It can be hard for kids with autism to learn how to play appropriately and independently with toys. My son does best with toys that have a set beginning and end. Things like puzzles are great, but it has been a struggle to find other toys beyond that. Below is my top ten list for what has worked for us.
To teach independent skills, I use ABA techniques (thanks to his therapist for teaching me) and begin by breaking it down into small steps that he can have success with. For instance with puzzles, I might have him start by just putting 2 or 3 pieces together or by completing all but the last 2 or 3 pieces for him. Each time he does so, he is rewarded with a small treat (motivation is always key to learning). After he masters that step (it might take a number of days to do so), I then continue to add a piece until he can independently do the entire puzzle himself. Be patient. It is very important to teach this skill in small enough steps to guarantee success so as not to frustrate the child. Each of the following toys can be taught using this method (use a hand over hand approach helping the child early on if necessary).
1) Melissa and Doug Pretend Pizza Party: This wooden set is sturdy enough to stand up to even the roughest of play. I started by just having my son put on the pizza toppings to an already put together pizza. After he mastered that, we moved on to putting the pizza pieces together just a couple at a time, and eventually he learned to put together the entire set himself. This is now one of his favorite toys. We just recently purchased the very similar Triple Layer Birthday Cake Set.
2) Mister Potato Head: This classic toy works perfectly for teaching independent play. If need be, start with just one piece at a time until that is mastered and work up. This toy also works well for teaching body parts as well as requesting for pieces (verbally, with a device, or with PECS).
3) Fantacolor Junior: This design board comes with 16 pictures (8 double sided boards). The picture is laid under the plastic to which large chunky plastic pegs are placed into holes matching up colors. A very simple, but fun toy to help with colors and creativity, as well as fine motor skills while teaching independent play.
4)Get a Grip on Patterns (Shaked Ed. Games) My personal favorite for independent play. This plastic grip board comes with 12 different designs that can be overlayed onto the board. Small clothespin type pegs are then placed onto the pattern. Great for working on fine motor skills (required to pinch and attach the pegs), colors, and patterns.
5) Lace up Cards: There are many types to choose from. I personally like the Melissa and Doug brand. They are cute, colorful, and very sturdy (essential for us). Again, this can be catered to your child’s ability. You can begin by having the card all laced up except for the last few holes if necessary and build from there.
6) Sort n Shape games: I like the one from Orda Industries, but there are many you can choose from. Pick one that comes with picture cards to show the pattern to imitate. The child then simply follows the pattern to place the correct shapes, colors, ect.
7) Perfection: This classic game works well as a more advance shape sorter toy. We use the game without turning on the timer. (This game will require supervision for those children who might put the small pieces into their mouths).
8) Lego Building sets: We like the Duplo sets since the pieces are bigger to handle and less likely to be placed in the mouth. We start out with just a couple of pieces and work our way up to a specific design (be sure to provide a visual picture of the desired design). We work on the same exact pattern/design until it is mastered, rather than just randomly building blocks.
9) Melissa and Doug Farm Blocks Play Set: We like this particular set, but again, there are many others to choose from. I like this farm set, because it requires the building of the set along with the play of the animals. For us, we just work on building one particular piece at a time, wait until that is mastered, move on to another part of the farm, and finally teach the placement of the animals into the play set. I placed small Velcro dots onto each piece so that they would stay together and not be knocked down with a minor bump. Trust me, this cuts way down on the frustration level.
10) Guidecraft Sort and Match Construction Trucks (or Flower Garden): Sturdy magnetic pieces attach to the color and shape guided pictures to form a truck (or flower). This toy is great for working on many skills at the same time.
Let your child’s interests guide you in what toys to teach with. Be sure to reward your child for each successful step along the way.