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Using Learning Toys for Students with Autism

written by: Dr. Anne Zachry • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 8/2/2012

Teaching students diagnosed with autism can be challenging. Learning toys can be a valuable instructional tool. Read on to learn about a number of educational toys that can be very useful when working with these students.

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    Autism is a developmental disorder that affects child development in a variety of areas. When teaching students with this diagnosis, it is important for teachers to focus on life skills as well as academic skills. There are many learning toys for students with autism that address the following areas: fine motor skills, emotional development, language and communication, social skills, coordination, thinking/reasoning, sensory development, sequencing and imagination. These are all skills that students with autism typically need to work on. Since teachers and parents often have a limited budget to work with, it is important to find toys that are inexpensive. Here are a variety of reasonably priced toys and the specific skill areas that they address.

    Fine Motor Skills — The key to working on fine motor skills is to make sure that the students are manipulating small items with their fingers.

    • Puzzles are great for enhancing fine motor skills, and the difficulty can be adjusted to the student’s skill level. For example, inset puzzles are great for beginners, and as the more basic puzzle are mastered, students can progress to those that have more pieces and shapes. Fortunately, puzzles can be found just about everywhere, even dollar stores.
    • Manipulating play dough or putty is also beneficial for working on fine motor development. Hiding beads or other small items inside the substance requires the child to pinch and squeeze in order to find the hidden items, which is great for hand and finger strength.
    • Tracing and drawling with crayons, markers and pencils are also great fine motor options. It is important to try different writing utensils and see which ones the child prefers. For example, I worked with a student who hated coloring with crayons, but when I offered markers, the student gladly participated.

    Emotions — Students with autism have difficulty expressing their emotions, so it is therapeutic to have them do so through the use of toys and play.

    • Stamps or stickers with emotion faces are readily available in school supply stores. When a student earns the stamp or sticker, have them identify the emotion being expressed.
    • Stress balls and punching bags are also helpful in expressing emotions and dealing with stress and anxiety.
    • Draw pictures of incomplete faces, leaving the mouth out. Ask the student to make a happy, sad or angry face to complete the drawing, then talk about how it feels to experience that emotion.

    Language and Communication — Students with autism have limitations with language and communication skills, so incorporating these skills into learning activities can help with skill building.

    • Something as simple as a whiteboard can be great for having students communicate what they want through the written word or through drawings, depending on the child’s skill level.
    • Picture cards are great as well, and these can be made on the computer using clip-art.
    • If the child is verbal, have him repeat simple tongue twisters, slowly, then increasing the speed.

    Social Skills — Students with autism have limited social skills so this can be a very challenging area to address.

    • Dolls can be great to use for social skills. Students can express emotions through role-play with dolls after teachers or parents model these skills for them.
    • There are also many great books that you can read to students or students can read to you that cover the topic of social skills. The library is a great place to look for these.
    • Social stories can be a great tool for addressing specific social situations.


    • Tossing, rolling and catching small to medium-sized balls are great for working on motor skills and coordination.
    • Another great option is having the students sit on large exercise balls when completing schoolwork.
    • Hop Scotch is a fun game that requires motor skills such as jumping as well as cognitive skills such as counting and recognizing numbers.

    Thinking and Reasoning

    • Memory games are beneficial for thinking and reasoning.
    • Any type of lower level board game requires thinking and reasoning skills. Specifically, I like “Connect Four” and “Hi-Ho Cherry-O.”
    • For students with higher level processing skills, trivia games can also be useful.

    Sensory Skills — Sensory activities involves using the senses, such as sight, sound, taste, smell, touch and movement. Many of the toys and games previously mentioned involve at least one of the five senses, and any activities that tap into more than one sense can also be therapeutic.

    • Scented markers and crayons can be used during art activities.
    • Imitating, drawing and making designs in shaving cream, pudding or other tactile media provides multi-sensory input.
    • Movement games such as the “Hokey Pokey” and “Twister” are great for sensory input and body awareness.

    Sequencing — This is an important cognitive skill that plays a role in future math skills.

    • Toys that involve sorting and stacking are very good for working on sequencing, such as nesting cups or sequencing cards.
    • Alphabet or number puzzles are good for sequencing. Cues may be required to get the student to complete them in order.
    • A simple deck of cards can be great for sequencing games.

    Imagination — Many toys on the market are geared to increase children’s imagination.

    • Dress-up clothing is great for pretend play.
    • A toy cash register can be a fun way to have the child imagine he works in a store.
    • Because children with Autism have challenges with communication and interaction, it may be necessary for teachers, parents and peers to model imaginative play.
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    Children diagnosed with autism function at a variety of levels. Most learning toys for students with autism can be adapted to a child’s particular skill level. It just takes some thought and imagination. Once again, if budget is an issue, a great place to look for these toys is at a consignment shop. You can also find many used toys in great shape at local yard sales. If you know someone with young children, they may also be willing to give some toys or games that their children have outgrown. If your budget for toys and games is not extremely limited, ToysRUs also has a catalog that is geared specifically for students with disabilities and can be accessed on their website. Try to be creative when coming up with ideas to address specific skills and remember that hands-on learning is best for students with autism.