When we make a trip to practically ANY store, we always wind up in a section where sensory toys live. I’m searching for a book in the book store, and happen over to the squishies. Grocery shopping in Walmart leads to the slime and play dough section. It never fails. My family pretty much HAS to have a sensory toy experience while shopping, because we are quite the sensory family! So if you need help deciding which kinds of items make the sensory toys for your kiddo, I can definitely offer some advice!
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Why sensory toys help autistic kids
Kids (and adults) on the autism spectrum experience the world in a much different way than non-autistic people. Our sensory systems are wired differently, and we process sensory information based upon that wiring.
Autistic children may be overstimulated easily by sensory input, such as sounds, sights, and smells. Others require a lot of sensory input to stay calm. Some are a mixture of both – they may block out unwanted sounds while constantly seeking other forms of sensory input.
Sensory toys help regulate the sensory system of individuals with autism and sensory processing disorders. Certain textures, sights, sounds, and smells can be calming for those who are prone to meltdowns. Other types of sensory items can fill constant needs for motion and proprioceptive input.
If you’re new to the sensory world, this quick rundown should help you understand the different sensory systems, and how different input can help your own child.
We are all familiar with the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. But there are some other sensory systems that operate in our bodies, and autism can greatly affect these systems: proprioceptive, interoceptive, and vestibular.
The proprioceptive sensory system
Proprioception is your awareness of your body and its parts in space. You can move your arm up and down without looking at it, because you can sense where it is in relationship to the rest of your body.
When the proprioceptive system is not properly functioning, it is difficult to determine where the parts of the body are relative to their environment. A child sitting in a classroom may constantly shake their leg or tap their foot, because they are struggling to sense its location in space. Constantly providing sensory input to their foot by these means helps the child remain aware of their foot’s placement.
Some children on the autism spectrum require a lot of proprioceptive input. A few signs of this are constant chewing, excessive rough play, crashing into things, and repetitive bodily movements such as tapping a foot or wiggling while seated.
Children with strong proprioceptive needs benefit from crash pads, heavy work activities, stretching, and joint compressions. Here are some of the best sensory toys and tools for proprioceptive input:
- Crash pad
- Stepping stones
- Medicine ball
- Stretchy bands
- Body sock
- Chewy toys
- Climber (THIS climber has been a game changer in our basement!)
- Stretchy noodles
- Exercise ball
- Weighted blanket
- Vibrating neck pillow
Interoceptive sensory system
Interoception is basically one’s awareness of what is going on inside the body. The interoceptive system lets us know when we are hungry or full, and hot or cold. It also tells us when we need to use the bathroom, we have an itch, or we are experiencing pain.
Children whose interoceptive systems are not properly functioning struggle with daily activities and self regulation because they cannot recognize their body’s signals. While I can’t suggest any specific sensory toys or tools to directly help, a regular sensory diet will improve your child’s interoceptive system over time.
Vestibular sensory system
The vestibular system is what gives us a sense of balance and orientation within space. A good old game of pin the tale on the donkey will show you how well your vestibular system is working!
Some children struggle with clumsiness, and often trip over things or bump into objects. This is a sign of an immature vestibular system. They may also get dizzy easily, or lose their balance during everyday activities. Other children may spin constantly without ever feeling dizzy, and they seek these kinds of activities.
Here are some great sensory toys and tools for vestibular seekers:
- Balance board
- Pod swing (This swing is still the favorite, after 2 years!)
- Spiderweb swing
- Rocking chair
- Peanut ball
- Indoor trampoline
- Scooter board
- Teeter popper
- Moon shoes
- Swivel car
- Hopper ball
Best sensory toys for calming children
If you’re looking for some great go-to items to keep on hand, here’s the list! These sensory toys and tools are great for most autistic children, in general, for regulation and calming down:
- Star projector lamp
- Slow-rise squishies
- Chewy toys
- Flip sequins
- Body brush
- LED color-changing lamp
- Bubble lamp(Not sure how we ever survived without this!)
- Fiber optic strands
- Water timer
- Glitter bottle (Here’s a great tutorial on how to make your own glitter bottles!)
- Fidget spinner
- Swirl lamp
- Vibrating pet (Holding the hamsters or bugs in their palms calms my boys.)
- noise-cancelling headphones
Choosing the best sensory toys for your child
Hopefully by now you have a good grasp on which kinds of items would make the best sensory toys for your kiddo! We use the calming lights and squishy toys in our sensory rooms on a daily basis. But my boys also use their swings and climber in the basement every day. Getting a nice, well rounded sensory experience each day, throughout the day, has made a huge difference in how my own autistic kiddos handle the world around them. What is your child’s current favorite sensory toy? Let m know in the comments below!