Sensory toys continue to take the toy market by storm and promote many benefits for people with autism and other developmental disabilities. The main focus for introducing these toys is to help children or adults engage with their senses and do so in a healthy or noteworthy way. Sensory toys for kids help keep children or adults calm when overstimulated by introducing a means to regulate sensory feedback.
The same concept carries over for the contrary when children require or envy higher levels of stimulation. The proficiency of these toys to target and govern sensory pathways is integral because it enables the children and their families, friends, or peers to engage with each other on a more profound level by creating additionally enriched bonds.
A study conducted by Roseann C. Schaaf and published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders concluded that children were more likely to have met their goals after only ten weeks of regular sensory integration than children placed in the control group.
Mo Mulla, Founder of Parental Questions, has an illuminating take on sensory toys and their benefits. We asked him to enlighten us a little more on sensory toys, and he was more than thrilled to share his wealth of knowledge.
A sensory toy is a great way to stimulate sensory input, increase focus, and encourage creative play. They are also inexpensive and make for a fun little DIY project from time to time!Mo Mulla, Founder of Parental Questions
Mulla offered an extensive list of various ways sensory toys can support individuals with autism, ADHD, sensory processing disorders, and other special needs:
- Provides tactile feedback that can be a relief or a novelty to kids on the spectrum who often crave that sensation
- Aids in one’s use of their motor skills as they experiment with different ways of manipulating the toy
- It helps develop senses of proprioception, sequence, timing, and interval as kids explore new music or activities with their handheld sensory toys
- Stimulates imagination as they explore it without any instruction from adults on what they should do next
- Kids with a sensory processing disorder, ADHD, and autism tend to concentrate when they receive deep touch pressure, which means playing with these toys can also help them calm down when feeling overwhelmed
- They are inexpensive, so you can experiment with several different sensory toys out there rather than investing in one single expensive toy
The following is an overview of what sensory toys are, how they can help children and adults with autism or other disabilities (even adults with dementia), types of sensory toys, and where to buy them, plus a few of our favorite picks.
What Are Sensory Toys?
A sensory toy is a toy predominately purposed to stimulate one or more of the human senses. Typically, sensory toys are more captivating to autistic or developmentally disabled children because of their ability to facilitate stability or provide a much-needed sensory experience. Here’s some insight from disability advocate Melanie Oates, founder of MelanieOates.com:
As a parent to two children with disabilities, sensory toys are suited best for persons that need additional calming and soothing techniques. My son is autistic, and my daughter is developmentally delayed. Their needs are very different, which also impacts the type of sensory toy I chose for them. Although their needs are different, sensory toys are still extremely effective for both of their unique needs.Melanie Oates, Disability Advocate
Who Can Benefit From Sensory Toys?
Children and adults with autism or sensory processing disorders will benefit most from sensory toys. Autism is broken down into five primary types, and there are sensory toy options available across the board that help with each specific need.
- Asperger’s Syndrome
- Rett Syndrome
- Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD)
- Kanner’s Syndrome
- Pervasive Developmental Disorder
Sensory Processing Disorders (SPD’s) are broken down and classified into three patterns.
- Sensory modulation disorders
- Sensory-based motor disorders
- Sensory discrimination disorders
Typically, these various disorders or types of autism contain either hypersensitive or hyposensitive problems. The sensory toy your child or special needs adult may require should correlate with whichever issue you are up against.
Find tips on how to create a sensory room from Autism Parenting Magazine.
Sensory toys are best for children who have sensory integration problems such as autism, ADD/ADHD, or developmental delay.Mo Mulla, Founder of Parental Questions
Types Of Sensory Toys
Tactile stimulation correlates to the sense of touch, so the toys in this classification support special needs children and adults to uncover the world by managing this vital sense. Among others, you will find fidget toys in the realm of tactile stimulators. There are also busy boards, water beads, and sensory rings that each have different textures. These toys are incredibly versatile and assist in focusing, motor-skill development, and concentration.
Montessori Busy Board – this wooden sensory toy comes equipped with all sorts of activities that stimulate the tactile senses. Children can easily stay busy tying the shoelaces, using the zipper, or turning gears. If you are looking for sensory toys for toddlers, this busy board is top-notch and will certainly not disappoint.
MAGICLUB Water Beads – these water sensory toys are terrific for providing a fun and memorable, stimulating experience. When these magic beads absorb water, they enlarge and deliver a smooth, squishy texture. The relaxing and comforting effects are beneficial for children with autism or other special needs, but they can and do bring comfort to just about anyone at any age.
The best sensory toys that have worked for us are ones that have different textures. Depending on my daughter’s mood, she may want to play with something squishy, similar to the sound of a pack of baby wipes, other times; she prefers a rattle. Also, it is ok to improvise. I realized how much she liked the sound of squishy toys when I left a pack of wipes next to her during a diaper change. You better believe it, I keep an empty wipe bag as a backup in case there is ever a time I can’t find a sensory toy she likes.Melanie Oates, Disability Advocate
Comforting sensory toys play a significant role in helping people with autism or other special needs to self-regulate their emotions. Anxiety can significantly ramp up in a classroom or larger social gathering, causing distress and panic. Comforting toys provide focus and pull attention away from the situation, causing increased anxiety or panic levels. There are many options for sensory toys, and advancement in technology has made these toys even more interactive and practical.
BARMY Weighted Lap Pad – this lap pad is excellent for helping children to stay calm and relaxed during times of heightened anxiety or restlessness. It features a removable cover for easy washing and comes in a variety of different colors. The lap pad also is exceptionally portable, so bringing it to school, on vacation, or anywhere else is simple and easy.
Hand2Mind Color Mix Tubes – these relaxing therapy toys teach children to soothe themselves without screens, which can cause strain on the eyes after long periods. Each tube in the pack creates a unique experience because of the various stressful situations children can find themselves in.
Visually stimulating sensory toys bring a unique and vital experience to people with autism or other special needs. For children or adults who react best to visual stimulation, the various toys in this category bring relief by generating a much-needed response or simply by soothing the child or adult when life is getting too hectic to handle.
Light Up Magic Orb Wand – these intensely captivating visual sensory toys procure a soothing experience while sustaining a large amount of fun! They are super affordable and can be effortlessly packed for travel.
CMY Cube – The CMY Cube appears to create an endless possibility of ever-changing colors simply by twisting and turning the geometry. We had the opportunity to speak with Gabi Saper, founder, and CEO of CMY Cubes. She has a beautiful insight into sensory toys and was delighted to inform us all about the advantages of the CMY Cube.
Our CMY Cube is the most curious and utterly magnificent sensory toy you will ever own. This magical cube appears to create an ever-changing spectrum of color, providing you with endless enjoyment. Each face of the translucent cube is coated in electromagnetically subtractive materials, which at first appear as cyan, magenta, or yellow. Twisting and turning the geometry creates new combinations, resulting in the appearance of new colors.Gabi Saper, Founder & CEO of CMY Cubes
Motor Skills Development
Sensory motor-skill toys play an integral part in beginning to learn this fundamental aspect of life. Fine motor skills are responsible for helping us do anything from eating to brushing our teeth to getting dressed in the morning. These are all seemingly elementary daily routines, but individuals with special needs may have a more difficult time learning to grasp this skill set. The toys in this category are desirable for children to play with and make developing these skills more enjoyable.
Buckle Toy Learning Square – Buckles is an engaging and developmentally savvy toy that makes connecting with fine motor skills a ton of fun. This sensory learning toy features a variety of buckles to help nurture hand-eye coordination and enhanced focus.
Spike The Fine Motor Hedgehog – Spike was created to help develop fine motor skills through fun games and play. The colorful quills help kids with color recognition, sorting, and counting skills. The colorful quills are designed for easing grasping, and the toy doubles as a valuable tool in occupational therapy.
Hand-eye coordination plays more of an essential role than many might be aware. Essentially, it is teaching the mental and the physical to work together. While this type of coordination helps physical activity, which is very important for performing regular daily duties, it also gets the brain up and running. Critical thinking and problem-solving are primary intellectual skills, and the toys in this category will help foster that sort of activity.
Learning Resources Buddy Builders – Buddy builders offer a seemingly endless amount of options when it comes to cultivating hand-eye coordination in sensory development toys. Build up super tall people skyscrapers, build-out people towns, or get imaginative by entitling kids to create!
Ring Toss Game Set – Ring toss is a phenomenal game and, as a bonus, the perfect outdoor sensory toy that develops hand-eye coordination right in the comfort of your backyard. Cheer on the sun and get to work on your tan as you enrich your child’s hand-eye coordination!
Bring your child’s imagination to life by incorporating sensory art into their daily lives. Art brings out the creative side while promoting focus and concentration. The many different styles of art provoke various experiences for children with autism and sensory processing disorders. Sensory art falls under the tactile learning umbrella and is most beneficial for highly active children.
Arts & Crafts Supply Kit – Arts and crafts provide an excellent opportunity to break out the imagination and create your very own DIY sensory toys. This extensive assortment of supplies includes pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, buttons, and craft feathers, just to name a few.
Modeling Clay Kit – Bring a multitude of sensory toy experiences together by incorporating a modeling clay session into your daily routine. Sculpting with clay nurtures a child’s imagination while simultaneously enhancing hand-eye coordination and developing fine motor skills.
Teething And Chewing
Many of those diagnosed with autism or sensory processing disorders often seek out comfort through oral stimulation. As many of us know, children will put practically anything in their mouths to gnaw on. Many of these objects are dirty or unsafe, so investing in safe and clean options for meeting these oral stimulation needs becomes a high priority. There is a broad assortment of teething and chew toy options obtainable to meet the demands of every child.
Manhattan Toy Winkel Rattle & Sensory Teether Toy – This hybrid rattle-teether is among the most fun and interactive sensory toys for infants. Manhattan’s teether has stood the test of time with over twenty-five years of proven effectiveness in calming teething babies. Even the fussiest of the bunch become soothed through engaging with this combination of fun and function.
Sensory Chew Necklace – The soft bumps on these chew tubes help infants grind through the rigors and discomforts of teething. The setup is specifically designed with special needs youngsters in mind by attaching the chew tube to a breakaway necklace. The tubes themselves are made out of durable, food-grade silicone and clean super easy. They are entirely BPA-free.
Perhaps one of the more confusing sensory toy categories is speech development. Often, we think of sensory toys as being strictly employed for procuring a reaction, settling anxiety, or encouraging an emotional response. Many times, this is the case. Nevertheless, there are a plethora of sensory toys that work great to expand speech and language in addition to their otherwise primary purposes.
Just Smarty ABC Tablet – this fun and interactive tablet for toddlers is great for engaging with different sorts of dynamic play such as spelling, songs, and various study modes. The tablet utilizes rich colors and energetic characters that kids are naturally drawn to, making learning language and speech nothing more than a blast.
Mr. Potato Head – believe it or not, Mr. Potato Head is outstanding for more than just making ridiculous faces or rendering a good chuckle. This classic taps into oral labeling, interpretation through pointing, and language proliferation. So head out to the toy store or dust off your old toy chest and get Mr. Potato Head involved in your child’s speech development.
Hand strengthening sensory toys are another category of gadgets we might not speculate about often. These muscles have been evolving since infancy, anywhere from a baby crawling to beginning to connect with toys. Having stamina and endurance in the hands or fingers is exceptionally valuable for conducting daily tasks for children and adults. Incorporating sensory toys specifically targeted to keep this momentum moving forward will make a great addition to your collection.
Hand Grip Fidget Toy – this impressive fidget toy doubles as a strategy to strengthen hands, fingers, and wrists, all while still alleviating stress and anxiety. They are colorful, easy-to-clean, and made of high-quality silicone.
Therapy Putty For Finger Strength – kids will be amused for hours with this interactive putty by squeezing, stretching, kneading, and tearing it. This therapy putty is excellent for targeting in-hand manipulation skills as well as finger strength and muscle coordination.
Anti-Anxiety sensory toys come in all shapes, sizes, and styles. Anxiety can be crippling when it gets to that overwhelming level, and those with special needs may find it even harder to weather the effects. Anti-anxiety sensory toys offer a tangible distraction from the constant dread and worry by focusing attention away from the sources of stress and towards the actual redundant function of the toy.
XINBOAHONG Liquid Motion Bubbler – the slow motion, vibrant colors, and steady droplets render a visual ordeal that will bring upon a state of peace to anyone feeling overwhelmed or stressed out. This four-pack is excellent for children or adults and will bring a sense of balance to your life.
Anti-Stress Fidget Rings – while these anti-anxiety and stress relief rings can work for children, they are an excellent resource for adults living with autism, anxiety, or other special needs. These rings are quiet, relatively discrete, and provide an area of focus when anxiety or stress becomes too much to handle.
Fidget toys have hit the scene hard and are vastly popular with almost all children across the board. Nevertheless, many of these sensory toys double as extremely effective sensory fidget toys for adults. Even more so, fidget toys can play a crucial role for those living with autism or other special needs.
As a side effect, autism and anxiety can produce a general lack of focus, leading to nervous habits like nail-biting or foot-tapping. Fidget toys have provided a means to redirect that nervous energy, reduce stress in social situations, and keep hands busy to promote better concentration or focus. So, these toys are certainly loads of fun, but more importantly, they are productive and solution-based.
Fescuty Pop Fidget Toy Set Anti-Anxiety & Stress Relief – these vastly popular sensory fidget toys provide a seemingly endless ability to soothe and calm through popping the buttons in and out. They are safe, durable, and travel easily in your pocket or attached to any bag.
Stretchy Calming Noodle Autism Toys – these FDA-tested sensory toys for anxiety have proven to bring about a calm demeanor and help to re-stabilize emotional balance. These toys boast vibrant colors in the daylight and double as glow sensory toys in the dark. They are strong, durable, hypoallergenic, and completely BPA-free.
Sensory toys that energize the sense of smell may not be on the top of your toy catalog, but they do play a valuable role nevertheless. Many of the sensory toys or gadgets that connect with smell correlate with some different calming activities. There is an ample assortment of selections, from scratch and sniff stickers to scented dough or putty.
Crayola Relaxation Aroma Putty – this putty promotes calmness with six different aromas to choose from. The set includes lavender, frankincense, chamomile, clove, coconut, and tea tree. Stimulate serenity through the sense of smell while also strengthening hands and employing the tactile senses.
Colored Smencils – engage the sense of smell while forging art, working on homework, or just doodling around. These colored pencils, or “smencils,” sustain their savory fragrance for years, and the scents are comprised of blue slushie, bubble gum, and pineapple swirl, to name a few.
Sensory toys that target balance are arguably among the most pleasurable and physically interactive toys to add to the daily repertoire. Balance is a primary component in evolving gross motor skills and plays a part in both static and dynamic functions.
Static functions encompass the more stationary aspects such as sitting or lying down, while dynamic processes embrace more physical activities like walking, jumping, and running around. Either way, balance is a vital life skill, and sensory toys for balance assist tremendously in their progress.
Turtle Steps Balance Stepping Stones – these exhilarating turtle steps promote balance, coordination, and concentration for children three years and older. The set includes three large and three medium turtle stepping stones made from durable plastic, accompanied by twenty-four activity cards to ensure the fun lasts for hours.
Montessori Wooden Rocker Board – this balance board rocker is designed for both kids and adults aids in developing multiple skills simultaneously. The board facilitates balance, boosts physical awareness, and generates excellent vestibular input. It is a perfect option for those of all ages.
For many people with autism and sensory processing disorders, noise can be overwhelming. Contrarily, the desire for sound stimulation exists as well. Retreating into headphones or acquiring satisfaction from noisy toys is equally crucial for sanity and development.
When my daughter is having a meltdown, the sensory toys that make noise have been best. When it is time to wind down, for bed, for example, I gravitate towards the quieter toys like a teething ring.Melanie Oates, founder of MelanieOates.com
Rainmaker Rain Stick – this auditory stimulator is beautiful to look at while producing the calming sound of rain. It is simple to play with and will improve dexterity when children shake it around.
PROHEAR 032 Kids Ear Protection – these easy-to-pack headphones could be responsible for curtailing the next meltdown for your child. The setup is durable, stylish, and meets ANSI safety regulations.
Sensory toys for babies, like any age child, provide stimulation through various textures, sights, smells, sounds, and visual input. While it is generally uncommon to diagnose autism or sensory processing disorders in infancy, all babies will benefit developmentally from sensory engagement. It is good practice, however, to take notice of any unusual reactions made by your baby.
Baby Tummy-Time Water Mat – this fun and vibrant water mat promote motor control, planning, and sensory integration. It will also encourage your baby to recognize shapes and colors while developing early problem-solving skills.
Baby Einstein Glow & Discover Activity Station – this easy to activate sensory toy for babies is fun and interactive. There are three different modes to choose from, consisting of animals, colors, and a xylophone. The activity station also allows for switching between the languages of English, Spanish, and French.
Face it, a toddler has taken over your house and is exploring everything in their path. If you turn your back for a second, you will likely find them up on the kitchen counter. Around this age, autism or other disabilities can start to get more noticeable, so introducing sensory toys for toddlers can be an effective way to calm or stimulate when needed.
Nutty Toys Pop Tube Sensory Toys – the nutty tubes are precise as advertised – nutty! The tubes come in an eight-pack of vibrant colors and are perfect for satisfying little ones with autism or sensory processing disorders. They are also super entertaining as you addictively twist, turn, and pop them all over the place.
Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn Smart Stages Chair – this interactive chair for toddlers will keep the little ones entertained and learning for hours. The chair is programmed with over fifty sing-a-long songs, tunes, and phrases that teach first words, numbers, shapes, and more. As a bonus, the chair comes with a light-up remote, so maybe the child will stop stealing and hiding yours from you!
For Preteens And Teens
Teens and preteens with autism or other disabilities may still be working hard to master those fine motor skills or require assistance to calm down when over-stimulated. Nowadays, subtle toys and tools make teens, and preteens feel more comfortable and accepted by their peers. There is a toy for almost any need, from silent fidget toys for the classroom to gadgets designed for unique sensory motor specialties like oral fixations.
Fidget Toy Set – this fidget toy set featuring an infinity cube, fidget pad, and 3D maze, is perfectly designed for teens diagnosed with autism, ADHD, OCD, or other processing disorders. The various options in the pack will alleviate stress and reduce anxiety by taking focus away from the source.
Chew Necklace – this chewy sensory necklace is designed to calm nerves and ease tension through oral stimulation. Food-grade silicone makes up the chewy end of the necklace, and it is all-around safe and non-toxic.
Adults with autism or sensory processing disorders suffer from many of the same afflictions as children or teenagers. The pressures of life create stress, anxiety, and overall unease. Fortunately, age-appropriate toys and tools are available and specifically designed to help stimulate adults when necessary or to calm things down when life is getting increasingly overwhelming.
Ooze Tube – this mesmerizing and meditative ooze tube will undoubtedly calm your nerves and alleviate the built-up anxiety. It is affordable and will easily sit disguised on your desk at work without causing embarrassment or commotion.
Weighted Compression Vest – when you wear the weighted vest, you will feel like you are the recipient of a forever-loving hug. The vest is adjustable and aims at ensuring the wearer always feels safe and secure. These particular vests come in sizes from children through adulthood, so make sure you check the sizing before making an order.
Where To Buy Sensory Toys
- BuyBuy Baby
- Bed Bath & Beyond
- Five Below
Independent Online Shops
We hope you gained some valuable knowledge and a little insight into the role of sensory toys and their real-life effectiveness for people with autism or other sensory processing disorders. There is a seemingly endless array of toy options available, and the products covered in this article merely scratch the surface. The most important takeaway is finding the option that works best for you and your unique situation.
We would love to hear what works for you, so please feel free to share your experiences with us so that others can reap the rewards of what sensory toys and products have to offer.