Engaging children with ASD in play can be challenging. We want toys that stimulate and assist in development, but play also needs to reflect enjoyment for the child, and provide an outlet for stress relief and coping. Here are some things to consider:
When choosing toys, think about what the child likes. Many kids with ASD have a deep interest in a special subject. Does the child you are shopping for have an interest in a particular subject? If so, look at gifts in these areas. If the child is interested in dinosaurs, cars, or planes, then look at toys or books related to this area. The only risk here is that s/he can rely too much on a single interest and not be challenged to try and engage in other areas where interest lacks. At the same time, don't overdo the functional play. There are times during which it is fine to let your child simply enjoy a line of toys that is pure fun. Balance is important.
Consider developmental ability rather than age. Some children may be in grade school, yet their developmental age may be closer to preschool. Good toys for children with autism who interact very little with other people are cause-and-effect toys. These toys teach that actions can cause something in the environment to change and can provide simple positive interactions between the child and others. A child who is beginning to notice peers might be ready for simple turn-taking games.
Look for Toys that Stimulate the Senses
Is the child visually oriented? If so, think about interesting visual toys or items such as disco lamps, sand panels, light twirlers or fountains. Does s/he seek to touch lots of things? If so, think about toys that are tactile. Good tactile sensory toys for children with autism must be durable and interesting to touch. Some popular sensory toys include those with vibration, tangle or fidget toys, and toys with interesting textures (e.g., books with cloth, foil, yarn, etc. attached to them, or toys with bumps, fur, raised elements, ridges, etc).
Toys that Help Social Interaction and Language Development
Teaching all children cooperation through toys is an important rite of growing up. For children with ASD, socially interactive toys are even more important for helping them to develop coping mechanisms when interacting with the wider world. Board games are excellent for this, especially when the whole family pitches in to play together. Focus especially on the issue of taking turns and not getting uptight about losing. All children need to learn these skills but the frustration element can be very intense for children on the spectrum.
Toys that Develop Motor Skills
It's really no different from what all children need but you might have to face tactile defensiveness, inability to balance, fears, etc. Many children have difficulty with fine motor skills. These are skills that require them to use their fingers and hands (like holding a pencil). Simple fine motor toys that are fun can also help children on the autism spectrum develop this essential skill.
Select quality over quantity. Too many toys can feel overwhelming and crowding. It is better to choose one good quality toy over many cheaper toys that will create great clutter. If you hit the right choice, that one toy will provide many hours of enjoyment.
Search online. There are numerous stores catering to toys for children with special needs, offering advice, good ideas, and unique products.
Information adapted from