Source: Indys Child Parenting Magazine

Top Toy Tips
What to buy for kids with autism and other developmental disabilities

December 01, 2013

Gobs of gifts are lining toy stores just waiting for parents and gift givers to snatch them up. When kids have special needs, who’s to say which gifts get the green light? Parents may be surprised to learn that area experts tend toward suggesting traditional versus tech. Board games, balls and building blocks are tried and still true great activities for kids. Read on for more toy tips.

Pique interest

Many kids with autism and other developmental disorders have deep interests in a particular subject, so focus on finding toys that explore their favorite topic. It may also be important, according to Kristi Jordan, an occupational therapist with the Indiana Resource Center for Autism, to account for a child’s sensory needs. If a child is sensory avoiding for instance, then consider soft or unoffending toys that the child won’t find stressful.

Board games

Board games are a longtime favorite of families and therapists because they facilitate social interactions and teach skills like following directions and taking turns. Angela Seal, an occupational therapist at the Behavior Analysis Center for Autism, likes board games because they require a child to work on fine motor skills. Favorites include Hi Ho Cherry-O and Candy Land for the younger set. Scrabble, checkers, chess and Yahtzee are ideas for older kids.

Handy work

Seal recommends toys that can help physically strengthen a child, like Play-Doh, Moon Sand, putty or modeling clay. “Just pulling it apart, pinching it, putting cookie cutters in it, or hiding things in it will help strengthen hands for fine motor skills,” she said.

Inspired movement

Movement-based toys are great because they promote movement and balance. Gifts like toy golf sets or Bilibo rocking bowls are fun, affordable and quite helpful. Seal even recommends the hula hoop. “It’s so cheap. You can climb through it, go through its center, and pull it up and over your head. You can even give it to a friend to jump rope,” she said.

Other popular ideas include back yard zip lines, scooters and balls of all sorts. Sport activities have the added bonus of promoting social skills like eye contact and communication.

Just build it

Legos, Lego Duplos, and Tinker Toys encourage all sorts of play. With these toys kids can build, play matching games, imitate structures a playmate builds, and of course use the toys for pretend play – all great skills that Seal says have the added bonus of building much-needed fine motor muscles.


This list of low-tech toys doesn’t mean there’s no place for electronics under the Christmas tree. It’s true both Seal and Jordan prefer toys that allow or encourage movement; however, there can be academic value to some electronic toys.

“A lot of kids learn their ABCs or to count to ten on electronics; you don’t have to stay away from them. They just aren’t my primary choice. They don’t offer a variety of choice or pretend play. You sit and look at the screen and do the same thing over and over,” said Seal. If an electronic toy is chosen as a gift, she says to limit the time spent on it and make the effort to teach the child how to play with it correctly.

Still stumped?

Fortunately, toy stores are getting smart by targeting toys to specific special needs. “One of the things I’ve found helpful is Toys “R” Us and and all of the places you typically shop have gotten savvy about it. You can actually search the Internet for sensory-specific toys and disability-specific toys,” said Jordan.

Other good online resources for toys suitable for specific needs include,, and

Happy holiday hunting!