Toddlers are typically defined as children between the ages of one and three. Research suggests that early screening to detect autism in toddlers and provide intervention measures can help lead to increased intelligence levels, language skills, and behavior. This recent research also suggests that the best type of intervention for autistic toddlers is interacting with therapists and parents in natural home settings focused on play activities rather than other types of commonly used therapies such as Applied Behavioral Analysis that involve the therapist or parent interacting with the child in a desk setting, where the adult gives small tasks to the toddler and provides feedback as to whether the tasks are performed correctly. In short, playing with toys is good!
Toddlers with autism may exhibit the following characteristics:
- Difficulty communicating or understanding verbal commands and gestures
- Throws tantrums
- Prone to repetitive behavior
- Doesn’t seem to pay attention to others
- Has delayed speech skills
Remember that a toddler with autism is likely to be developmentally younger than other peers of his or her age. This means that the age recommendations on toys aren’t super helpful for determining if the toy is age appropriate for an autistic child. When in doubt, go for safe toys that are aimed towards babies or younger toddlers. Some specific categories of toys that are good include:
- Animated and sing-along videos
- Music Toys
- Puzzles and Shape-Fitting Toys
- Physical Activity Toys
Animated and sing-along videos
Such videos when used in moderation can help toddlers who aren’t very verbal gain verbal skills. Autistic toddlers may be encouraged to try to mimic the speech and sounds in such videos. The music in these videos can also help calm and amuse your toddler, and repeated viewings can breed familiarity with characters in your child. The choice of videos for such purposes is huge, including Disney classics such as Aladdin and Lion King.
Another advice that autistic parents often say is useful is trying toys that a child found interesting before but hasn’t played with for a while. For example, if your child found a certain stacking toy interesting as a 1 year old but stopped playing with it after that, if you bring it out again at age 3 that child may regain interest in it.
Multiple bloggers mention that Music Blocks by Neurosmith (there may be other similar products on the market by now, but Neurosmith was the original pioneer of Music Blocks) is a great toy for autistic toddlers. Music Blocks allow children to create musical compositions by orienting blocks that are cartridges for different types of musical sounds. They teach children how to assemble sequences together as well as provide a calming effect.
Puzzle and Shape-Fitting Toys
Puzzles are particularly interesting to autistic toddlers because they provide them a logical and structured problem to solve. One problem is that autistic toddlers may get attached to one specific puzzle and do it over and over. Gradually introducing new puzzles and interacting with your toddler to encourage him or her to try these new ones can address this issue. Wooden puzzles such as the Melissa & Doug Deluxe Wooden USA Map Puzzle are good options because they don’t tear like cardboard puzzles. Shape-fitting toys such as the Fisher-Price Baby’s First Blocks also serve a similar purpose and can be a good opportunity to play with your toddler.
Physical Activity Toys
Children with autism often have vestibular issues that make them extra sensitive to body position and balance. Because of this they may find jumping on trampolines particularly stimulating. Spinning toys such as the Playskool Sit-N-Spin also interest them for similar reasons. Finally, toddler bicycles can also help them work off energy and stay contented while developing motor skills.