Sensory toys have become increasingly popular in recent years due to the many benefits they provide, especially for autistic children. But what exactly are sensory toys? And how can they help support development?
Definition of Sensory Toys
Sensory toys are designed to engage one or more of the five senses - sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. They provide various textures, lights, colors, music, scents and movements that stimulate sensory receptors. Common examples include:
- Fidget toys like squishies, fidget spinners, Pop Its and liquid timers
- Light up toys like glow sticks and sensory light panels
- Noisemaking toys like rattles, rain sticks and music boxes
- Edible/scented sensory toys like chew necklaces and scented putty
- Tactile toys like kinetic sand, tactile balls, and weighted blankets
Sensory toys aim to:
- Provide calming input
- Develop fine and gross motor skills
- Allow self-expression and creativity
- Encourage interaction and exploration
- Stimulate cognitive growth
Why Sensory Toys Benefit Kids
All children can benefit from sensory toys due to the stimulation and enrichment they provide. But these toys are especially impactful for kids with sensory integration dysfunction. This includes many autistic children who struggle to process everyday sensory information.
Here’s how sensory toys help promote healthy development:
Calming and Focus
Sensory toys like fidget spinners and stress balls provide calming input. This helps restless or anxious kids self-soothe. The toys give their senses an outlet to channel excess energy and settle into a relaxed state. This enables better concentration, attention, and on-task behavior.
Toys that require manipulation boost fine and gross motor skills. Puzzles, stacking toys, balls, and pull toys increase dexterity, grip strength, and coordination. Pressing, squeezing, twisting and manipulating toys builds muscle control.
Self-Expression and Creativity
Open-ended sensory toys with no defined purpose like putty, sand and art supplies allow self-expression. Kids engage their imagination as they manually interact with the toys. This provides an outlet for creativity and individuality.
Exploration and Learning
Interactive light, sound and textured toys pique curiosity and ignite exploration. Cause-and-effect toys teach object permanence, logic, and problem-solving. This cognitive stimulation promotes learning across domains.
Multi-user sensory toys like trampolines, tunnels, and ball pits encourage playful interaction, turn-taking, and bonding. Making music or art together builds shared experiences. This teaches social skills essential for relationships.
Independence and Confidence
Mastering new skills through sensory toys builds confidence and independence. Their self-efficacy grows as sensory play enables them to regulate emotions, focus, move, create, explore and socialize on their own terms.
Sensory Toys for Autistic Kids
Many autistic children experience sensory processing issues and have sensory needs their neurotypical peers do not. Fluctuating hypersensitivities, hyposensitivities and sensory craving makes it challenging for autistic kids to feel balanced and regulated. Sensory toys can make a remarkable impact.
Here are examples of sensory toys autistic children may particularly benefit from along with the specific needs they address:
Fidget Toys - For focus, calm, and satisfying sensory input. Autistic kids often “stim” or fidget with objects to self-regulate. Fidget toys provide a constructive outlet, increasing concentration and reducing anxiety. Popular options include fidget spinners, Pop Its and other tactile/clicky toys.
Chewelry - To satisfy chewing and oral sensory needs. Silicone chew necklaces or other teething jewelry provide safe chewing and oral motor input. This is calming and reduces inappropriate chewing of clothes or objects.
Noise-Canceling Headphones - To minimize audio overstimulation. Noise-canceling headphones block overwhelming sounds and enable autistic kids to function more comfortably in noisy environments.
Weighted Toys - For comforting proprioceptive input. Deep pressure from weighted stuffed animals, blankets or lap pads activates calming receptors. This alleviates anxiety and restlessness.
Light-Up Toys - For visual stimming. Accessories with blinking lights, glow sticks and fiber optics capture attention. These are soothing, reduce visual sensitivity and satisfy kids drawn to bright objects.
Scented Toys - To address scent cravings. Autistic kids may compulsively sniff objects for comfort. Scented toys like plush with pleasing aromas offer a safer alternative to fulfill innate scent needs.
With limitless options, parents can find sensory toys to meet their child’s specific sensory preferences and developmental needs. Consulting an occupational therapist helps select truly therapeutic toys tailored to the child. Prioritizing sensory enriching play encourages progress milestones, self-regulation and a positive relationship with sensory experiences.
Choosing the Right Sensory Toys
Not all sensory toys are created equal. When purchasing sensory toys, here are key factors to consider:
Age-appropriate - Match toys to developmental stage and individual ability level. Seek toys that challenge but don’t overwhelm. Newborn basics differ vastly from toys for older kids.
Materials and Safety - Select nontoxic, durable, high-quality materials from reputable brands. Autistic kids tend to mouth or chew on toys, so toxic phthalates and lead should be avoided.
Adjustability – Look for sensory toys with adjustable features like volume control, vibration settings and lighting options. This allows personalization to the child's sensory preferences.
Level of Engagement - Note if toys require solo or multi-player use. Interactive toys encourage socialization. Solo toys help learn independent play. Balance both types.
Specific Interests - Consider the child’s unique interests to find motivating toys. Kids engage more with toys that align with preferred themes.
Variety and Rotation - Have an assortment of sensory toy types to prevent boredom. Rotate frequently to maintain novelty and fresh interest.
Easy to Clean - Seek toys that are simple to disinfect regularly. Look for dishwasher safe options or those that can be wiped clean.
By carefully selecting toys adapted to the child, parents can create just the right sensory environment for their kid to thrive.
Ways to Use Sensory Toys
Sensory toys should be easily accessible so kids can independently explore and play as desired. But parents can also guide intentional sensory play activities that maximize therapeutic benefits.
Focusing Exercises - Have the child manipulate a fidget toy while maintaining eye contact, listening or performing a task. This improves sustained focus.
Calming Routines - Incorporate sensory toys into relaxation routines like squeezing stress balls or using weighted blankets before bedtime.
Physical Challenges - Set motor challenges like stacking blocks in particular patterns or tossing toys into containers.
Creative Play - Use toys like play dough, blocks and dress-up items as jumping off points for imaginative play scenarios.
Exploration Bins - Fill containers with various sensory materials for open-ended sensory investigation.
Transitions - Bring portable toys like pinwheels or Pop Its to help self-regulate when transitioning between activities.
Social Interactions - Have children take turns or play cooperatively with sensory toys to encourage interaction.
By guiding purposeful sensory play, parents help children build developmental skills. But independent sensory toy use should also be encouraged to allow self-regulation.
Sensory Toys: An Integral Part of Childhood
Far more than simply playthings, sensory toys provide crucial sensory input and enriching experiences. They open opportunities for autistic and neurotypical children alike to comprehend the world and nurture their growth.
With an engaging sensory toy assortment, kids can develop skills, express themselves, find calm, and relate to others and their environment. Just be sure to offer a variety of types and continually introduce new toys to pique interest.
By making sensory toys readily available, parents give their children tools to thrive. Purposeful sensory integration activities further maximize benefits. But above all, inserting more sensory play into kids’ routines enhances childhood with imagination, joy and neurological nourishment.