The OTA’s Gift Guide for Children on the Spectrum

I love toys.  I could spend hours intoy stores.  I love when boxes get delivered to our clinic and I get to test out new items.  I love finding a toy that motivates a child, when nothing else has motivated them.  I could probably make a list of up to 100 items that I just love, but I’m narrowing it down to the 12 days of Christmas.


1. On the first day of Christmas, give your little one an indoor swing.  I can’t say enough about your child being able to swing every single day.  The back and forth movement is generally very calming (watch out for spinning as it can have the opposite effect).  Even better if you buy a swing that encloses your child- the small space and the “squishing” effect is also calming and organizing.

My top four choices for an indoor swing are:

  • The Airwalker Swing.  This is a favorite with just about every child I see at the clinic- from 3 years old to 12 years old.  It really squishes you in and applies deep pressure for calming.  It also provides great motor planning fun as they figure out different ways to stand, sit, or lay down in the swing.
  • Rope Chair Swing.  Okay, so I haven’t actually tried this one out yet BUT it is going to be under our Christmas tree this year for a very special boy.  I am loving the price point on this and the weight limit!   We’re going to hang it in the corner of his room and hope that it is a place he can go to when he needs to calm down.
  • Playaway 4-in-1 Doorway Set.  We own this one and it has provided YEARS of fun and calming for Brian.  It comes with a hammock swing, a pump swing, and a trapeze bar.  Great choice if you are renting and can’t hang heavy hooks in the ceilings!
  • Ekorre Hanging Seat with Air Element.  Another one we have at our clinic.  These are great because they provide a “hideaway” or a safe place for a child to retreat to.   It can go back and forth or linear, depending on how you hang it.  The air element in the base can be altered to give different input.  And it’s another that I just LOVE the price point of!


2. On the second day of Christmas, give your little one a crash pad.  I’m big on movement.  Really big on it.  I guess most occupational therapy providers probably are.  Children with autism (and many other children) love to crash!  Crashing provides that proprioceptive input that most of our kids are seeking.  Proprioception helps our kids understand where their body is in space and is generally calming.  Provide your guys with a safe place to crash when they feel the need or need help organizing themselves.  Love this link on how to make your own at Kids Activities Blog.  Not feeling crafty?  Try a Yogibo!  We have a couple of these at the clinic and the kids love crashing in them, hiding under them, and lounging on them.


3.  On the third day of Christmas, give your little one a weighted blanket.  Weighted blankets can mean the difference between getting up several times a night to a full night’s rest for some of our guys on the spectrum (not mine, unfortunately).  But they can also help with just calming down the system during the day.  Deep pressure releases all those feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.  I’ve put these on little guys before and they instantly let out a huge sigh.  Here’s a link to a no-sew weighted blanket for those of you who aren’t so handy with the needle and thread (like myself).  Also Just Kiddin’ Around is a local Midcoast Maine business that makes personalized weighted blankets (it’s my Mom, so this is a shamless plug).


4.  On the fourth day of Christmas, give your little one an exercise ball.  No need to spend a lot of money on these- you can buy them in the exercise department of most big box stores.  They are so versatile.  Great for actually doing exercises on to develop balance, motor planning, and core strength.  Great for sitting on while doing homework- this gives your child just the right amount of movement that makes it easier to focus.  Great for using as a “steamroller” and squishing your child with.  Lots of fun for very little money.


5.  On the fifth day of Christmas, give your little one some sensory-friendly clothing.  If you are a family member shopping for a loved one for Christmas, clothes are always appreciated but make sure that the child will tolerate wearing them!  All kids on the spectrum are different, but for example my little guy won’t wear anything with tags or pants that don’t have an elastic waistband.  My most favorite website for sensory-friendly clothing is Soft!  Check them out!


6. On the sixth day of Christmas, give your little one these fun Super Stacking Tops.  These are a favorite at home and at our clinic.  Anything that spins is obviously going to be a favorite among the autism crowd.  However, what we don’t initially realize is this set is working on skills like bilateral coordination, motor planning, fine motor integration, and timing.  Spinning and working on skills?  Sold!


7. On the seventh day of Christmas, give your little one a groovy light fixture for their bedroom.  Bubble tubes, lava lamps, or plasma lights are all great choices.  These can be very relaxing and are the perfect touch to a sensory room. I’ve had great luck finding lava lamps and plasma lights at Spencer’s Gifts in the Portland Mall.  Bubble tubes tend to run in the thousands of dollars but I did find this tutorial, though I can’t vouch for it (yet).


8. On the eight day of Christmas, give your little one the board game, Mouse Trap.  Okay, so this one has only been tested at home but it is a HUGE hit with Brian.  This was one of my favorite board games as a kid and I was so excited to buy it last year.  I had no idea though how into it Brian would be.  He’s not a huge fan of playing board games with us but he always jumps in on this.  It’s a very mechanical game and most of the kids I’ve encountered on the spectrum are like little engineers in the way they take things apart and try to figure out how things work.  If it will get him to sit down and socialize with us and work on things like turn-taking, I call it a winner!


9. On the ninth day of Christmas, give your little one a resistance tunnel or a body sock.  I sound like a broken record but- deep pressure, deep pressure, deep pressure.  I have bought a resistance tunnel from New England Adaptive Equipment and it has served dozens upon dozens of kids at my home and at work for about 5 years now- still going strong!  This business is a Maine business and their prices are so great compared to most therapy stores.


10. On the tenth day of Christmas, give your little one some Play-doh.  I know, it’s not a favorite of all parents because it gets in carpets or in every single door jam (true story from one of my client’s parents).  BUT, it’s a really great product.  It strengthens fingers and hands, improves dexterity, is calming and focusing for most kids, and can be used to start working on letters with a three-dimensional, sensory approach.  Change it up and buy some Thinking Putty!  Thinking Putty has more resistance than play-doh and comes in all kinds of varieties- glow in the dark, heat sensitive (so it changes color), and magnetic!


11. On the eleventh day of Christmas, give your little one some fling bugs.  So great for the stocking!  Again, another favorite at the clinic.  We lay on our backs and try to hit targets we’ve attached to the ceiling.  Great for motor planning, finger strength and dexterity, and oculomotor development.


12.  On the twelfth day of Christmas, give your little one a balance board.  There are so many choices out there for balance boards but I really love a sturdy, simple wooden one.  Balance boards are great for working on balance (duh!)- but they also are great for bringing attention to our feet which helps ground us, strengthening the core, and providing our kids with a bit of movement.  I tell parents to put the balance board by the sink and let their kids stand on it to brush their teeth or wash their faces.  Set it by the table to let them stand on it while doing homework.  Play toss with a ball while they stand on it and watch them work hand to maintain their center of gravity.  The possibilities are endless!

What are your favorite toys for your child with autism?  Share in the comments below or on The A-Word’s Facebook page!


Heather Nelson

About Heather Nelson

Heather resides in Rockland where she is busy juggling life as a newlywed, a mom to two boys (one of which who has autism), a part time job in direct sales, and a full-time job as a pediatric occupational therapy assistant. She has a love for live music, karaoke, and cheering on the underdogs.