Always on the lookout for novel sensory toys to use in my autism conversations with children, I found this toy several weeks ago in an art museum gift shop: 

Each button activates the cartoon sound effect depicted on the icon. Children who like cartoons love this sensory toy as it provides a bridge in the conversation to talk about their preferred topic.

        I want to share two stories from evaluations last week when children responded to the use of this sensory toy.

        One child acted out each of the cartoon actions as he pushed the 16 buttons. His favorite one was the icon on the second row to the far right. It depicts a circle with arrows to indicate a swirling movement. The sound effect includes chirping birds; the sound that occurs in cartoons when someone is knocked out or hit on the head.

I happened to have several sensory stress balls that have a bird face on them, and a “Pop Up Bob” figure that children like to squeeze to make his eyes and ears pop out:

 This child grabbed the bird stress balls and made them twirl around Pop Up Bob’s head as he activated the corresponding cartoon sound effect. He also held the birds up to his head and moved them around in tune with the sound effect. This recreation of a cartoon routine delighted him and he continued to create this pattern throughout the interview session.

        Another child became fascinated not only with the sounds but also with the visual icons on the toy. His areas of interest included science and physics. As he looked at the icon on the far left in the  third row, he asked “Is that a one ton anvil?” in reference to the number “1” on the very small visual icon of an anvil.

        Toys like these help tease out the sensory entry point for play that is a hallmark characteristic of children on the autism spectrum and distinguishes their play from the play seen in their neuro-typical peers. For the children described above, the toys provided a way for them to create sensory routines. They used these sensory routines to organize their behavior. Shared social interaction was not part of the play as the sensory aspects of the toys captured each child’s fascination in a socially exclusive way. The adults had to enter into the child’s sensory play to attempt social shared play rather than the other way around. This is in contrast to the way in which neuro-typical children use sensory toys as a bridge for social interactions.

        Share your stories about sensory toys you’ve used when evaluating children on the autism spectrum on the Autism Conversations Facebook Fan Page:

        You can find the bird sensory stress balls, Pop Up Bob, and other sensory stress balls at

        The Cartoon Sound Machine is available on Amazon.