Cool Gifts for Special Needs Kids

For children with autism and other special needs, toys might not be No. 1 on their holiday lists. Here are some alternate ideas.

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Cool Gifts for Kids with Special Needs

For most parents, the hardest part of holiday shopping – after sticking to a budget – is narrowing down the wish list. But for those parents whose children have special needs, finding the right gift is a reoccurring challenge.

My 11-year-old son has autism. For the longest time he didn’t care about toys or games. He couldn’t tell us what he liked and didn’t show much interest in anything. We had no idea what kinds of presents to get for him. There were times when we’d wrap socks or underwear because he got the most joy from unwrapping gifts and could care less about what was inside.

Although he now enjoys a growing number of toys, it’s still hard to come up with gift ideas for him because he gets frustrated with items that are hard to play with. When people ask what he wants for his birthday, it’s still a difficult question. You can only tell so many people to get him things that light up.

So what do you get a kid who doesn’t play with toys? Surprisingly, there are a lot of options. Take a peek at these cool gifts for kids with special needs.

Toys they can watch and enjoy

My husband has a few remote-controlled flying quadcopters and the kids love watching him fly them. They range in size and price and they are exciting to watch, except when they get stuck in a tree.

Disco balls and lighted toy aquariums are also fun to watch – and calming too. Several years ago we gave out disco balls to all the kids at our son’s birthday party. It was by far the most popular goody bag item and each one cost us $5. While I haven’t seen them as cheap as the ones we gave out, you cans still find them for under $20.

There was a summer where we had three different hurricane bubble makers because we used the bubble-blowing machine so much that we had to replace it – twice. The self-blowing bubble maker generates more bubbles than anything we’ve seen.

Cause and effect

Kids, especially those with autism, like to see action and reaction. My favorite toy in this category is the stomp rocket. The kids love stomping the “launch pad” and watching a foam rocket soar into the air. Not only is it exciting for them to see how high it gets but it also helps with gross motor skills.

The Hoberman Sphere has always been on my personal wish list. It’s simple yet the kids can’t seem to get enough of it. Other great cause and effect items are the gyro wheel and the liquid motion bubbler. Users flip it over to watch the liquid elements inside float serenely to the bottom. The box even says, “this is not a toy,” so it’s sure to please a non-toy kid.

Sensory gifts

An Amazon search under sensory toys yields thousands of results. There are far too many good ones to list, but here are two of the items I’d put on my on my wish list.

  • The Cozy Canoe is an inflatable canoe that offers deep pressure for those sitting inside it. It’s a great place to read, play or chill.
  • Fidgets/stress balls. You can never have too many fidget toys. Kids love the feel of these squishy rubber items, and I like that you can get a dozen of them for about $13.

Items for active kids

The sensory gym at occupational therapy can be a kid’s nirvana. Between the ball pit, swings, trampoline and rock wall, there is so much to do at OT. A lot of families try to recreate some kind of OT gym at home.

Trampolines, from mini-exercise ones to full-size outdoor versions, are especially popular among young jumpers. Indoor swings are great because they can be mounted to a ceiling, attached to a doorway frame or, in some cases, purchased with a base. Finally, a plastic kiddie pool and a few bags of colorful plastic balls, is an easy way to make an at-home ball pit.

Other ideas

A personalized photo book. Many drug stores allow customers to upload photos and create personalized books for as little as $10. There are also companies such as Picaboo or Shutterfly that give more flexibility in terms of choices, editing and quality. We’ve made them for all our kids. Each one of our books turned out to be between 70 and 90 pages of family photos documenting important events such as birthdays, vacations, holidays, and the first and last days of school.

Places they can go. You can’t wrap classes, tickets or memberships but these are excellent gift choices. I know some kids who do therapeutic horseback riding. One friend gave her son a horseback riding lesson for his birthday. He loved it and now goes weekly. Tickets to shows and concerts (especially sensory-friendly ones) are also great choices as are zoo or museum membership.

This post was originally published in 2016 and is updated regularly. 

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