It’s time to talk about adults on the autism spectrum and sensory toys! Most of the time, when people discuss autism and sensory needs, they only bring up children. But autistic adults exist, and we need to stim too! Autism doesn’t magically vanish when somebody turns 18. And adults with other forms of neurodiversity such as sensory processing disorder and ADHD also benefit from sensory toys. So here’s my guide, as an autistic person, to sensory and fidget items that are appropriate and fun for neurodivergent adults.
Understanding Autism, Sensory Processing Disorder, and Neurodiversity
Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by challenges with communication, social interaction, and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior. Sensory processing disorder is a condition where a person experiences difficulties receiving and responding to various sensory signals. Many kids and adults with SPD are hypersensitive to visual stimuli, sounds, and textures. Some are sensory seeking, which means they seek out certain sensations to cope with hypersensitivity, or they may be hyposensitive, meaning certain stimuli is more dull to their senses and they need more or stronger stimuli. Some people are a combination of both.
Most autistic people also have sensory processing disorder (or similar characteristics) but not all people with SPD have autism. SPD often co-occurs with learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, ADHD, brain injury, Down syndrome, and other neurodevelopmental disabilities. This means millions of people around the world process sensory information in atypical ways. If you’re one of them, you’re not alone — and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, with the right support, you can turn these differences into strengths, and for many, that includes using sensory toys to fidget and stim.
The Benefits of Stimming for Neurodivergent People
Most neurodiverse children and adults, including autistic people and those with SPD and ADHD / ADD, engage in repetitive activities in an attempt to fulfill our sensory needs. This is known as stimming, and it’s essential for our psychological well-being. Most stims are comforting and help to relieve anxiety. We also stim to express joy, and to cope with physical and emotional pain and sensory overload.
Stimming is healthy, and should be encouraged as long as it does not hurt the person or others. Some examples of beneficial stimming include hand flapping, foot tapping, spinning, twisting hair around fingers, and other forms of fidgeting. Fidget toys and sensory items are helpful tools for people who stim. Some stims are subtle, while others are noticeable and may look “weird” to people who don’t understand. Just because a stim looks different or unexpected doesn’t make it harmful. But pressuring neurodivergent people to stop stimming for the sake of appearances IS deeply damaging and can lead to psychological distress and self-injurious stims.
Autistic and other neurodivergent people can experience meltdowns that may cause us to stim in harmful ways, such as head banging, hitting ourselves, or breaking objects. Healthy forms of stimming help us avoid these meltdowns and cope with them better when they do happen.
Sensory Overload Triggers and Coping Techniques
Sensory overload happens when our bodies and minds experience more stimuli than we can handle. We all have different sensitivities, but common triggers include flashing lights, sudden or loud noises, crowds, scratchy clothing or tags, and more. I have hyperacusis, which means that my hearing is extremely sensitive. Loud noises bother me, but some sounds most people don’t notice do, too. When people chew gum near me, it’s like nails on a chalkboard, and I can become very irritable. I use noise-canceling headphones when I have to be in loud environments or around triggering sounds.
As a child, I would start screaming when my parents made me wear wool and other rough fabrics. Now I only wear clothes that are comfortable for my sensory needs.
Sensory overload can lead to meltdowns in people with autism and/or SPD. It can also trigger migraines, chronic pain flares, and emotional breakdowns in people with a variety of chronic illnesses. When somebody with sensory sensitivities tells you they’re overwhelmed, believe them. And learn to spot the signs that they’re struggling, because in the moment, they may not be able to tell you.
Sensory Toys for Autism and Neurodiversity
First, let’s get this out of the way: you’re never too old to play with toys! The concept of “age appropriate” is ridiculous when you think about it. As adults, we have certain responsibilities, but we don’t need to lose our playfulness and sense of fun. And we certainly shouldn’t be told we’re too old to utilize tools that can help us meet our sensory needs. With that said, these toys, tools, gadgets, or whatever you want to call them, were chosen by me, an autistic woman in her 20s, and my male friend the same age who has ADHD, because they’re more suited for adults and in some cases more discreet so you can use them in a college class or at work without drawing attention. They won’t all be right for everyone, so if you have a favorite we missed, let us know in the comments!
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Simple Dimple Pop Bubble Fidget Keychain
These “simple dimple” fidget toys are popular right now, and for good reason! They can provide hours of entertainment and stress relief for autistic people and other neurodivergent folks. If you love the sensation of popping bubble wrap but hate the noise, this is the perfect stim toy for you. This keychain sensory toy is easy to carry everywhere with you and super unobtrusive, so you can use it without anybody giving you funny looks.
jxcmhg Fidget Dimple Toy Push Pop Sensory Simple Toys Portable Fidget Toy with Buckle Ring Stress Relief and Anti Anxiety Puzzle Game
Bubble Wrap Popping Sensory Toy
If the bubble pop keychain isn’t enough for you, or you want something larger that simulates a whole sheet of bubble wrap, try one of these larger pop-it sensory toys. Note, if you’re sound sensitive: the popping is NOT loud like real bubble wrap. I have really bad hyperacusis and large bubble wrap popping can send me into an autism meltdown — but these are totally fine for me. Since they’re made of silicone, they’re still portable, because you can fold, roll, or squish them into your bag. And they’re easy to clean with soap and water or even in the dishwasher. These fidget toys come in an infinite range of colors and sizes, so if the ones below aren’t quite your style, check them out anyway and you’ll get tons of additional recommendations.
Clanam 1Pcs Big Size Push Jumbo Pop Bubble Fidget Sensory Toy, 8 Inch 100 Bubbles Fidget Toy,0 for Children Autism Special Needs and Adult Anxiety Stress Reliever Square Silicone Toy (Rainbow)
$8.99 in stock
WQFXYZ Pop Among Us, Pop Color Change Under The Sun Fidget Toy, Stress Relief and Anti-Anxiety Toy for Kid Adults, Pop Push Bubble Sensory Toy
This “monkey noodle” sensory toy is perfect for adults who need to self-soothe. You can stretch, pull, twirl, wrap, and squeeze monkey noodles, and they’ll bounce back to their original shape! They’re perfect for providing the sensory and tactile stimulation people with anxiety and other forms of neurodiversity need.
Magic Rainbow Ball Puzzle
Some autistic people love to solve puzzles as a form of stimming. This magic ball puzzle can be solved, or you can just move the balls around to keep your fingers busy.
Speed Cube Set
Rubik’s cubes are back, and autistic people everywhere are in heaven with all the speed cube contests and new styles of cubes being released. If you’ve never tried cubing and you’re neurodivergent, you’ve been missing out! When I’m working or in class, I prefer mindless, repetitive stimming, but in the evening, I love doing puzzles when I can give them the attention they deserve.
Chew Pen Topper
Many people on the spectrum chew to meet our autism sensory needs. If the tops of your pens are a chewed up mess, or you’re looking for an alternative to wearable “chewelry,” these silicone pen toppers are perfect.
ARK's Krypto-Bite Pencil Topper Chewable Tubes - Made in The USA (Combo - 1 of Each Toughness, Red/Green/Blue)
Shashibo Fidget Box
Tired of the usual fidget cubes and puzzles? The Shashibo shape-shifting fidget box is a totally unique sensory toy that unlocks your creativity. By shifting the pieces held together by rare earth magnets, you can reveal hidden colors and form amazing shapes. You can even combine multiple cubes to create vibrant sculptures. This is one of my favorite sensory items, and I recommend it highly to any neurodiverse person with a creative side.
SHASHIBO Shape Shifting Box - Award-Winning, Patented Fidget Cube w/ 36 Rare Earth Magnets - Extraordinary 3D Magic Cube – Fidget Toy Transforms Into Over 70 Shapes (Undersea - Explorer Series)
$25.00 in stock
I’m proud to be autistic, but when I need to stim in quiet places like work or college, I need a small sensory toy that won’t make noise or draw attention. This squeeze bean is perfect for adults and provides a different sensation than other small items such as fidget cubes. It’s especially good for people who are trying to break anxious habits like skin picking and nail biting.
I love a cutesy squeeze toy as much as the next girl, but sometimes I need a stress relief ball that’s appropriate in an office setting. This adult sensory toy set features positive affirmations to help folks on the autism spectrum get through anxious times.
Elibia Set of 3 Motivational Stress Balls for Adults and Kids - Hand Exercise Balls Grip Strengthener Hand Therapy Ball - Squishy Stress Balls for Adults Anxiety Stress Relief Toys for Teens
$8.99 in stock
Squirrel Squeeze Toy
This silly squirrel is my favorite, so I had to include it! On a bad day, seeing his head pop up makes me laugh and stops my panic attacks in their tracks.
2 PCS Set Squeeze Squirrel Toys Decompression Evil Squirrel Cup, Sensory Fidget Toys, Squishes Toy Stress Relief for Kids & Adult Tricky Funny Squeeze Toys
While not the most subtle stim, a fidget spinner can be a useful tool in your arsenal. I’ve managed to prevent a few meltdowns by having mine at the ready in situations that trigger sensory overload for me, such as riding the bus.
ATESSON Fidget Spinner Toy Ultra Durable Stainless Steel Bearing High Speed 2-5 Min Spins Precision Brass Material Hand spinner EDC ADHD Focus Anxiety Stress Relief Boredom Killing Time Toys
$9.99 in stock
Sensory Toys Mega-Pack
Are you new to sensory toys? Did you just get a diagnosis of autism, ADHD, anxiety, or sensory processing disorder and now you want to try stimming to see if it helps you cope? It can be difficult at first to know which kinds of sensory input are best for your needs. This multi-pack features a diverse range of fidgets so you can experiment with lots of different sensory toys to find what works for you!
I hope you’ll find useful autism sensory toys, ADHD fidgets, and tools for coping with sensory processing disorder in this list. But I know there are lots more, so please share your favorites in the comments!