When my autistic son was a toddler one of the hardest things was finding ways to engage him. I remember trying to play with him and he would walk away or turn his back on me, I really found this tough. It felt like something had to be really exciting and new for him to get him involved and I wasn’t good enough.
I hated the question ‘what are his favourite things to do’ and it was the first thing every professional asked. I had no idea what the answer was!
Speech, language and communication skills often begin with asking for help or to request something, hence the need to know what a child may want. My son is still non-verbal but has much better awareness and engagement of the people around him. He uses the Picture Exchange Communication System® / PECS® and that requires reinforces (items that the child will request). Finding motivating toys for autistic toddlers is a real challenge. At first we spent a lot of time giving my son chocolate or biscuits because they were the only things he wanted more of.
We also use Attention Autism which is a great way to teach attention skills. This also requires you to have motivational items that the child will take an interest in.
How to find out what motivates your child?
I often thought that my son had no motivation, no real interests. I think I wasn’t looking properly, I was expecting typical interests and missing the more sensory stuff. Everyone has likes and dislikes, however, for some children on the spectrum even wanting an item is not enough to motivate them to communicate. So finding highly motivating items is really important. It is well worth you spending a week just working out what your child’s likes and dislikes are. Remember it can take time, keep going and you will find things that motivate your child.
If they have a special interest then that is brilliant and I would say just run with it using different items that relate to that interest.
Watch your child when they have free play time – what they choose to engage with.
Do a test- offer them a number of items one by one, take time to see their reaction to the items. If something is dismissed it is not a preferred item. What do they prefer?
Remember that it is always worth re-introducing items as what motivates your child can change. Children can be really inconsistent so have several motivators on hand so if one doesn’t work you can jump to the next.
Think about what you want the item for. If it is for Attention Autism you want items that are visually pleasing and something that can be shown. For PECS it needs to be something that the child will want enough to ask for it. With PECS it is also great to have items that can be stopped, or that have lots of bits so it can be asked for over and over. If you want to use toys for playing with your child, think about which ones they might need your help with and will need to involve you.
List of reinforcers and motivating toys for autistic kids
Obviously every child is totally different and will have their own preferences. However I know there was a time I was desperate for some suggestions so I thought it might be helpful to list the things that have worked well for me.
The best motivator is you
You are probably the most versatile thing in the room and being able to make yourself a key motivator is really valuable. Wanting you for interactive games is a great tool for learning communication.
My boys love being physical and really enjoy:
- Being lifted in the air
Tickles is a great one for requesting more. Utilising people and even pets can be great motivation, plus this is free and easy to do anytime!
Obviously not actually a toy but food is a great place to start if you are struggling to find motivating items. Even my youngest who hates chocolate cake and biscuits (not really sure how this is possible for a child of mine), can be bribed by marshmallows.
Use snack time and break food up into small pieces so the child needs to ask for more. At first I found we could only use treat foods but slowly we were able to get my son to request other snacks. Food to try:
- Bread sticks
- Rice cakes
- Chocolate (buttons are great)
- Biscuits (packs of mini cookies or chocolate fingers)
For some autistic children using messy and sensory play items can be a good idea.
- Foam Soap is amazing, it can be used anywhere and is really easy to clean up. I like to get it in my hand and clap so it falls everywhere.
- Paint, try to find painting activities that you need to used different colours that can be held back and requested. Also try to buy washable paint to help with the clean up.
- Glitter is something my son loves, it is a nightmare to tidy up but a good way to make some art and craft.
- Playdoh I like the kits as they have some great tools to use with the playdoh. As a toddler my son would often want help to use the tools.
- Stickers. You can get some lovely Sticker books or magazines. My son prefers to use books that have a set place the sticker is supposed to go rather than the – they go anywhere approach!
- Bubbles have to be the best thing to get a child’s attention, I have them stashed all over the house. Bubble machines are fantastic.
- Balloons – just blow them up, ‘ready steady go’ and let go.
- Party bag fillers are good options like these foam rockets or whistles.
- A bit pricey but this Click Clack Track and Car always seem to go down well.
- Posting toys like this pig coin box are good. Although my son caught on quickly and used to hide the coins from his speech therapist so he wouldn’t have to keep asking for them.
- Not a favourite of my kids but I have seen many love electronic animals that walk or do flips like this dog.
- Spinning tops
- Wind up toys like these chattering teeth.
- Pop up toys
- We had a monkey Jack in the box which would have both my boys in fits of laughter as it popped up. A really good one for interacting together.
- Musical instruments sometimes something noisy helps to gain attention.
My son loves sensory items but it can be hard to get these back sometimes!
- Disco ball
- Physical toys like slides and trampolines can be highly motivating for some kids. My eldest really loves a good jump.
- Puzzles can be great motivators for some kids.
- Train sets, toddlers often need help putting tracks together.
- Pop up Pirate is very popular in our house and a good way to get kids taking turns.
- Duplo or building bricks
If all else fails I find the Ipad (just make sure it’s in a good case) or apps on your phone are very highly motivating. We used puzzle apps with my son at first, I would sit next to him and each time he completed a puzzle (4/5 pieces each) I would take the Ipad back and he would need to ask for more. Some apps will require your help so choose wisely.
Let me know what motivators work for you in the comments. Also if you found this helpful you may want to sign up to my monthly newsletter.