Best Toys for Speech Therapy for Toddlers with Autism and Language Delays
Buying toys is just about one of my favorite things to do any day of the year. During the holidays, I can hardly resist!
Today I want to share my Ultimate Therapy Toy Guide with a few new favorites in a post I’m calling The Best Toys for Speech Therapy for Toddlers with Autism and Language Delays.
I’m grouping the toys by developmental language range (not necessarily age!) along with a very brief summary of each category with a simple description for how you could use the toy to teach language, both at home and in clinical settings.
You’ll also find Amazon links to each toy to streamline your shopping. As an Amazon affiliate, we earn a tiny commission from these purchases. It’s a great way to support our work at teachmetotalk.com – especially if you’re looking to add to your toy inventory!
I’m also linking a few related podcasts or videos to provide strategies for using the toys.
Best Toys for Speech Therapy for Toddlers for Autism and Language Delays
Kids who are functioning in the 9 to 12 month developmental range are learning to play with toys like cause and effect toys (push the button toys), simple problem solving toys like shape sorters and beginning puzzles, and early constructive toys like blocks. Children may be working on consistently alerting to and responding to events in their environment as well as sensory exploration. Kids in this range are not using very many gestures or words and are just learning to understand very simple commands while they’re playing like “Give it to me” and “Put it in.” If that’s what a child is working on, here are some great toy options.
Excellent Toys for Teaching Object Permanence
A child must learn that objects exist even when you can’t see them. This concept sets the stage for understanding and using words as labels. Until a child learns to hold a mental picture in his mind of an object – evidenced by looking for something he can’t see – he won’t be able to link real objects with their names or labels.
Excellent Toys for Teaching Cause and Effect
With these toys, we want kids to learn, I have to “do something to get something.” It’s an important cognitive and language milestone kids reach before they learn to talk. Provide opportunities for children to play with these toys with you and alone.
Spinning drum…. child reaches out and spins drum – easy to operate with a big non-electronic effect!
I love this simple piano for teaching cause and effect without the electronic effects!
Pop N Pals – classic toy to teach cause and effect with 4 different motor movements to activate the toy
Easy PUSH toy for cause and effect
Classic stand up push toy for new walkers
Easy Ball Toys… great for teaching cause and effect
Drip Drop Cups for Bath Time
Music Toy for Cause and Effect – When toddlers have significant developmental delays or sensory differences, I do use the extra “umph” by providing toys with lights/sounds to help a child learn to attend to the toy and participate in play routines.
Electronic Piano/Bongos for Cause and Effect
Excellent Toys for Teaching Simple Problem Solving
The earliest kind of toy in this stage is a tissue box…. child learns to pull and brightly colored tissues come out
Earliest puzzle… no choices – child fits shape into opening…
Great first shape sorter… child can get shape in 2 ways… excellent for babies and children with fine motor delays
Trial and Error for Simple Problem Solving… ball vs. coin
Nesting Cups for learning about size
First Cars Set
My best books for teaching pointing! There are several versions to find something that captures a child’s attention.
Bubbles are always a favorite throughout childhood. I love no-spill bubbles so you can focus on the fun without the mess. If a child is developmentally ready to talk, begin with words to teach him to ask for what he wants, or as an SLP would say, to request. The most obvious word to try is “bubble,” but if he can’t say that, it’s perfectly fine to teach him a general word to use for requests like “more” or “please.” Some therapists discourage those as early words, but read here why I STILL think teaching these all-purpose requesting words are a good idea for late talking toddlers: 10 Reasons I Still Teach The Sign for “More” First
12 – 18 Months
Kids who are functioning in the 12 – 18 month developmental range are continuing to play with toys from the previous period such as cause and effect toys (push the button toys), simple problem solving toys like shape sorters and puzzles, and constructive toys like blocks. In this stage, toddlers begin to follow commands during play such as “Where’s the dog?” and “Hit the ball with the hammer.” It’s an exciting time for expressive language development too… gestures (like waving and pointing) and first words emerge! During play toddlers are learning “functional object use” meaning that they focus on learning what things do… you roll, throw, and catch a ball, push a toy car, build with blocks, put a hat on your head, look at pictures in a book, use a cup to give the baby doll a drink, etc. Imitation is how toddlers learn best so be sure to show them how to play with toys. Talk as you play together emphasizing key words to help a child understand and then say the new word. If that’s what a child is working on, here are some great toy options.
A great first barn set – lots to do and tons of target word options!
First Baby Doll Sets
New walkers are fascinated with this spinning bus. Work on sound effects like “Whee” or a verbal routine like “Ready Set Go” as a child pulls the bus.
Nesting Blocks with Plastic Animals teach about size/order as well as animal sounds and names. I also work on prepositions/location words with these toys like in, out, up, down, on and off. My most favorite set of blocks is this darling one from Djeco. It is pricier than plain ole wooden blocks, but your possibilities for using this toy are unlimited! The blocks are so cute and graduated for stacking by size and have a rounded opening for a “door.” The set comes with several darling plastic animals for you to place in the “house.”
I have so many cute play routines for this toy, but in the beginning I tell the child we’re going to stack the blocks and I teach the word “build” or “up” as we’re stacking the blocks on top (“On top” is a good one too!) When several blocks are stacked, we choose an animal to go inside the opening of the block and, as I mentioned previously, I call this a “house.”
If a child is working on receptive language, I’ll teach him to learn the animal names and follow directions by holding 2 animals and asking, “Where’s the dog?” Once he’s chosen the correct animal, let the child put it in one of houses. Or model “up up up” as you make the animal climb up to find his house. You can knock on the door, which toddlers love, and you’re teaching them to imitate an action.
When a child is more verbal, you can try to elicit animal sounds or names. In case I haven’t said this clearly enough, the sillier you are, the better, when you’re teaching animal noises and other fun play sounds. Usually when you let go and really get in to playing by loudly modeling animal noises or doing ridiculous things with the animals, the better the child’s attention and participation will be! Once the blocks are stacked, or anytime you feel like you’re losing the child’s attention with blocks, ask him to knock over the tower. I love anything with “fall down” as the gag, because toddlers love it and I can get them to do it over and over again. Target words I teach with this toy are: block, up, push, uh-oh, fall down, knock knock (on the “doors” when animals are in the blocks), animal names, animal sounds, and names of objects on the blocks. You can also target size words with this set by teaching a child with directions like, “Let’s find the big one,” or “That one is little” as you’re stacking and playing.
Sound Shape Sorter – the shapes are also whistles!
Ball and Hammer Toy
If I could only have 1 toy for therapy, this would be it… my favorite ball and hammer toy! Teach exclamatory words like “Boom! Boom!” and “Yay!” I teach the words ball and push with this toy. Prepositions are a natural target too – in, down, out. Many kids will try to match the balls to the hole openings.
GREAT quiet activity for toddlers… long car rides, planes, etc. Prep a child first by playing together with the book to show her how to complete the interactive pages…
All car toys can be tons of fun for toddlers, but I love a good race track! Kids will try to imitate the car noise, “Vroom, vroom,” or a raspberry car sound or any other goofy car sound you make! Other targets are “Ready, set, go!” especially if you’ve introduced that phrase or word with other toys and are trying to generalize that word. When a child LOVES this toy, I do use it for requesting. You can start with a general word, but I try to teach words like “car” or “truck” since the toy is motivating and the turns are very quick.
Beginner puzzles – not too many options and big knobs to guide little hands!
18 to 24 Months
Kids who are functioning in the 18 – 24 month developmental range are continuing to play with toys from the previous period and continue to master cause and effect toys, simple problem solving toys like shape sorters and puzzles, and constructive toys like blocks. In this stage, toddlers follow commands to identify objects during play such as “Where’s the dog?” and to complete tasks like “The cow is so tired. Put him in the barn to go to sleep.” During play toddlers continue to perfect “functional object use” and are expanding the kinds of things they do with toys including early pretending as a child begins to use one toy to represent something else during play based on familiar, everyday
activities they perform. For example, a child may place a block to his ear and pretend to talk on the phone or use a drum stick as a spoon to feed a baby doll. Imitation is still how toddlers learn best so be sure to show them how to play with toys. Talk as you play together emphasizing key words to help a child understand and then say the new word. Children typically experience a language explosion during this developmental range so include toys that teach new words, and not just nouns or labels for objects! Be sure to introduce verbs/action words, prepositions/location words, and early possessives/pronouns. If that’s what a child is working on, here are some great toy options.
Mr. Potato Head
Mr. Potato Head is fantastic for any toddler! It’s a basic vocabulary building activity since you can target body parts and basic clothing items such as hats and shoes. There are sets with purses and earrings and other “themed” sets related to holidays and children’s characters. Get the giant 2.5 size gallon ziplock bags so you can keep all of your accessories together. I would definitely use this during parent-child playtime only so your pieces don’t get lost.
Housework activities are of high interest to toddlers and a great way to teach imitation!
Baby Doll Sets
Baby Doll Sets are another high interest toy for boys and girls. It’s perfect for teaching functional object use (brush the baby’s hair, give her a drink, etc.) as well as early pretending.
I love to use baby bathtubs for a “bumped” up doll play experience. Don’t get your hopes up too high for the shower! It’s a drip-drop but so fun for toddlers!
The Plat ball is a toy for older children, but I use it with toddlers all the time! It’s a ball that can be pushed flat and then pops open. Toddlers need help to learn to push the ball flat, and their little fingers can get caught in the edges, so save this toy for play with a parent or older child. The directions on the package talk about throwing the ball and letting it pop open in the air, but I use it on the floor. It’s a great toy for sensory-seekers and kids who crave deep pressure. I also use it for turn-taking practice since the turns are fast and fun, even if you’re not the one who gets to push the ball. There are so many words you can teach with this toy, but the ones I use most are: ball, push, pop, mine, more, please, roll, kick, stuck, uh-oh, surprise, scary (“not scary”).
Another favorite ball toy… but don’t let the child chew on the foam balls! Hog Wild makes this toy in a variety of animals… cow, dinosaur, unicorn, even a Christmas line. Set up a verbal routine like “Ready Set Go!” or “Push and Pop!” for a child to fill in the last word. Great activity for kids who need to move to stay regulated. Use this toy between other sit down play routines.
This older version of a ring stacker is the best Ring Stacker I’ve owned in my career! Kids who need a visual hook to keep their attention love the spinning…
When kids are in the 24 month developmental range, they’re talking! Not only with single words – but short phrases begin to dominate a child’s speech. Vocabulary development continues to be a focus so that what a child says becomes longer and longer and more and more complex. Play sets become much more appropriate and can be used to teach TONS of new words!
A great barn if you’re looking for a bump up from Fisher Price!
If one of your little friends loves latches but not playing with toys, this barn helps blend those activities and hooks his attention with something he loves.
Cars and Trucks
Vehicles will always be fun, but this set is great because of the magnets!
With a play house, help a child learn to pretend first by doing things he already does in his everyday life – eat, take a bath, go to bed, etc…
While it’s fun to use this toy as an animal hospital, I usually use plastic characters or other small toys (like cars or balls) to hide inside the doors to teach object identification and new nouns.
More Toys with Keys
Another Fun Ball Toy – an excellent choice for a child with autism who is obsessed with numbers. Use his preferred interest to help him connect with you and share a play routine.
Kitchen Play is always a wonderful opportunity for language development. Here are my favorite kitchen toys:
This pretend microwave is always a big hit!
Super fun water play for toddlers as you’re teaching a child to pretend!
Easy Wooden Puzzles
In previous posts I’ve admitted this, and I’ll share it here too…I own an embarrassing number of toddler puzzles, but they are “gold” when it comes to targeting language. The best puzzles for toddlers have wooden pegs or tiny knobs for easy handling by little fingers. Each picture is one individual piece that comes out separately. Wooden puzzles are cheap ($3-$10) and most toddlers love to do them. You can find puzzles with any kind of theme – farm animals, zoo animals, vehicles, food, bath time, toys, etc… I’ve linked several here so you can be sure you’re looking for VARIETY! Don’t buy more than a couple for each theme! Stay away from puzzles with ABCs, colors, and numbers until your child is really talking. Stick to puzzles with words a child needs to expand his vocabulary with new words.
Of course you can teach a child to say new words with puzzles, but many times a toddler isn’t quite ready for this during early sessions. What should you do then? Puzzles are great for targeting an earlier skill – building receptive language or what a child understands. You’re teaching a child to learn new words as you label the piece as you place it in the puzzle, but there are several better ways to target comprehension with puzzles. You can hold up 2 different pieces and say, “Get the ___.” Or place several pieces on floor and ask him, “Where’s the ___.”
You can also target receptive language during clean up time with puzzles. After you’ve named the pieces as he’s putting the piece in, tell him which piece to get to clean up the puzzle. Expand receptive language more by asking him tougher questions, “Which one says moo?” “Which one flies?” Which one goes in the water?” “Which one do you wear on your feet?”
One more IMPORTANT tip… DON’T INSIST THAT THE CHILD DO THE WHOLE PUZZLE BEFORE YOU PUT IT AWAY.
When you do this, you are CONTRIBUTING to all sort of undesirable behavior!! No wonder he cries or throws or whatever else he does that you don’t like… if he can’t sit still that long, he can’t sit still that long! It’s up to YOU to make it fun enough so that a child wants to stay! If he does 2 pieces today, that’s okay. He may do 3 tomorrow and 4 the next day. Take it at each child’s pace! I promise this is a better “no tears” way : )
I love playdoh! Use a set with accessories for more vocabulary building opportunities!
Fantastic gross motor options for toddlers who need to move, move, move!
Bowling Sets are tons of fun for first games with peers!
36 Months and Beyond
Play really “bumps up” to a new developmental level when we provide realistic props to support developing imaginations and language skills. Be sure to add extra sequences (or steps to play), new vocabulary across word categories (not just nouns, but verbs, prepositions, descriptive words, and pronouns), new relationships (or roles in play), and new toys to enhance pretending. Watch this podcast for a full explanation of these factors.
These tiles are super for open-ended constructive play. If a child is “stuck” on blocks or legos, introduce these!
Excellent set/props for more advanced pretending!
Look for simple costumes for simple on/off to begin.
Restaurant (pizza, ice cream shop, hot chocolate stand)
Play doh sets continue to be lots of fun for preschoolers and provide language-rich teaching opportunities.
Apples (orchard, farm)
Just like with toddlers, preschoolers love to play on the farm too! Choose larger, more realistic sized toys with little friends when peers are joining in your play too.
Kids want to begin to dress up around age 3 so the first set contains a “dr shirt.” All the following sets contain plenty to talk about as you pretend you’re going to the dr.
Combine themes of animals and doctors, and you’ve got pet shop – always a fun hit for preschoolers.
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