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Penina Rybak
BY Penina Rybak
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19 Toys & Apps that can help develop Language and Social Skills in Children with Autism

The holiday season is in full swing, and that means new toys and learning opportunities for children. Children with Autism and special needs in particular, respond well to structured, repeated, developmentally appropriate “teachable moments” that account for their mental age (not chronological age), sensory needs, and differing attention span.

It’s always a challenge matching the child’s learning style to the lesson materials available, even more so when well meaning family members and friends contribute to the gift pile, and social media hype further muddies the water.

Include your child’s teachers and therapists in the gift discussion

At this time of year, I usually recommend that parents and teachers/therapists have an honest conversation via phone, Email, written note, or in person, re: which gifts can be the most meaningful and thus have the greatest impact at this time, for this particular child. My two decades “in the trenches” have taught me the importance of team collaboration that can help plan and execute an effective and enjoyable “teachable moment”.

If done right, integrating toys & tech can help facilitate cognition and self regulation. Here is my list of toys and how it can benefit a child with autism. You can use these toys as the guidelines or actual basis for your planned “teachable moment”. Good Luck!

1. Object Function Comprehension

Children first need to understand the vocabulary of their environment i.e. how their world “works”. That involves learning to identify basic objects by their appearance, texture, sound, and function. This can be done with various toys including chunky puzzles, picture books, dolls and accessories, matching objects, matching photos, and these materials:

Mr. Potato HeadRecommended Toys:


Recommended Apps:

2. Categorization: What goes together (Inclusion & Exclusion)

Children begin to master orientation to person/place/time when they can group alike/unalike objects/photos into categories and explain why. This skills helps develop higher level social skills and Executive Functioning skills which are needed later for self regulation and literacy skills.

Categorization is the precursor to developing the ability to ask and answer why? questions can help a child with special needs learn problem solving skills when things don’t go as planned and improvisation/adjustment is needed.

This is the point in time that I introduce humor into the interaction by purposely grouping items that “don’t fit” and help the child see why that’s funny. This is also the juncture in time I introduce more picture board style games into the repertoire:

What Goes TogetherRecommended Toys:


Recommended Apps:

3. Sequencing

Children learn to sequence a pattern, oral directions, or events in a story after they learn about object function and how to categorize the vocabulary and images in their memory banks. This skill is a later one to emerge, and is essentially the bridge between language and social skills. It can thus take the longest to develop and requires mastery of the first two skills mentioned above.

Sequencing is the gateway to mastering literacy and problem solving, as well as math concepts and self regulation (following a schedule, tolerating changes in routine/transitions, accepting delayed gratification). Sequencing is where “whole body” learning really counts; where the child reenacts and explains the order of what he/she is doing while doing it, building “muscle” memory and episodic memory for later scaffolded learning:

BeadsRecommended Toys:


Recommended Apps:

Please note these suggested materials are meant to be discussed with the child’s parents and team before purchase. Do you have a favorite learning toy or app? Share it in the comments below.

Looking for even more toys? Check out the Special Needs Toy Guide

Penina Rybak

Written on December 3, 2013 by:

Penina is an Autism Specialist and Educational Technology Consultant, who created the soon to be published Socially Speaking™ Social Skills Curriculum and already deployed Socially Speaking™ Social Skills Assessment Protocol iPad App. Visit her website for more information: http://sociallyspeakingLLC.com
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