It’s important to have an understanding of how your child processes sensory input – what they seek or crave, what they avoid or have sensitivity to. What type of sensory input is calming or alerting? An occupational therapist can help you navigate the specific sensory aspects of your toddler with autism, and how to support them at home. There are so many sensory products on the market, and it’s hard to know which products are the best for a child with autism, especially a young toddler with autism and sensory processing difficulties. Many of these toys are open-ended, designed to inspire creativity. All are designed to offer sensory benefits and help with calming and regulation. It’s important to invest in a basic list of sensory toys that will grow with your child, offering play and sensory fun for years to come.
Here is a list of our top ten learning toys for toddlers:
Bilibo seat - designed in Switzerland by child development experts, this concave bowl-like shell has endless uses. Sit in it to rock, spin or roll around the room. Stand on top of it to make announcements as the queen of the toy room. Or use it as a stepping stone to get from a chair over to the couch. Wear it on your head like a helmet to go into battle, or crawl with a Bilibo on your back as a turtle or snail. Pretend it's a garage for vehicles or a boat for stuffed animals; use it as a basket. Use it indoors or out, even in the water or snow. For kids with autism or sensory needs, they can receive different types of movement input and feedback to their vestibular systems while playing. A similar type of toy is a Teeter Popper; it has many of the same characteristics and uses for play. The bottom of the Teeter Popper toy adds cool sound effects as little suction cups "pop" during motion.
Liquid Timer – Do you remember those water arcade games – like the hand-held basketball ones? I have fond memories of shooting hoops with this travel size game on long car trips. It harkens back to the days of lava lamps. Visually appealing, calming, organizing, these slow moving bubbles of color just put your mind at ease. Toddlers will love turning the timer to refill the bucket and will hopefully visually attend long enough to empty it again. The new age timers have some cool features, water wheels, zig zags, twists - check them out!
Body sock - Made of Lycra, a body sock is a sack-like piece of stretchy fabric that covers the child’s entire body, with an opening for the head. It is similar to a sleeping bag, where one can climb completely inside. Most commercially available body socks have a Velcro-enclosure, A body sock is portable, fun and can be used creatively. It is machine washable and comes in different sizes and colors for a customizable fit. A Body sock can offer deep pressure and proprioceptive input; it is an easy toy to inspire some creative play at home. Play hide and go seek, pretend to be an animal, challenge your toddler with movement activities while wearing a body sock. For more body sock ideas, look here too.
Hanging Swing Seat - this toy offers several sensory benefits: proprioceptive input in a space defining enclosure, as well as movement. Its cozy cushion at the bottom makes a perfect spot to read or snuggle with a stuffed animal. A great size to create quiet space, your toddler can climb in side to decompress or regroup. With one foot on the floor, it offers some self-directed movement. An adult can control the motion also; think about a slow rocking (maybe a lullaby) as calming. Rotary input is alerting. Enhance the experience of using a sensory swing by bringing it outside and hanging it from a tree! Invite a friend or play peek-a-boo, for added social interaction.
Ball and hammer toy - kids of all ages get satisfaction from watching a ball go down a track, and some adults do too! Lining up balls in one of the ball and hammer toys and giving them a good whack with a mallet has its benefits. This toy can help a child with motor control and modulation of proprioceptive input, knowing how much force to apply with the hammer. It offers a purposeful outlet for pent up energy or frustration, the repetition can be calming. Both the visual and auditory systems receive pleasing input as the child watches and listens to the ball roll through the toy, and the final "thunk" at the bottom. Some versions include a xylophone for an added musical experience
Water table - not just an outdoor toy for the summer days! Water tables can hold any type of tactile medium: water, sand, beans, rice, dry pasta, water beads, snow - its endless. Bring them outside the house when it's nice, and indoors in the bad weather. Add props from the kitchen - measuring cups, long handled spoons and soup ladles, pie tins, a turkey baster. Color the water with food coloring for added visual effect. Add small vehicles to load up and dump with. Make mud pies or plates of pasta to feed baby dolls or animals. Some water tables have a divider in the middle to offer two different tactile experiences, and a cover to keep one side out of reach when necessary. Find a water table that is flexible and open ended in design, too many fixed structures can be limiting to creative play.
Bath toy set - water is often a very calming mode of sensory input for children with sensory processing difficulties. You can add a visual motor component to bath time with some cool bath toy sets. There are simple ones with nesting cups or boats for pouring water. More intricate sets involve a system of tubes with moving parts to challenge motor planning and coordination. Pouring water with control into the tubes involves the proprioceptive system, grading the angle of tilt to modulate the flow of water. Watching the water or a ball move through the pipes to activate different gears and mechanisms is visually pleasing, and good to the last drop!
Trampoline - this age-old toy brings out the kid in all of us. Depending on space, you can really think big in terms of size! Trampolines these days range from enclosed backyard fixtures to small folding circular models meant for indoor spaces. Some have handles for younger kids, and some large versions can accommodate several children to jump together. Remember that trampolines can be alerting and at times really rev kids up. But for sensory seekers who need an outlet in the middle of winter, these are life savers too. Add a cognitive component to your jump "sesh" with practicing ABCs, counting to 10 or more elaborate song practice. Add trampoline jumps as a station in an obstacle course. With a partner practice tossing a ball back and forth while jumping.
Play doh – This childhood staple is a favorite of occupational therapists. Offering both sensory and motor benefits, it can be social and pre-academic. This “mess-free” tactile medium can be calming to many toddlers with autism, especially when they help to mix some homemade play-doh – it’s warm in your hands! Practicing rolling snakes and balls, pinching and pulling – using cookie cutters, scissors or even a butter knife to work on fine motor skills. Practice making a snowman, forming and flattening cookies. Make shapes or letters, with an older toddler practice letter recognition. Target upper body strength with use of a spaghetti maker – and add some visual stimulation at the same time. Practice social skills by serving a play-doh birthday cake to a sibling, or pass out cut pieces of pizza to the family.
Yogibo - similar to a bean bag chair or giant crash cushions, these are flexible furniture. Made in so many sizes, shapes and colors, they are so comfortable. Use a Yogibo in a tent or area of the house designated to calming and decompression. Cozy up with a book or chill out with a movie, this chair can totally envelop you while you sit in it, providing deep pressure input all around. Use Yogibo for heavy work as you have your toddler pull it out from a corner and drag it into an open space. Yogibo can serve as a crash pad if you have a child who is jumping off the couch, or from a trampoline.
There are so many cool toddler toys that are great for autism and sensory processing challenges. What are your favorites?
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