What Toy Should I Buy for an Autistic Child?

What kinds of toys are best for a child on the autism spectrum?

Children with autism love toys as much as anyone -- but it can be hard to know just what to buy an autistic child for Christmas, Hannuakah, birthdays, or other celebrations.

Of course, the first step is to ask the child (or his parents) for suggestions. But if you can't get the information you need just by asking, check out these recommendations for ideas.

NOTE: Because many kids with autism put toys in their mouths, you may want to check out the CDC's lead recall site before buying.

Any Toy that Relates to Your Child's Special Interests

thomas the tank engine autism teaching ideas

Kids with autism are passionate people, and they are often passionate about very specific characters, shows, toys, or activities. As an example, our son Tom would rejoice over any gift related to Thomas the Tank Engine, Theodore Tugboat, most things Disney, or Legos in almost any size, shape, or style. Observe or ask what your child loves most -- and find a related toy that fits your budget.  Voila: a successful gift!

Any Interesting Toy That Promotes Shared Play

Joint Play Father and Daughter

It can be hard for relatives and friends to figure out exactly how to play with an autistic child. That's why a gift of a toy that promotes shared play -- and is intrinsically interesting to the child -- can be a terrific choice. Such toys can range from puzzles to trampolines to model train layouts. The key to using such toys is to use them WITH the child, rather than simply handing them over and walking away.

Legos and Other Building Toys

Play with Legos

Legos have become a huge area of interest for people of all ages. Kids with autism are often attracted to these intriguing building toys, as they are easy to manipulate and can be used in many different ways. Legos, building blocks, and similar toys are a great option for helping to build imagination and skills -- and of course they can be used independently or in cooperation with other people. Like Thomas toys, they've been found to be particularly interesting to kids (and adults) on the spectrum HINT: try buying these very expensive toys on Ebay or finding them at yard sales.

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Toys R Us Toys Guide for "Differently Abled" Children

Toys R Us has a special shopping guide for children with disabilities.. Courtesy Toys R Us

Toys R Us, together with Autism Speaks, has created a collection of toys for "differently abled" children which includes a collection specifically for kids with autism-related symptoms. They've also created a useful, downloadable Guide for Buying Toys for Differently Abled Children. They categorize their toys based upon the challenges they address: Auditory, Creativity, Fine Motor, Gross Motor, Language, Self-Esteem, Social Skills, Tactile, Thinking and Visual. Since kids with autism have deficits (and talents) in virtually all of these areas, you're bound to find a toy that suits the child you're buying for -- and fits your budget.

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Fat Brain Toys for Children with Autism

Fat Brain Toys recommends these "dado cubes" for children with autism. Courtesy Fat Brain Toys
Fat Brain is a toy vendor that specializes in educational toys. They've created a special collection of toys for children with autism by a special needs advisory committee that includes a number of autism specialists.

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AblePlay Rated Toys

The AblePlay website includes a database of toys selected for children with various challenges.. Courtesy Lekotek Corporation
AblePlay is an organization which tests and rates toys based upon the needs of children with various disabilities. Check off "autism" on their search engine, and browse through their recommended items.

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Thomas the Tank Engine Toys and Videos

Thomas the Tank Engine is a favorite among children with autism.. Courtesy Learning Curve Company

If you know a child with autism, you probably know a Thomas the Tank Engine fan. If so, any of the vast collection of Thomas toys will probably be a welcome treat. One report from the UK's National Autistic Society website includes research about Thomas and Friends' special relationship to children with autism. Hint: if you're not too picky about whether your gift is brand new, you can find terrific Thomas and Friends bargains on Ebay and similar sites.

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Remember Who You're Buying For

While it may be tempting to choose an "autism toy" or to purchase the toy you think your child OUGHT to want, it's usually best to stick with what's really wanted. Otherwise, you may find that your gift lives out its life at the bottom of the closet!

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