Holiday gift giving is difficult, but finding gifts for those with special needs can be especially challenging. It is even harder if the recipient is nonverbal, like my 10-year old son Christopher. I wrote about special needs gift giving in my monthly newsletter, and promised to elaborate here on the blog. So, with one week left until Christmas, here are some tips if you are still shopping for someone with special needs.
In the newsletter, I emphasized the importance of talking to the parents or caregivers. This really is the best first step. With disabilities increasing, there are a lot more gifts being marketed towards special needs. And some of my favorite resources are listed at the end of this post. But people with special needs, especially autism, are as different as snowflakes. They have different interests, abilities, challenges and issues. So, you’ll want want to make sure to find out:
There are a lot of feelings and emotions scenario games marketed towards individuals with autism, because things like reading facial expressions and reacting appropriately may be challenging. These games are great, but absolutely don’t work for my severe nonverbal child. He can’t describe a scenario or an emotion or a facial expression – we are working on saying simple words. Similarly, a sensory blanket or light up toy would not be appropriate for an individual with high functioning Asperger’s Syndrome who loves designing video games.
Getting a gift that is well below skill level is insulting. And receiving a gift designed for someone with a higher skill level is a disappointing reminder of how behind the individual is compared to peers. This is the last thing you want when you are giving a gift that you hope brings joy, so find out in advance what skill level your recipient is at. Also keep in mind that the individual might be very highly functioning in some areas, and my lower functioning in others (so get the info in relation to the specific type of gift you are giving).
A lot of special needs resources can be sorted by the skill you are working on – like language building, sensory integration, social skills, etc. So ask family what they are currently working on developing with the individual. Then, see if you can find a gift that might help make that fun. We’ve had success with toys specifically designed for special needs – like lacing toys, weighted blankets, and swings – as well as with typical toys that help build skills – like puzzles, Simon, and Perfection.
My son loves balloons, bubbles, bouncing balls (he is an awesome dribbler). So gifts geared toward these interests are always a hit. But if you just went shopping in a special needs toy section you wouldn’t automatically know that. There are lots of gifts he’s been given that are probably good for skill level and are appropriate for the skill building we are working on, but he’s just not that interested in. For example, he’s gotten a lot of Memory card games over the years. It’s not that he doesn’t like them, but he prefers to throw the cards everywhere, then gather them up, then throw them. This continues until he gets tired of the cards and then rips them all up. So, be sure you are taking the interests of the person into consideration so that s/he can actually enjoy the gift.
Lots of kids with special needs are particularly sensitive to toxins and chemicals. I always ask people not to get us plastic toys that Christopher might put in his mouth. I’d rather he not have light-up items that might contain mercury. And I don’t buy any pajamas that contain flame retardants. Other children might have other particular allergies or sensitivities. Some children might have issues with small pieces or parts. It’s better to ask first than to give a gift that the parents are going to just have to give away or throw out. This can be especially terrible if they have to take away a gift that the recipient really loved. So it’s best to check in advance to make sure that a gift you might purchase won’t be in any way harmful.
Be Open Minded
It’s also really important to shop with an open mind. Remember that the gift you are getting is about pleasing the recipient and not about what you expected to give or any idea you have in your head. What the individual is interested in might not be age appropriate. My son still enjoys a lot of toys that are designed for much younger children (and often gifts that his sister gets end up in his room). Interest might not be gender appropriate. I remember reading about a teenage boy with autism who carried his favorite Barbie doll everywhere. None of this should matter. The most important thing should be that the gift makes the recipient happy.
Also remember that many (but not all!) people with special needs have no concept of the monetary value of gifts. If Christopher gets a balloon and his brother gets a video game he doesn’t see this as unfair (and he thinks the balloon is much more fun anyway). Just because the gift of choice doesn’t cost a lot doesn’t mean that you have to spend more just to make things even. If you really want to spend a certain amount, consider doing something for the family instead. They often spend a lot of extra money on their child with special needs, so helping out with that would probably be appreciated. One year my sister-in-law got my son something small and gave me some gift certificates to Pure Formulas, where I get all his supplements. Gifts certificates to specialty food stores, therapies, lessons, or fun places (like a local trampoline park) also make great gifts.
Some of our top gifts for Christopher over the years have been therapy swings (that we hung in the basement), a small trampoline, a regular big trampoline, the Apraxia Kids CD (which may drive YOU nuts because it is kids’ songs sung reeeealllllyyyy slllooowwwwlllyyy), an iPad, (as previously mentioned) balloons, various balls, and bubbles. If you are running out of ideas, here are some shopping resources. Once you find out the info above, they can provide some great ideas.
Fat Brain Toys
Fat Brain Toys is one of my favorite locations for special needs toys. They have a Special Needs Resource Center that provides lots of great special needs gift giving tips. You can search for gifts by the specific disability. And they provide customer feedback on how their toys are being used for each specific need.
Fun and Function
Fun and Function is also a favorite shopping place for special needs gifts. Their product finder is exceptional, allowing you to enter age, diagnosis, budget, and skill. And they have an amazing selection of sensory products for all sensory needs and budgets.
Flaghouse is a great resource for special needs, for teachers and therapists as well as caregivers and gift givers. You can search by skill development as well as what the item is being used for (furniture, daily living, recreation, etc.).
Melissa & Doug
Melissa & Doug has a line of special needs toys! You’ll find their classic wooden toys with a focus on skill building, family games, soft blocks, instruments, and more.
Therapy Shoppe is a great place to get hard-to-find products for fine motor skills, oral motor development, and sensory integration. You can shop by choosing from a variety of sensory challenges – or just check out their gift ideas and packages.
eSpecial Needs is a fantastic resource for adaptive equipment, like fat bicycle training wheels, seat belt safety hooks for escape artists, strollers, wheelchairs, compression vests and more.
Short on time and need Prime? You can search for Special Needs Toys on Amazon. They lots of gift ideas, especially stocking stuffers and baby toys,
Toys “R” Us
You don’t have to go to a specialty store or shop online to find a gift. Toys “R” Us has a Toy Guide for Differently-Abled Kids that has lots of great ideas. The toys have icons representing the skills they enhance; and the guide provides safety and shopping tips as well.
The Thought Matters
Hopefully these ideas help to make your holiday shopping and special needs gift giving a little easier. But remember, if you are truly trying to get something to bring the individual with special needs joy and happiness, it really is the thought that counts. Families know that the best laid plans often go awry (especially when you combine children, holidays, and special needs). We’ve all had some very carefully chosen gifts turn out to be dud, and some unexpected hits. So do your best and know that every family appreciates kindness and thoughtfulness.