, and spatial awareness.


Benefits of sensory toys for autism

Sensory devices provide a host of mental, emotional, physical, and social benefits for children on the autism spectrum. They stimulate the brain, helping to create new neural pathways for processing, understanding, and reacting to sensory information. They help autistic children to:


  • Calm down and relax.
  • Focus on the task at hand.
  • Express emotions through laughter and sounds as they play.
  • Respond to stimuli in more positive ways.
  • Develop social learning skills.
  • Self-regulate.
  • Develop language/communication skills.
  • Improve their coordination, including hand-eye coordination.
  • Learn how to grasp objects.
  • Develop their fine and gross motor skills.
  • Explore their world through experimentation.
  • Better interact with the world around them.


Hypersensitivity vs. hyposensitivity

Challenges with sensory processing can result in hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity. While these two conditions are not unique to autism, they often occur with it. It’s important to note that many persons with autism exhibit a combination of both hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity.


Sensory toys for autism can help alleviate these conditions by stimulating or calming the various senses.


Hypersensitivity and autism

Children on the autism spectrum may have hypersensitivity to certain environmental stimuli. Common examples include bright lights, particular smells, or specific tastes and textures. The stimuli that cause hypersensitivity in a child with autism do not affect most other people, meaning the trigger can be overlooked.


A child with autism who experiences hypersensitivity may react with sensory avoidance. They try to get away from or not come into contact with stimuli that overwhelm them. You may see this in a wide variety of ways, including:


  • Shielding the eyes
  • Covering the ears
  • Pulling away from a touch
  • Refusing to wear certain clothes
  • Avoiding certain foods
  • Stimming in the form of performing repetitive movements as a way to block out the unpleasant stimulus
  • Focusing their attention elsewhere to calm down


Ways to accommodate hypersensitivity in an autistic child

Accommodations for hypersensitivity can include modifying the child’s environment or using tools and new routines to help them cope. Some helpful suggestions are:


  • Find ways to block out distressing lights and sounds, such as sunglasses, light covers, headphones, and earplugs.
  • Use products with no or mild scents, and avoid strong smells.
  • Buy clothes and bedding made of soft, comfortable material.
  • Avoid crowded events and shopping during quieter hours.
  • Provide calming sensory toys for your child.



Hyposensitivity and autism

Kids with autism are also often affected by hyposensitivity or a decreased sensitivity to certain stimuli. They may, for example, exhibit unresponsiveness to pain, seem oblivious to bright lights and loud sounds, or have a weak grasp and the tendency to drop things.


Understimulation due to their hyposensitivity may cause autistic children to become sensory seeking. They actively try to get (or to give themselves) more sensory input. You may see sensory-seeking behavior in a lot of different forms, including:


  • A fondness for loud sounds - music, video games, etc
  • Rocking back and forth
  • A tendency to touch objects and other people
  • Rubbing surfaces and objects that provide plenty of tactile stimulation
  • Being seemingly unaware of extreme cold and heat
  • A tendency to bump into things and fall
  • Stimming in the form of performing repetitive movements to provide the sensory stimulation they need


Ways to accommodate hyposensitivity in an autistic child

Accommodations for hyposensitivity will vary depending on the sense or senses affected and the individual child. Such accommodations can include the following:


  • Offer flavorful foods with a mix of textures.
  • Use visual schedules, first-then boards, and other forms of visual support
  • Provide safe open spaces by removing things they can bump into or fall over
  • Allow sufficient time to practice physical skills
  • Allow breaks between activities
  • Make use of stimulating sensory toys


Stimulating sensory toys

These kinds of toys usually engage the senses in ways that encourage activity. They provide a wealth of sensory input, often for more than just one sense.


Common characteristics of these toys include bright colors, lights, loud sounds or music, and multiple textures. 


Brightly colored sensory discs for tactile stimulation are a good example. So, too, are plastic balance stepping stones designed to engage a child’s proprioception and vestibular sense.


Some other good examples of stimulating sensory toys for autism are:


  • Sensory floor mats
  • Sequin cushions
  • Pop its
  • Chew toys
  • Bubble makers 
  • Reflective balls
  • Busy boards
  • Balance board or balance beam 
  • Shakers
  • Scented play putty, pencils, and toys
  • Horns, flutes, and recorders
  • Whistles 
  • Pop tubes


Calming sensory toys

Calming sensory devices aim to relieve stress and anxiety. They can help to block out or provide a distraction from overwhelming stimuli.


Common characteristics of calming toys that make good gifts for kids with autism include:


  • gentle vibration
  • rhythmic sounds and lights
  • soft and/or smooth surface
  • weighted
  • gentle massaging action


Fidget toys are a popular example and are perfect if you are seeking the kind of gift you can get a variety pack of for relatively cheap. A classic lava lamp is always a soothing choice too. Plus, there are a variety of variations on the classic design, including confetti and small floating toys.


Some other good examples of calming sensory toys for autism are:


  • Slime, putty, or kinetic sand
  • Stress balls
  • Weighted stuffed animal/toy/blanket
  • Rainmakers
  • Vibrating cushion
  • Hammocks, compression swings 
  • Body socks and peapods
  • Headphones or earmuffs
  • Fancy sunglasses
  • Ball pit


Playtime with an autistic child

Autistic kids play differently from other children. Many prefer solitary play, engage in repetitive actions, and lag in motor skill development. They also tend to have social skill deficits, leading to difficulty interacting with others and making friends. These issues can make playtime a challenge for parents and carers.


Cooperative play, or play with others, is a good way for autistic kids to build a range of skills. But, just as with other kids, children with autism also need alone time. So, while there will be plenty of times when participating in their play activities and interacting with them is the best way to go, they also need to do their own thing.


This alone time gives the child with autism a chance to recharge, recover from sensory overload, or escape an overwhelming situation. Your supervision from a distance is what they need at these times.


Here are some general guidelines for supervising or playing with a child with ASD.


  • Create a safe, comfortable space for your child to play. For example, dim the lights for a child with light sensitivity or have a fidget toy for a child who needs help concentrating.
  • Provide appropriate toys for your child’s age and stage of development.
  • Incorporate sensory devices in their play.
  • Incorporate their interests to make the activity more appealing to them.
  • Talk through what is happening in the activity - the steps, how one thing affects or causes another, etc.
  • Verbalize your thought processes and emotions for your child.
  • Encourage your child to verbalize or otherwise express themselves, too. 
  • Focus on your child’s strengths, not mastery or non-mastery of the task.
  • Acknowledge and celebrate their achievements, no matter how small. 
  • Encourage the building of social skills by patterning behaviors, such as taking turns and saying “Please” and “Thank you” for your child to copy.
  • When giving your child space to play on their own, remain close enough so they can still reach out to you if needed. 
  • Expect your child to have their way of engaging with an activity (autistic kids often do!). 
  • Be flexible in your goal setting and expected outcomes for the activity.
  • Monitor your child’s reaction to the activity and their emotions to avoid overstimulation, frustration, or a meltdown.


Don’t play around — choose ECCM

Sensory development plays a crucial role in helping autistic children achieve their highest level of functionality, and ECCM is here to help. We proudly serve children in need throughout Western Pennsylvania, providing early intervention and autism support services for all areas of child development. Reach out to ECCM today to get a head start in your child’s development!