Tuesday, December 11, 2018

If you care about kids including ones with disabilities, show them this short film

I drove by one of our town's baseball fields the other day, and Ben said "New park!" Sure enough, they'd put up a new swing set nearby, complete with a blue adaptive swing. It was a happy sight—inclusive play starts with equipment that enables all children to participate. That can open doors to the kind of inclusion that's even harder: Getting children to welcome and actively include children with disabilities. Any one of us who's dealt with stares and whispers at the playground, let alone bullying, knows that story.

Yesterday, my friend Bronte shared an award-winning short animated film, Ian, that's about inclusion. It's based on the story of a fourth grader named Ian who has cerebral palsy, and the film happened thanks to his mom, Sheila Graschinsky. The family is based in Argentina but the film has no dialogue, to make its message universal. Sheila originally wrote a book about the everyday life of families of children with disabilities, to hand out to kids who snickered at her son. Ultimately, that lead to this beautiful film.

For me, Ian was a bit painful to watch. It hit close to home in small ways (like the part where Ian struggles to maintain control holding a cup as his peers watch) and large ways, too; Max has never had that (spoiler alert) happy ending. Although Max also hasn't experienced the sadness Ian feels in the movie—he is content with his life, it is me who has ached for more social opps for him—there are many children out there who long to belong. The truth is that inclusion doesn't always come naturally or easily to children without disabilities, who may be wary of ones who don't look or act like they do.

It's always helpful to have a springboard for conversations about inclusion. So take a few minutes—Ian is just seven minutes long, followed by clips of the real-life Ian—to watch this with your child and talk about it. You could also suggest that your child's teacher show it at school to get a discussion going. If you are a teacher or education, show kids this film. You and you and you and you have the power to help make the world a more welcoming place for children of all abilities.

Image: Screenshot/Ian

Monday, December 10, 2018

Super-sweet sixteen

It's been sixteen years since you were born, beautiful boy—sixteen years filled with progress, accomplishments, achievements and wins. You have succeeded, against all odds, and you keep right on doing so. I'll say it once more: If only those grim NICU doctors could see you now. I wish that I could have known all the greatness that lay in store for you. These are the wonders Daddy and I couldn't have imagined back then—and that we are grateful for every, single day.

16. We couldn't have imagined how strong you'd get. As you lay there in the NICU incubator, hooked up to all those wires and tubes, I'd stare down at you and will you to wake up. One day, I read "Oh, The Places You'll Go" to you with such feeling that a nurse asked me to quiet down. When I finally got to hold you, I whispered again and again, "You are going to get through this."

15. We couldn't have imagined just how much your brain would blossom. Once, we saw the MRI film of the stroke. And we've never looked at it again. We learned to just look at you.

14. We couldn't have imagined all the joy you'd bring us. You chuckled for the first time when you were close to three months old, filling my heart with hope. You have the sunniest disposition, one that has charmed your peers, therapists, doctors, teachers, counselors and basically anyone who's part of your life. Your smile actually can light up an entire room, just one of your many gifts.

13. We couldn't have imagined all the pride you'd bring us, either. We weren't close with any people who have disabilities before you were born. We didn't know any families who had children with disabilities. We didn't realize that having a disability doesn't affect a person's determination or spirit. We didn't know all the abilities you would have. And wow, have you shown us.

12. We couldn't have imagined you'd crawl, walk, ride a bike, go up and down stairs on your own, feed yourself, drink by yourself, hang out in the house by yourself, step into the car by yourself or generally get so independent. Daddy and I will never forget when you were five years old and the car showed up to take us to the airport to Disney World and before we knew it you'd bolted down the front steps, the first time we'd seen you do that.

11. We couldn't have imagined you'd speak words or communicate like you do, let alone that you'd turn into a teen who regularly tells us, "I KNOW!" So. Typical.

10. We couldn't have imagined you'd have such an awesome sense of humor, or that one day you'd be teasing us. This weekend, I got off the phone with a friend as I was buckling you into the car and I a few seconds later I asked, "Where's my phone?!" Because as you know, I misplace it every ten minutes. And you pointed to it right there in my hand and said, "HA HA HA HA HA, MOMMY!"

9. We couldn't have imagined you'd learn to do math, spell or read, or that when we are out driving you read the road and street signs to us. Or that you'd have a visual memory that comes in as handy as Waze does.

8. We couldn't have imagined you'd develop such passions—purple! Spaghetti! Car washes! Mac 'n cheese! Lightning McQueen! Stuffed shells! Chicago! Jamaica! Orlando! All the pasta! You know what you want. Oh, boy, do you ever.

7. We couldn't have imagined you'd have career goals, Fireman Max. And we will help you achieve them.

6. We couldn't have imagined what a pain in the ass you'd be at times—or that we could ever feel that way about you. Way back when, we felt only pity. As the years passed, we came to view you in the same ways parents generally view their children. Which is to say: You're often awesome and at times you are a pain in the ass. (Yes, we know, we are too.)

5. We couldn't have imagined how handsome you'd be. You were born chubalicious and you aced cuteness but now, you are one good-looking dude. Watch out, ladies!

4. We really couldn't have imagined all the places you'd go. The boy who once refused to eat anywhere else other than at the greasy spoon near our house (seated only in the booth by the bathroom) and who feared movies and shows is now the boy who never wants to stay home, who goes to movies alone and who attends sleepaway camp.

3. We couldn't have imagined just how emotionally astute you'd be. You can always tell when one of us is upset, and you always try to make things better. You are the United Nations of our family.

2.  We couldn't have imagined what a great brother you'd be, to your younger sis or to your little bro.

1. Sixteen years ago, as Daddy and I sat in the NICU, devastated, listening to the pediatric neurologist tell us that you'd have a stroke, we couldn't have imagined how lucky we'd feel someday. And we do.

We love you, Max. May sixteen be your sweetest year yet.

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Disability Blogger Weekend Link-up: Take a shopping break and post!

What to do if you're new  

This is a place to share a recent favorite post you've written, or read. Scroll all the way down to the bottom of this post. Where it says "Your name" put the name of the blog followed by the title of the post you want to share (or just the name of the post, if there's no room—you get 80 characters).

Like this: If only this commercial were more of reality for kids with disabilities

Where it says "Your URL" put the direct link to the post.

Click "Enter." Leave a comment if you want to say more. Go check out some great posts.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

A great big brother

Max wanted to see Ralph Breaks the Internet again. That's his thing with movies—once he enjoys one, he wants to see it again and again. So far, he's seen Incredibles 2 nine times. Also: He now prefers to go without me or Dave. After he did that this summer for the first time, at his request, he's gone to the theater several times on his own now. Last week, he decided he'd like to go with Sabrina.

She was dubious. "I'm not old enough to go to the movies by myself!" she said. I pointed out that Max would be with her and she'd be at our local theater, which is literally a two-minute drive from our house.

"Come on, Sabrina!" Max said. He finally convinced her. And so, on Friday night Dave drove them to the movie theater. He bought tickets, got Sabrina popcorn and Sprite and left.

Max has come a long way from his first-ever trip to the movies five years ago (Monsters University). He used to be terrified of them. Now he was the one encouraging his sister to take the plunge and try something she'd never done: go to the movies without her parents. She didn't quite love it as much as he did, which mystified Max. Because he, of course, is planning on seeing it a bunch more times.

Whenever Max takes another step toward independence, I breathe a deep sigh of relief. But this was something more—he was being the mature big brother. Win win win win win.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The people who just want to make your child happy, continued

I got an email the other week from the principal at Max's school. One of the local firefighters—they have a station right around the corner and they visit from time to time—had outgrown a gear jacket and wanted to give it to Max. Would he like it? 

Um: YEAH!!! I asked Max, just to be sure. He said: "YEAH!!!"

Several years ago, Max decided he was going to be a firefighter. These days, he no longer visits our local station every weekend, but they're still his people. Whenever Max stops by, he ends up hanging out with them at the big dining room table in their living area, where they catch up about Max's life and the most recent fires they've put out. Firefighters remain some of the biggest-hearted people I have ever met who go out of their way to encourage Max's dreams. Remember that time his favorite, Firefighter Angelo, showed up at our house on his birthday to give him a ride in a fire truck? (I still watch that video on occasion because it is so bliss-tastic). 

Max's principal put me in touch with Firefighter Matt, who told me that the town's deputy fire marshal and fire official/inspector were in on the gift—they both knew Max, too, and were fond of him and the enthusiasm he shares for their work. We arranged for Max and Dave to stop by after school last week. Max could not wait. 

Max got a jacket and pants, too. He definitely has to grow into the gear, but it'll be there for him. He looked pretty spiffy in it. What he can savor now and for the rest of his life: knowing that there are good guys out there who make him feel like one of their own.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

If only this commercial were more of a reality for kids with disabilities

My friend Wendy texted me a commercial a couple of days ago. I made the mistake of watching it while I was out having coffee, and I choked up at Starbucks.

A group of kids in a suburban neighborhood excitedly race over to another kid's house because he's about to do something awesome. It turns out to be a milestone on a video game. Why is this ad-worthy? Because he is is pulling off this feat with the Xbox Adaptive Controller, released in September at the price of $99.99.  The boy's name is Owen Simmons. He's 9 years old and has Escobar syndrome, and the kids in the commercial are his real-life friends, including his bestie, Gunnar.

This commercial gave me the feels in all sorts of ways. I felt joy for this boy. I was excited to see the Adaptive Controller in action. Microsoft's ad illuminates what we, as parents of children with disabilities, want for them: to have access to the same childhood pleasures that other kids do, and to be included. But I felt a twinge of sadness, too, because that part isn't a reality for many children with disabilities I know, including my Max.

Max is a whiz at Xbox 360 bowling. He plays with his siblings, me or Dave; he doesn't have lots of friends. This doesn't at all faze Max, who is content with his life. He enjoys his school social life and after-school events. He has the best time at the camps he attends during summer. As his mom, though, at times I mourn the more limited social opps he has. I can make all sorts of things happen for Max, except I can't forge friendships for him.

Here's a plea to parents out there who don't have children with disabilities: Please don't just weep over the commercial and move on. Encourage your kid or teen to get to know kids with disabilities at school and in other settings. Talk about the differences we all have, the similarities we share and the abilities each and every one of us possesses. At the very least, encourage your children to say hello to our children at the playground, the park, parties or wherever. They won't be doing our children a favor—they'll be expanding their world, too.

Like the ad says: When everybody plays, we all win.

Photo: YouTube/Microsoft 2018 Holiday Ad

Monday, December 3, 2018

Its never too late to start teasing your mom

"Do you think Max will ever be able to tease me or Dave?" isn't a question I've ever asked our pediatric neurologist—I mean, what would he say? I have wondered about it, though. Max has a great sense of humor, and it seemed like a possibility.

I fully realize that it is whacked to want your teen to make fun of you. I already have my fair share from another certain member of our household. The thing is, teasing is an advanced level of cognition. You need to understand concepts to be able to provoke someone about them. And I want that for Max. I want everything for Max.

The other night, I was headed out to run an errand. Max stood by the back door and threw open his arms. He's not that much into hugging lately (typical teen) and I was excited. I gave him a big one.

"Wait, don't you don't hate me?" I teased him. He is quite fond of telling me how much he hates me. (Very typical teen.) He grinned.

"Just a little!" he said, and grinned even more.

Right. There.


Friday, November 30, 2018

The Disability Blogger Weekend Link-up is live

What to do if you're new  

This is a place to share a recent favorite post you've written, or read. Scroll all the way down to the bottom of this post. Where it says "Your name" put the name of the blog followed by the title of the post you want to share (or just the name of the post, if there's no room—you get 80 characters).

Like this: Toys and Gifts for Kids and Teens With Disabilities: Gift Guide 2018

Where it says "Your URL" put the direct link to the post.

Click "Enter." Leave a comment if you want to say more. Go check out some great posts.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

We are our children's biggest champions

A major score for people with disability recently happened: an 18-year-old with autism, Kalin Bennett, was recruited for Kent State University's basketball team. He is the first student-athlete with autism to play a team sport at the NCAA Division 1 level, reports Cleveland.com. Kalin is from Little Rock, Arkansas, and this summer he'll be moving to Kent, Ohio and enrolling. His mom, Sonja Kalin, will be coming along, too, for emotional support.

This is remarkable not because Kalin is a gifted athlete who was also recruited by several other colleges; it is a given that people with disabilities have a gamut of abilities, same as we all do, although not everyone understands that. It is wondrous because the school was open to recruiting him and has programs in place to help students with autism and disabilities thrive in college. And it is a win that parents everywhere can relate to because, after all, we are our children's best champions. They have the competency, capabilities and talent, yet it is up to moms and dads to make sure our children get into programs they need to help those skills blossom, even if we have to fight tooth and nail—and to make sure the world at large sees our children's wonders.

"I have a great support system...I have a really strong mother," Kalin says in this video. "When I was younger I didn't talk till I was seven years old. She just kept pushing and pushing, and she kept bringing me more closer to other people. She just made me a better person, her and my dad, very hard working people still to this day."

Kalin is currently in a gap-year program at Link Year Prep to help prepare himself to be independent in college. He has plans to be a pro player and to to use his platform to inspire youth with and without disabilities and show them that they, too, can have slam-dunk success.  

When I read about achievements like Kalin's, I'm both happy and hopeful that the single door that's been opened will lead to more. But I also feel motherly pride and cosmically feel the parent's joy. Sonja and her ex-husband spent years getting a correct diagnosis for Kalin, then enabled him to work with his challenges and thrive. While I don't know exactly what it took for Kalin to get to this place, I am sure that it involved a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears on everyone's part. 

There are many naysayers out there who don't get that youth with disabilities can still have a whole lot of potential. Sonja tells of a therapist who once predicted Kalin would never speak, sit or walk. He found out about her because, she says, "I showed him his [medical] file. I wanted him to read this book of files so he would know how he needs to always keep fighting." When Kalin met up with her he said, "I hope you haven't told anybody else because you could ruin their lives."

We've all have had those people in our lives. For us, there were the doctors at the NICU who only gave us the worst predictions about Max and the neonatologist we visited when he was 3 months old who said his future looked "ominous" (YES, HE USED THAT WORD). There were the programs that tried to shut Max out, the babysitting service who refused to accommodate him, the speech therapist who declared that Max didn't have that much more progress to make. We have prodded, pushed, insisted, steamrolled and have been generally relentless. This is what you do when you are the parent of a child with disabilities.

To be sure, the village we rely on to raise our children—family, doctors, teachers, therapists, specialists, caregivers, nurses—can be amazing champions for our children. But it starts and continues with us. Our children need us to be their best coaches and cheerleaders. As I sat in the social worker's office at the hospital sixteen years ago, railing about how bleak the NICU doctors were being about my newborn and demanding that they tell me something positive I said, "If I don't have hope for my son, who will?" And she said, "I can tell you're going to be a great champion for your son." And, damn, she was right. And, damn, I'm sure every one of you are.

As we grow into our roles of being the parents of a child with disabilities, our belief in their awesomeness grows as well. We enable our children to believe in themselves—and ultimately be their own champions. And along the way, we make others believe in them, too.

Images: Family photos

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The magical headphones that made kids with autism happy

A lot of people would have missed it, but the sight was unmistakable for many children with autism and sensory needs: Julia, the Sesame Street muppet with autism, wearing a pair of noise-canceling headphones in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade last week. I'm still thinking about those headphones.

I shared Sesame Street's tweet on my Facebook page. "My son, who has autism, noticed her right away," reported one mom. "He said, 'There's Julia! It must be loud there, but I'm glad she has her headphones.'" Said another, "My Ben was so excited to see someone else wearing what he calls 'ear cymbals.'"

Julia premiered on Sesame Street in April 2017, and made her debut in the parade this year. That in itself was significant. But those noise-canceling headphones, well, they had magical powers—the kind that could make kids with special needs feel excited, reassured and just plain happy to see someone doing what they do when faced with big, noisy celebrations and crowds.

Children and teens with special needs can sometimes be very aware of the ways in which they look and act different from their peers. On weekends, Max has recently started saying no to the bandana bibs he usually wears to help control  drooling. I understand why—they make him stand out from his peers. Hmmm, I do think one would look lovely on Julia.

Bit by bit, step by step, win by win, the world continues to become a more welcoming, inclusive place for our children. This Thanksgiving, Julia made a pair of headphones an everyday accessory— much like scarves and gloves were on that bitter cold day that warmed the hearts of many kids and parents everywhere. And for that, a lot of us are still grateful.

Image: Twitter/@SesameStreet

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The priceless gift parents can give their children

On the heels of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, I'm here to share one of the most priceless gifts a parent can give a child. I learned about it the very hard way nearly 16 years ago, when Max was born. He had a stroke at birth, as longtime readers of the blog know, a large, bilateral one. Grim-faced doctors told us the worst: Max might never walk or talk. He could have cognitive impairment, as well as vision and hearing problems. Although they did not mention cerebral palsy, Max was at major risk for it.

Until we had Max, my husband and I had no idea that itty, bitty babies could have strokes. But our first child did. As devastated as we were, we found some solace in taking action and getting him as much therapy as possible. We knew, from conversations with a renowned pediatric neurologist and our own research that the brain makes vital connections between 0 and two years old, so it can better process information and enable movement. (Basically, your brain sends messages to every single muscle in your body informing them how to work, from your tongue down to your toes.) Max was still in the NICU when I reached out to our local Early Intervention program to schedule an assessment. 

From a month old and on, Max got physical therapy. During his first year we added occupational therapy and speech therapy. We tried craniosacral therapy, along with hyperbaric oxygen treatment and—when he was closer to two—hippotherapy (horseback riding therapy). If it couldn't hurt and it might help, we tried it. 

Max is doing so much better than those gloomy doctors predicted. He walks, he has speech and communicates through his iPad, his hearing and vision are fine and he is bright, funny, intuitive, determined and so full of life and sunshine and milkshakes. While some of his progress is just plain luck, a matter of where the stroke struck his brain, I am certain that those early therapies enabled him to develop at his maximum capacity. As unlucky as it was that Max had a stroke, if it had to happen, we were very lucky we knew about it at Day 4 of his life and could act on it. Some parents don't discover strokes their children have had strokes until they are delayed. 

I know how hard it is to acknowledge that a baby isn't developing the way he should, especially when you have a child who is otherwise healthy and not at risk for anything. But reaching out to a pediatrician to discuss your observations and concerns is a vital first step. Cerebral palsy typically isn't diagnosed until age 2 (and studies show the majority of kids with autism aren't diagnosed until age 5). The earlier a child is diagnosed, the earlier it enables them to get help during a critical period of neurological development. 

Here's a video about a little guy, Owen, who was diagnosed with CP at 6 months old and his parents, who are determined to do whatever they can. Sound familiar? 

I realize I'm mainly speaking to moms and dads here whose children already have diagnoses. Still, if you share your story with parents in your circle, it could spur someone whose tot isn't meeting milestones to take action. It's medically proven: The sooner a child gets help, the better. This is all why the Cerebral Palsy Foundation now has an Early Detection Initiative. The nonprofit is working with five renowned medical institutions around the country to lower the average age of CP diagnosis to six months: Kennedy Krieger in Baltimore; Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, OH; UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles; University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston; and University of Utah Medical Center in Salt Lake City.

Please join me in supporting this campaign, a cause so close to my heart; click here to make a donation. A donor will be matching Giving Tuesday gifts up to $150,000. 

Monday, November 26, 2018

Toys and Gifts for Kids and Teens With Disabilities: Gift Guide 2018

It's that time of year to figure out which toys your child with disabilities will really enjoy—which will also give him a boost in the development department. Ta-dah! Here's my annual roundup of toys that help boost fine-motor skills, gross-motor skills, cognition, communication and oral-motor development, along with ones for children with sensory needs. Plus, a few ideas for teens.

These toys and cacome recommended by therapists and parents alike. As usual, I'm not mentioning ages because what works for your child's current skill set works. Prices may vary slightly. Happy Shopping, Happy Holidays!

Toys That Help Boost Fine-Motor Skills

Magna-Qubix 19 Piece Set (Magna-Tiles, $20)
The Magnatlies people recently came out with Qubix—clear, colorful 3D shapes that children with fine-motor-skill challenges might find easier to grasp than flat tiles. The 19-piece set comes with 3 square pyramids, 5 triangular prisms, 8 cubes, 2 rectangular prisms and 1 hexagonal prism.

DigiArt Color by Lights (VTech, $20)
Open-ended coloring is great, but kids who have issues with fine-motor skills may resist. Here’s fun inspiration: coloring, guided by lights. The light-up board's coloring page (there are 50 included, and you can download more) shows which color to use in each section. Kids then connect the light-up dots to draw shapes, objects and animals. The art board side has a dry-erase surface and a stencil card, and there are melodies, too, to inspire budding artists.

Wedgies Play People (Guidecraft, $15)
This five-piece wooden set enables children with disabilities to play with ones who look like them; how great is that? The wedge-shaped characters have double-sided artwork and wide, no-topple bases.

Rubik’s Tactile Cube (Rubik’s, $18)
Developed to enable people who are visually impaired to play with the cube, it’s also great for sensory-seekers thanks to the embossed shapes. When we were little, my sister and I used to take the pieces apart and put them back together to solve the puzzle Shhh.

Tide Pool Bath Set (Green Toys, $19)
I love this brand because the toys are made of recycled plastic, and they’re free of BPA and phthalates. This bath set—with a palm-sized starfish, scalp, abalone, snail, squid, jellyfish and storage bag—encourages kids to scoop up water in a variety of ways. And, yay, you can toss 'em in the dishwasher.

Mini Orchestra (Hohner, $23)
Kids can rattle, ring, jingle and shake, shake, shake to rock out.

Peg Board Set (VIPAMZ, $14)
An eight-inch rubber peg board and 25 colorful pegs: Simple enough, but highly motivating for encouraging grasp and hand-eye coordination. Kids can stick the pegs in the board and stack them, too.

Go! Go! Smart Wheels Take Flight Airport (VTech, $25)
Airpot fun, without the security line! Kids can fuel up at the pump station, spin the weather vane, check their bags and take off. Aaron the Airplane can land on five locations to hear sounds, phrases and melodies. (Mini bags of pretzels not included because, as you know, you're lucky if you get any snacks these days.)

Buzz 'n Cut (Play-Doh, $15)
This one's awesome for wannabe barbers or kids who might get a bit freaked out by haircuts. After placing Play-Doh into one of the the two holders/characters and seating them on the salon chair, they crank out hair with the lever. Then can then snip a style with the scissors or use the electric shaver (which makes buzzing sounds) to cut it. Also includes a comb, razor and five standard cans of Play-Doh.

MiniSpinny (Fat Brain Toys, $13)
Three propellers spin up and down a corckscrew pole that can be flipped over, so they can go right on doing their thing. Has textured and smooth surfaces.

Mozart Magic Cube (Munchkin, $25)
Kids can press the buttons to combine the harp, French horn, piano, flute and violin instrument sounds to create eight different Mozart masterpieces, or press the orchestra button to hear all of them at once.

Spike the Fine Motor Hedgehog (Learning Resources, $15)
Spike comes with 12 colorful quills that kids can practice putting in. Works on color recognition, sorting and counting skills, too.

Mickey’s Boat (LEGO Duplo, $30)
Tots can build the the steamboat, rowboat and pier with the blocks, then help Mickey drive the steamboat and use the pulley (which might require hand-over-hand assistance) to tow Minnie in her little rowing boat.

Beeswax Crayons (Honeysticks, $23)
This handmade set of 12 non-toxic crayons in bright colors are chubby and way easier to grasp than the standard kind, and harder to break. They glide right onto paper so kids don't have to press too hard, and they're washable.

Feed The Woozle (Peaceable Kingdom, $20)
The Woozle is hungry! He needs fuzzy donuts and hairy pickles! Kids have to spoon-feed the whacky pieces of "food" (illustrations on little cards) into this monster’s mouth, playing alone or together. Encourages dexterity, as well as counting, cooperating and social skills.

Snap & Design Monster Trucks (Lakeshore Learning, $30)
For truck-obsessed kids: a set that lets them mix and max large truck bodies, wheels and accessories. Then they just pull back the truck and it zooms off. Includes 15 snap-together pieces and truck bodies that are 5 & 3/4 inches long.

Super Durable Pound A Ball (Playkidz, $25)
Whack! Whack! Whack! Kids can let off steam and work on their grasp and hand-eye coordination as they send the balls down the slide.

Animoodles (from $17.50 and up)
If your child likes cuddly creatures, here's a new twist: plush stuffies with removable magnetic parts they can mix and match, including (from left) Randy Orangutan, Hazel SlothBrady Lion, Miguel Frog and Iris Unicorn.

Doctor’s Kit (Green Toys, $20)
A quality kit with the classic MD equipment—a stethoscope, reflex hammer, syringe, forceps, thermometer and otoscope, along with a doctor’s notepad and two sets of sheets of assorted stickers.

Cry Babies (Cry Babies, $28)
Meet Lea. She's 14 inches tall. She cries real tears (just add water to the tank!) and wails. Mommy or Daddy can calm her down by placing the pacifier in her mouth. Good Mommy or Daddy! The removable onesie also helps mini parents practice fine-motor skills. Sleep training not required! Other dolls available.

Sensory Hoops (Edushape, $20)
He shoots, hhe scores bath-time fun and fine-motor-skill practice! Comes with a floating foam basket that’s resistant to mold and mildew and three 2 & 1/2 inch sensory balls that help make gripping easier.

Spiral Activity Toy (Infantino, $13)
These four hanging toys encouraging swatting, along with sensory play. Wraps around car seat handles and most strollers, and i'ts BPA-free. This is the Blue Farm version; also available in Blue Jungle and Caterpillar.

Swingy Thing (Fat Brain Toys, $13)
Sometimes, kids just need inspiration to move their hands around, period. Here you go! They swat at this thingie, it moves. There are 52 challenges—spin one dipper, spin only the flippers, spin them all in opposite directions. Comes with the metal stand.

Toys That Help Boost Gross-Motor Skills

Kids Bowling Set (iPlay, iLearn, $20)
10 bowling pins made of lightweight dense foam + two foam balling balls + 1 kid learning to hold onto balls and roll them = awesome. Use those arms and hands!

Push Along Play Cart (KidKraft, $38)
This walker has a sturdy wooden platform to lean on for kids who are practicing walking, lots of fun activities to play with and rubber-trimmed wheels to protect floors. Win-win-win.

Scooter Board (GSE, $20)
When Max was little, his therapist would encourage him to lay his chest on one of these and propel himself along to develop upper body strength. Comes in red, green, orange, purple and yellow.

Foot Markers (K-Roo Sports, $15)
These brightly colored rubber feet can encourage kids to take a step here, then maybe another, and another.... Comes with a set of six feet and a mesh bag for storage.

Play Tunnel (Hide N Side, $20)
How to motivate a tot with gross-motor challenges to crawl? With a six-foot long bright tunnel—complete with mesh peek-a-boo window in the middle to say hi to you.

Click 'n Play Gigantic Keyboard Play Mat
Remember that scene in the movie Big where Tom Hanks danced on the giant toy floor piano in the toy store? You can recreate it in your very own home with a jumbo sized piano play pat, 70 x 29 inches, made of vinyl. Has four modes: Play, Record, Playback and Demo, with eight instrument sounds: guitar, piano, clarinet, trumpet, saxophone, violin, banjo and xylophone. Plus adjustable volume to keep parents sane. Uses 4 AA batteries.

Door Pong (Fat Brain Toys, $25)
It’s ping pong without the table: You attach the clamp to the doorframe (it has an attached tethered ball), turn a dial to adjust the string length and play away. Comes with two paddles.

This 16.5 x 9.5 inch wobbly board helps kids work on balance and coordination, and supports up to 200 pounds.

Walkie Chalk Stand Up Sidewalk Chalk Holder (PlayMonster, $8)
The height-adjustable stick, 36 inches long, holds most standard-size sidewalk chalk and enables kids to draw on sidewalks or driveways while standing or seated in a wheelchair. 

At-home mini climbers
Consult with your child’s physical therapist first to see if it’s worth investing in a mini gym at home. Two reputable ones: Milliard Soft Foam Toddler Stairs and Ramp Climber (above, $83) or a set from ECR4Kids, like the Softzone Climb and Crawl Foam Play Set ($146.50).

Toys That Help Boost Cognition 

Color Matching Egg Set (Kidzlane, $18)
Each plastic egg in this carton has a different color and number, with corresponding pegs and holes, to help kids learn to count, sort, match and work on their fine-motor skills while they're at it.

Learning Friends 100 Words Book (Leapfrog, $18)
In Words mode, kids can flip through colorful pages—divided into categories including Fruits, Mealtime, Clothes, Colors, My Body and Outside—and touch each pic to hear Turtle, Tiger and Monkey speak new words. There’s a Spanish mode, too. You can switch to Fun Facts for tidbits of information (“This bottle is full of milk!”) and Fun Sounds mode to hear silly sound effects (like what rubber boots sound like when you walk), or press the light-up start button for learning songs.

Where’s Bear? (Peaceable Kingdom, $18)
Kids and parents can take turn hiding the bear and stacking boxes. Helps teach object permanence, sorting, classifying, problem solving and spacial concepts—up, down, top, bottom.

Pip the Letter Pup (Learning Resources, $17)
The five spinning hexagonal pieces include the full alphabet for spelling simple words as kids practice fine-motor skills.

Shape Sorter House (Battat, $16)
What kid isn’t obsessed with keys? With this toy, they get to match the shapes of the blocks to the openings on the house and pop them in, then unlock the doors to get them. Teaches colors, shapes and concepts including cause and effect as it works on hand-eye coordination and fine-motor skills.

John Deere Learn ’n Pop Johnny (Tomy, $20)
It’s easy to grasp and glide—and as it moves, the 7 shapes pop out of the top, wheels and sizes for re-sorting. Teaches shape matching, numbers and colors.

And a cool book idea: Personalized Story Book (Shutterfly, from $24)
Parents can pick from a variety of books with beautiful illustrations and add their child’s name to bring them into a story all their own.

Toys That Help With Communication and 
Oral Motor Development

Kids Singing Machine
 (Mood, $40)
My boy learned to sing some words before he ever spoke them. With this nifty l'il gadget, you can Stream songs from Bluetooth compatible devices and let kids rock as mutli-colored LED lights glow. There's an echo control for voice effects, 1 wired microphone and an AC adapter included (or you can lop in 8 C batteries).

Floor Mirror (Sassy, $9)
Speech therapists like to prop a mirror on the floor for tots, because they love looking at themselves and those with speech delays can see observe their mouths moving and yours in the mirror, too. This 11.5 x 11.5 inches one by Sassy is super cute, with an attached butterfly for tactile stimulation and a lady bug with a tracker ball.

Doggy Mouth Puppet (Moowi, $16.48)
Puppets come in handy (ha ha, get it?) for speech encouragement because you can demonstrate mouth position and get children to mimic sounds and words the puppet says—and because they make speech therapy exercises fun. The ones from Moowi have a large mouth and a tongue, and they're super-cute. Available in other creatures. Then again, you can make a sock one for a fraction of the cost.

Photo Language Cards (Lauri, $12.99)
Encourage kids to articulate words and learn to categorize—ask them to find three things that fly, and they can pick out the parrot, duck and butterfly. Includes 39 cards in a hinged case. Also available: ActionsOppositesRhymesGo-TogethersNouns Around the Home and Manners.

Ambi Trumpet (Schylling, $6.99)
Kids can practice blowing, breath control and lip closure with this teeny trumpet, five inches long. There are two places to blow—the mouthpiece and the top—and each produces a different sound.

Mr Potatohead (Playskool, $11.35)
Yep, good old Mr. Potatohead can be spudtastic for encouraging speech; therapists use him to teach body part names and colors, as well as social skills.

Whether you're trying to teach a child to drink from a straw or do it more often, their name on it might help a lot. Available in several colors. 1 to 6 letters: $5.99, 7 to 8 letters: $9.99, and 9 to 10 letters: $12.99.  

Toys That Help With Sensory Needs

Sensory Shapes (Hedstrom, $15.70)
The nubs feel good to little hands. Set includes six colored shapes, free of BPA, latex and phthalates

Pet Massagers (Fun and Function, $18)
Lady Buzz and Tickles the Turtle come in handy for helping kids relax and giving sensory seekers good vibrations. Sold as a pair. 

Pod Swing Seat (Happy Pie, $40)
This inner and outdoor hammock fosters balance and body awareness. Plus it's a cozy hangout for reading, listening to music or just chilling. Has a 150-pound weigh limit. Measures 27.6 x 59.1 inches, with a seat cushion that's 27.6 inches wide.

Stretchy String (KeNeer)
These strings are soft and durable and can be streeeeeeetched in and out. Comes with seven in different colors.

Super Star Chewable Jewelry (Ark, $12)
These pendants, 1.1 x 2 inches and under a half inch thick, are meant to be chewed. Comes in three toughness levels: Standard, for mild chewers; XT/Medium Firm—Xtra Tough but still pretty chewy; and XXT/Very Firm, the toughest one of all that's still pretty firm.

Making stuff can be very relaxing…especially when you are making anti-stress balls to squish and squeeze. You and your child can pour the blue and purple expanding water crystals into any of the four balloons using the funnel, add silver glitter and water and wait a bit to create a squishable compound. 

Dynamic Movement Sensory Sox (Sanho) 
A nice gift for kids who need tactile feedback, stretching and that wrapped-up feeling. Some kids bring toys in side and play; some nap in it. Available in Small for kids ages 3 to 5 (above, $28), Medium for kids ages 6 to 9, Large for kids ages 9 to 12 and X-Large (for anyone over 4'8").

And a few ideas for teens

Tote bag (Paper Clouds Apparel, $28)
This company sells t-shirts, hats and totes featuring artwork designed by individuals with disabilities. They also hire people with disabilities to package clothing. And fifty percent of all proceeds goes to causes that support people with special needs.

Unicorn Glitter Soap With Charm (Da Bombs by Morgan Tibbens, $6.50)
Morgan Tibbens, an 18-year-old with Down syndrome, runs an online shop that sells soap, bath bombs, and soap disks. How cute is this unicorn soap?

This clothing subscription service has pre-styled fashion boxes for girls sizes 4 to 16, filled with fun, stylish clothes. Starting at $68 (including boxes that can be ordered without shoes). 

Cosmic Space Projector (Lakeshore Learning, $19.99)
It’s soothing, it’s cool, it’s the universe in your kid’s bedroom—just pop a disk into the projector to see a space-themed image on the ceiling. There are 32 photos on 4 disks including the solar system, a total lunar eclipse, galaxies and more. The projector works as a night light, too. Bonus: It makes your child WANT to go to sleep.

A pair of John's Crazy Socks
John's Crazy Socks is run by John Lee Cronin, who has Down syndrome, and his dad, Mark. Their business supports a number of people with disabilities, and they have a whole lot of cool, crazy socks. As John says, "They let me be me."

Movie gift cards
These days, Max is really into movies, so we're getting him a gift card to his fave theater, AMC. You can get discounted tickets to a variety of theaters through Working Advantage (you're supposed to sign up through your workplace but you can also try googling to find codes).

A tee from Spectrum Designs ($15)
A tee-shirt shop that hires people on the autism, Spectrum Designs has a nice selection of shirts with great messages, like the "Neuro Wonderful" tee.

OK, technically this gift is about safety—it is a wristband ID—but it comes in cool colors. You can personalize the bands with whatever information you want, and choose from silicone, leather and nylon. A portion of every order is donated to one of 12 causes, including the National Autism Association.

And if you'd like to check out previous Love That Max gift guides...

Great gifts for kids and teens with disabilities 2017
Great toys for kids with special needs 2016
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 2012
Great toys for kids with special needs 2011
Great toys for kids with special needs 2010

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