Monday, November 19, 2012

Best Toys For Kids With Special Needs: Holiday Gift Guide 2012

The best toys for kids with special needs don't have to cost a small fortune or come from adaptive catalogs, as these parents know. They've shared the reasonably priced, get-'em-anywhere toys their kids have most loved this past year—ones that encourage speech, fine-motor and gross-motor skills, communication, cognition, imagination and social skills. 

The guide, created with, is for parents, friends, family members or anyone wondering what kind of toy to get for a child with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, ADD, developmental delays and other special needs. As with my special needs toy guides from 2011 and 2010, I haven't included ages because what works for your child's abilities works.

Most of all, I hope your kids enjoy them. Because, after all, fun should come first when it comes to toys.

Toys that help with speech and communication

Magic Mic by Toysmith
"He actually has a desire to make utterances and sing songs—it's a great motivational toy," says Melissa, whose five-year-old, Quentin, has autism. "Our speech therapist recommended it, because anything to get him talking is helpful. We also use it to take turns singing songs. It's pretty much a junky piece of plastic, so I was shocked it actually works to amplify his voice!"

Hedbanz by Spin Master Games
"My son Philip is 8 years old, and has autism. He loves this game and I do, too, because it encourages communication and critical thinking. Each player has a headband containing a picture card and has to figure out what the picture is by asking questions of other players. This takes Philip out of his comfort zone for the entire game—he has to express himself by not only fishing for clues to his own card but by providing clues to other players, and deal with frustration when he didn't guess right. He also had to resist the impulse to outright tell other kids what their pictures were. I guess you could say that it was a great lesson in when to communicate, and when not to!"

"This vibrating thingie is genius because it's oral-motor therapy disguised as a toy!" says Ruth, mom to Grant, 9, who has cerebral palsy. "We've had various ones over the years, including the elephant and the gator. Even though he has sensitivity, he likes the feel of it against his cheek and actually holds it there. Our speech therapist is always telling us we need to work on loosening up Grant's mouth more so the words he tries to speak will be clearer, and I think this really helps."

Thomas and Friends Wooden Railway, by Learning Curve
"After watching the Thomas shows, Graham modeled language, pretend play and appropriate social play between the trains," says Jessica, whose son has Aspergers. "I don't like the show and I was just indulging him but I quickly realized how useful it is once he had a vocabulary to work with. The trains greet each other, they have conversations, they have emotions—it's his most engaging play. He always wants to take one anywhere!"

Fun Mongo Monkey by Gund
"One of the best toys for encouraging speech therapy at our house is a monkey that sings 'If you're happy and you know it' and claps," says Katie, mom to Charlie, 5, who has cerebral palsy. "We'll have Charlie ask us to make him play again. He can't actually say any words yet, but it's good practice vocalizing and expressing his needs. My youngest needs speech therapy now, and we're using it the exact same way with him. I can't believe I just admitted we have a singing monkey at our house." [Note: If unavailable, consider Chatimal The Talking Monkey, Richie The Repeating Rabbit and Pete The Repeat Parrot.]

"My daughter's speech is difficult to understand at times. This game, where you have to match pieces to a board, helps her use her bilabial sounds—consonants you articulate with your lips like 'm' and 'p,'" says Sarah, Mom to Zoe, 4, who has muscular dystrophy. "Our speech therapist recommended it. She always wants to play with it."

Toys that help with gross-motor skills
"By the time my daughter was ready for a ride-on toy, which her therapists recommended, she was too tall for many of them," says Sandra, mom to Adeline, 3, who has Down syndrome. "We found the Inchworm and it was perfect! It's helped strengthen her legs and develop balance. The bouncing is also a great sensory aspect, and helps work her core strength, too. With this toy, my daughter has been able to go out and ride with her brother while he is on his bike. She is so happy to go to the park and ride bikes, just like the other kids."

"You should see him smile when he's using this!" says Elisha of son Gabriel, 3, who has PDD-NOS. "It is fun to hop, jump and bounce on! It has helped with his balance issues and even the stiffness in his arms."

"I make her use her feet to direct where she wanted to go, and it's helped strengthen her legs," says Kerri, mom to Boo, 3, who has global developmental delays. "She loves that she can go backward and forward, and laughs and giggles."

"When we say the word 'caterpillar,' his face lights up," says Ali, mom to Caleb, 14 months, who has cerebral palsy. "The rocking motion forces him to engage his core muscles, and the antennae allow him to hold on and use his arms to remain upright. The caterpillar's big red nose makes noise, so Caleb likes to reach forward with one hand—isolation!—and make the little bell in the nose ring. The seat is nice and plush and low to the ground. He's recently started to rock back and forth on his own!"

"This encouraged my son to creep towards it!" says Jodie, mom to Ian, 2 who has agenesis of the corpus callosum. "He loves the bright color of the car, the movement, and the music that plays as it rolls. He crawls toward it with a big smile on his face. It also encourages kids to learn cause and effect, because it will not stop rolling until the child either shakes the rattle or rolls the ball on the top of the car."

"He is constantly bending down to pick up cards to race down the ramp, which has helped strengthen his hips," says Juli, mom to Ethan, 3, who has a genetic syndrome that's caused gross developmental delay. "Placing and releasing cars helps with hand/eye coordination, and watching cars go down the ramp is good for visual coordination."

Toys that help with fine-motor skills

Go Baby Go! Poppity Pop Musical Dino by Fisher-Price
"I saw this at Target and fell in love," says Jennifer, mom to Joey, 2, who has Down syndrome. "It's helped Joey learn to release objects. It gets him to focus (which helps strengthen his vision) and when we put it on the table it motivates him to try and stand up. I love watching Joey try to put in the dog's toys, which don't fit—a wonderful lesson in cause and effect!"

"Joe, who's 4, has only begun to manipulate toys with both hands—he has global developmental delays," says his mom, Lia. These have a design that's easy to manipulate. The ridges give a texture that is appealing to his touch and vision, and he can combine two with very little effort. He really loves taking them all out of the container. He's not as fond of putting them back in, of course."

“The big pieces are easier to hold and join together than standard LEGOs,” notes Bronwyn, mom to Cooper, 7, who has cerebral palsy. “The pieces allow Cooper to be creative and use his imagination—there is no right or wrong way to use them. They are a great way to discuss math concepts, too! He spends a lot of time using them.”

"I bought two sets of this!" says Cate, mom to Abby, a 5-year-old with Down syndrome. "We do a lot of making cones and stacking, and the pieces are also good for matching, counting, sequencing and patterns, and teaching her to ask for what she wants. It came on vacation with us!"
"This was recommended to me by Matthew's occupational and speech therapists, because they've learned that music is a powerful motivator for him," says Brandi, whose two-year-old has cerebral palsy and visual and hearing impairment. "The bright colors of the instruments attract his attention, and the different shapes have forced him to open his hands more and grasp different textures. He laughs, smiles and coos and dances side to side in his chair."

Geo Trax Disney/Pixar Cars 2 World Grand Prix RC Set
"I was complaining to a pediatric orthotic doc about too-small remote levers, and that's how I found this," says Julie, whose 10-year-old has cerebral palsy. "Kyle can actually work the remotes as they are big enough. They encourage grasping and moving his fingers because he is so addicted to this toy! We've been trying to decide whether to get him a power chair and the remote control has that forward and reverse that's needed. The nice thing is that you can keep buying things to make the set bigger, great for relative gifts at holidays!"

"This toy helped my son in several ways," says a mom to a three-year-old who has Miller Dieker syndrome. "First it helped him to open his hands to push down the pop-ups. It helped him with finger isolation when putting down and opening them. It helped him to use both hands by holding the toy in place while putting down the pop-ups. It also taught him to bend his elbows to play with the toy when it is close to him. The toy keeps him busy, and has provided a lot of entertainment."

"My son's developmental therapist recommended this toy, which you use to pick things up, to help improve hand-eye coordination," says Jim, dad to Tyler, 7, who has autism. "It's been fun for Tyler—he will happily use it in therapy with no whining!"

"It is really great for fine-motor skills, as she manipulates little beads, pens and shuts the doors, and moves the animals along the track," says Julie, mom to Abby, 2, who has cerebro-costo-mandibular syndrome. "All three of our therapists—OT, PT and speech—recommended it! When Abby first started to stand with assistance, this was the only toy she would stand at and play with for any length of time. There are enough activities to keep her attention, and it's grown with her as she's developed. Now we put it up on a table so that she has to reach up to play with it.

"Our occupational therapist recommended this," says Penni, mom to Garratt, 6, who has Down syndrome and autism. "He has learned to manipulate the buttons on the cat to hear songs and learn about colors and shapes, and to give the cat basic commands such as 'go.' He treats it like a real cat, petting its head, snuggling and chasing it all over the house!"

"This toy is very engaging. It doesn't require batteries—just fine-motor skills," says Faye, mom to Jon Paul, who is four and is blind with Aspergers syndrome. "It also enhances social skills, because he takes turns when playing with others. He really enjoys watching an listening to the cars flip down the ramps. He giggles and claps his hands."

"This doll has improved Sarah's ability to manipulate small objects, while teaching her life skills," says Ben, dad to Sarah, 5, who has fine-motor challenges. "She loves it so much, she sleeps with it." 

"This is great for fine-motor skills," says Emily, mom to Everett, 6, who has epilepsy and right-side hemiplegia. "It's good for visual scan, focus, and taking turns, too. He will get this out and play on his own!"

"Using this toy has helped improve her fine-motor skills," says Sue of daughter Sara, 8, who has Down syndrome. "Sara is engaged by the bright colors. She wants this toy at playtime every day!"
"My son is working on the fine-motor skill of grabbing, and using this toy was the first time he was able to reach and accurately grab an object—he put the coin in the slot and released it," says Rose, mom to James, 22 months, who has cerebral palsy and vision issues. "It helps helps with his gross-motor as he is in supported sitting while playing with it, and he's exposed to colors, numbers, music and cause and effect. He smiles and laughs and keeps reaching for another coin!"

"This is a quick game that is great for fine-motor skills," says Elizabeth, mom to Dennis, 10, who has MERLD (mixed expressive/receptive learning disorder) and auditory processing issues. "The pirate pops up and it's like Jack in the Box. We play it every day! It's a huge hit with all kids."

Toys and games that help with cognition & learning

"Putting balls at the top and using a hammer to pound them and get them to roll down has helped with cause and effect, learning multi-step processes and fine-motor skills," says Beth whose son, Sonshine, 2, has Jacobsen syndrome and global developmental delay. "This is a more challenging toy for him, but he loves it. He smiles every time he watches the balls roll to the bottom, then he asks us to help him start over."  

"My son has ADHD and he can read but really dislikes it," says Jenn, mom to Logan, 8. "This puzzle makes it fun by capitalizing on spotting skills, like finding hidden pictures, and using that to motivate him to find words and understand their meaning. He is really proud of himself to discover a new talent that he had, and it has helped to make reading a more desired activity at home. One day, he finished almost 20 of the 48 puzzles, not even getting up for food, just for the bathroom and water. He was super-focused!"

"This has encouraged my daughter to read words out loud, copying ones she hears," says Kris, mom to Flannery, 3, who has speech delay. "It encourages her to read with games. She doesn't answer when called when she's using it, or comes running to tell us what she did!"

"He loves music and is non-verbal, so I know he's learning while listening," says Joann, mom to Nicholas, 10, who has tubular sclerosis and delays. "The music is great and covers learning basics. He jumps up and down and laughs."

"Reid, who's six with apraxia and ADD, loves anything movement based so this gives him tons of different ways to move his body, have fun and learn!" says mom Ilyssa. "It gives us an active way to take turns counting—we add rolling dice to see how many times to do each movement, and we work on speech as well by counting out loud and saying 'My turn, your turn.' There are also a lot of cards, so playing the whole game works on attention to task as well. Reid's friends love to play it with him when they come over. "

Orisme, 5, has autism and is non-verbal. "This has helped him with learning his alphabet and numbers, and verbalizing," says mom Christine. "He can sit and play with it for a long time without making his non-contextual verbalizations."

"This has been a great toy for my son," says Brooke, mom to a kindergartner with autism, "and I've heard from other parents that they loved this for their autistic or sensory-challenged kiddos, too! I think it's a great tool for all our kids."

Toys & games that help with social skills

"During playdates, these are great! My son asks friends to play with him using this toy, and has to show the other child how it works," says Irene, mom to John, 9, who has autism. "Besides, guitars are cool! He also needs constant auditory input, this is one way to get input in a functional way. Since he is echolalic, he learns phrases from the songs used in speech therapy. Truth be told, we actually have every Paper Jam Guitar ever made because he asks for a new one every birthday and Christmas!"

"This game has helped with turn-taking and waiting," says Lisa, whose son Norrin, 6, has autism. "He gets so excited when it's his turn, and watches when it's mine. We talk and he makes eye contact, not something that happens often. It's good for concentration, too—he needs to focus on trying to 'break the ice' instead of randomly smashing pieces. He doesn't care if he wins or loses, he's just having fun!"

"My son enjoys building with his dad so during free time at school, he tends to go toward the Legos and build socially," says Mary, mom to Logan, 5, who has ASD. "It really helps him with teamwork."

"This game encourages my daughter to use her current social skills while developing new ones," says Hannah, mom to Kendell, 10, who has autism. "The colorful pieces and family photos engage her. She will pick the game off the shelf and say 'I want to play,' a big step for her."

Toys that help with sensory issues

"My daughter's school occupational therapist suggested gymnastics for movement needs and spatial awareness. Since they use trampolines, I decided to invest in a mini one for our home," says Jennifer, mom to Emma, 8, who has Aspergers. "My daughter's ability to have this movement greatly reduces her anxiety and stemming behaviors. She loves to jump and move, and it's great exercise. She gets on her trampoline many times throughout the day, without me having to send her to it—she doesn't even realize it's therapy. She's usually singing or laughing while she's on it!"

Note: Always supervise a kid on a trampoline, and check with your therapist or doctor before letting your child use one.

"Willie, who's 4 with autism, is able to use his energy in a safe and effective way on this," says his mom, Sherri. "It is in our family room, and he uses it multiple times throughout the day. He has learned to not be afraid when his feet are not on the ground! It has also helped with his balance and coordination."

"This is a great item for a sensory seeker! Our occupational therapist thought this would be a great way for my son to 'get what he needs' in a different way than riding a bike or scooter, and it can be used inside," says Ilyssa, mom to Reid, 6, who has apraxia and PDD. "Driving it around our house—way better on hardwood than carpet—has given Reid just enough of a break to come back and finish his homework. It's the first thing he goes to every morning, and when he comes home from school. Best thing ever!" Adds Clara, mom to Garrett, 7, who has autism and mitochondrial depletion syndrome, "My son has enjoyed this for years now. He gets all sort of great sensory input. Once our PT saw it, she started recommending it! She says it's helped strengthen his legs and core, and help with balance and motor planing."

And if you'd like to check out gift guides from other years...

Great toys for kids with special needs 2015
Great toys for kids with special needs 2014
Great toys for kids with special needs 2013
Great toys for kids with special needs 2011
Great toys for kids with special needs 2010


  1. Awesome ideas. Thnx for posting it. Jaxon is turning one just before Christmas so its good to get an idea on some suitable toys for him..

  2. My daughter got Bits 'n' Bobs for her birthday. It is a great building toy. It has nice big chunky pieces that are nuts and bolts and it has a screw driver also. It is great for her fine and gross motor skills.

  3. I remember so many of these from back in the day at our house! Excellent suggestions. I know that Discovery Toys also has had a special needs portion of their catalog for a long time, as well.

  4. Once again an awesome list! I will be sharing this far and wide.

    Just FYI my son is Quentin and not "Quinn"! (The only other Q name, huh?!)

    1. Apologies, fixed that the other day! Thanks for contributing.

  5. Thank you! This is fantastic. Can you recommend toys or a game for strengthening the wrists for my 11 month old? I'm reluctant to just play a game of he and I both pulling against any old toy, as he's also just learning to put things in my hand and let go.

    1. Ah, I'm sorry, not able to recommend that based on personal experience as wrist-strengthing was never one of our OT goals, although working on grasping was. We did use stuff with lots of textures that were pliable, which made it easier for him to work on grasping—koosh balls in particular. You should definitely discuss with the OT.

  6. Toys R Us puts out a GREAT guide for differently abled children. My son is hearing impaired and every year Santa brings him all of the age-appropriate speech and language toys in the catalog.

  7. Nice list! This will guide me to choose what is good for my kids.

  8. Excellent list. Thomas and friends have always been a family favourite for us.

  9. It really a nice collection of toys for kids.A few days i wanted to get a gift for my brother as he is interested in cars or planes so here see best toys for him.Hope you and he also like it!

  10. Oh my gosh!! I have four grandchildren and teach young children with special needs. I love these ideas for toys and what they can help my students with. Thank you so much!

  11. Thanks. I think I might purchase a few toys for my son Noah as I think they will do wonders for his development. Just one question what about toys that help a child's physical development? I mean toys that help a child's gross motor skills to develop.

  12. Forget to mention that Noah was diagnosed with spina bifida we found out at 19 weeks. Seems like a long time ago now that I'm almost 37 weeks along.


Thanks for sharing!

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