Gift Giving for Special Needs Kids

You know that scene in Miracle On 34th Street, where the little Dutch girl goes to meet Santa Claus? She doesn’t think Santa will be able to understand her, but that Santa is a sneaky old trickster and he starts speaking to her in Dutch, much to her delight. They sing a little Dutch song and have a little Dutch chat, everybody smiles and my gosh, it’s cute okay? Bear with me.

Choosing just the right gift for a special needs child is a little like that scene. You might need to know how to speak Dutch.

If we were to buy our 3 year old son a toy, he would love it. Any toy. Because he will play with anything and it will be fun and he will try to drag us into whatever wacky game he’s thought up for the day. It doesn’t even matter if it’s the toy he wanted or not. It’s a toy and it’s being given to him and OMG TOYS ARE SO MUCH FUN!!! If we were to buy my 8 year old son a toy, he would thank us and mean it, whether he likes the toy or not. Because he is generally polite and understands that when someone gives you a gift, the correct response is to be gracious.

Shopping for a toy for our 6 year old son is different. He has received toys in the past that didn’t interest him and said very plainly, “I don’t want that.” Not in a rude way. Not in a disappointed way. Just in a totally matter of fact way. He doesn’t want it. And then he’ll go play with the same things he always plays with because that’s what makes him happy. We had to teach him to say thank you and how his words make people feel. He is thankfully, very sorry to learn that he’s hurt someone’s feelings because he doesn’t mean to. And we have also learned to tell people that yes he really does want yet another Optimus Prime and no, in his mind he doesn’t already have enough of them. Because people on the spectrum can tend to have fixated interests and he is no exception. There is no such thing as too many Optimus Primes.

We have been so frustrated trying to come up with gift ideas for our boy this year, that it occurred to me that shopping for any child with any kind of special need might also be very frustrating for someone who has no idea where to start. So if there is a child on your list this year with special needs, here is some advice that I compiled based on replies on my facebook and on a Babycenter board I read that shall remain anonymous.

#1 – Ask The Parents & Then Listen to Them

This should be obvious, but maybe it’s not. It’s the comment that I got the most – just ask and do listen. Maybe people feel shy to ask or maybe people ask and then think of the parent’s idea as like a suggestion and then ignore it. I’m not sure. But it’s really just great if you ask and understand that the more specific an answer you get, the better it is to follow that answer to a T, even if it’s weird or you just got the kid the same thing for his birthday. A friend whose 16 year old sister is autistic told me that she “is the absolute easiest person to shop for. Coloring books and crayola twistables for Christmas, her birthday, everything, and she’s a happy camper!” Another friend told me that last year her son asked for apples for Christmas. Santa brought an iPad but you know what else Santa brought? A bag of apples. Her son was happier about the apples than the iPad. Why? Because special needs kids are way cooler than the rest of us, clearly.

#2 – Think Therapy

Depending on the child, he or she may be working on a goal or skill set in occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, cognitive skills, or even self help skills. Supplies and tools for these therapies looks a lot like play time. There may be some really practical gifts that will go a long way in helping the child at home as they work towards those ends but the parents may not know how to tell you that their 10 year old needs ABC magnets for the fridge or that money is tight and pull ups for a 7 year old would help a lot. Some things used in therapy with kids might surprise you. A bean bag chair, exercise ball, or a pop up tent as a place for a child to calm down and decompress were both suggestions passed along from parents who got the idea from their child’s OT (occupational therapist). This goes back to asking the parents, but maybe asking a little more intentionally. I promise it will not be awkward.

“Hey. I’d like to choose a meaningful or helpful gift for Susie or Joe this Christmas. Is there anything on his list or yours that would help with any therapies or projects at home or school?” Done. Nobody is going to be offended that you care about the specific needs or desires of their child. If they can’t think of anything along these lines, they’ll tell you and probably think you’re a super nice person for asking at all. And if they are offended, well bah humbug.

#3 – Think Sensory

Many children with special needs have sensory issues. A mom on Babycenter said, “Instead of circling toys in the Sears Wish Book… I drool over items in the Therapro catalogue. As PP said, sensory tools and equipment would make PHENOMENAL gifts. I can’t tell you how much I would love to have a swing, or a trapeze bar, balance boards or other things for my extremely vestibular and proprioceptive seeking son. Or, how much I would love to have a really good oral z-vibe for my daughter, or to have Social Story books.”

Sensory items were a big part of the response I got for this topic. Soft sensory toys. Oral sensory toys. Movement toys. Water toys. Musical toys (depending on the kind of noise it makes). Wooden toys like Melissa & Doug style that are educational and easy to manipulate.

It might not even be toys. One of my friends noted that she’s always looking for soft things for her now 20 year old son who is on the autism spectrum and also currently rocking college. Soft clothing and blankets, new pillows, weighted blankets – for people with sensory issues, everything they feel and touch and see and hear matters. One year Andreas got a pair gun range quality noise canceling headphones. Because noise is both annoying and painful to his sensitive ears. In the same vein, toys that are too noisy and too stimulating might be a really bad idea. Electronic toys with sounds and lights may send a child who is sensitive into fits or tears and that is no fun for anybody. If mom or dad suggest that fire truck with the sirens and lights, that’s different. In the case of kids with sensory sensitivities it’s better to assume that less of the obnoxious kind of stimulation is definitely more.

#4 – Think Playtime

Special needs kids love to play just like every other kid. Kids are kids. They all love to play. Sometimes though, play doesn’t come easily. For a child with physical limitations, play might need to be modified or it might not. If a child has a specific set of interests, play may look like a lot of repetition but that doesn’t mean he or she isn’t having fun!

Pretend play toys were suggested and for good reason. Play kitchens and tool benches and doctor kits are pretty timeless toys. They can also be used as teaching tools. Those little food sets with a pretend knife where you cut the middle and it’s velcro so it comes apart are pretty awesome for fine motor. And also for simply learning how to play pretend. Pretending does not come easily to all children and the only way I learned this is because it doesn’t come easily for my child. It’s only been in the last year and a half or so that Andreas has wrapped his head around pretending anything. And only because our younger son pretends his fabulous little way through life and it drives Andreas absolutely nuts. It took major coaching recently to get Andreas to turn a toy letter V upside down and pretend it was a letter A. Learning how to play pretend is a really big deal and it’s something we don’t take for granted around here. It’s a lot of work! Toys that involve pretending can be especially helpful.

Another issue with play is that a child may not be playing with toys or activities that are age appropriate. A friend whose daughter has Down’s Syndrome still loves to color like a kid. But she’s 12 and aware that Dora coloring books are for little kids. So coloring is in, but coloring like a baby is out! Walking that developmental line of where a child is actually at with play, verses where their typical peers are at, might be a little tricky. The age labels on toys and games can go straight out the window. Special needs kids sometimes have asynchronous development – which means that they may be behind in fine motor but well advanced in reading. A kindergarten teacher friend told me that one year, the most advanced reader in her class was her student with Down’s Syndrome. Where typically developing kids tend to hit milestones evenly across the board as they grow, special kids may do things all out of order, or hit some milestones really early or late or not at all. It can absolutely impact how they play.

The other thing is, she may be interested in things that are not toys. Andreas found a manual egg beater in the grocery store once that he wouldn’t put down. Loved to watch that silly thing spin round and round. He or she might collect something specific or have a topic of interest that you could buy books or posters about. It might seem weird but that’s okay. We’re all a little weird.

#5 – Practical Is Good

Just like every other family, things like new pajamas or bed sheets are always welcome. Books are never a bad idea. A movie for the family to watch together or a gift card for dinner to give whoever cooks a night off will be appreciated. Many families with special kids spend a lot of their time and money on therapy, equipment, aides, resources. An experience they can share together could be a lot of fun. Gift cards for iTunes may be extremely helpful in purchasing apps or games for the iPad or iPod the family uses together or with their child. Everyday things that every family does and needs will always make a good gift.


Generosity is generosity. The most important thing with everything I’ve listed here is to simply ask and go from there. My hope in reading this is that you might have a better understanding of the answers you’re getting, and maybe learn to “speak Dutch” as you give a gift that tells the child you are trying to understand them. Simply knowing that someone is really being thoughtful in their giving towards a special kid may be the best gift a parent receives.

The following are a couple of links to websites that sell therapy items that I promise you never would have thought of. I’ll update this list with more links as they are suggested!

Occupational Therapy Products at Tools For Kids Inc!

I’m sure there are other great tips and ideas, and wonderful gift ideas I haven’t thought of. Please please please share them in the comments and pass this post along to anyone you think might be helped by it.

Merry Christmas and Happy Gift Giving!


copyright (c) 2013 Jenna Pelias // all rights reserved

2 thoughts on “Gift Giving for Special Needs Kids

  1. Hey, I have a quick question I wanted to ask you about your blog, do you think you could send me an email when you get this? Thanks! Tiffany


  2. Great suggestions! I love how you explained the College student’s needs along with the younger kids’. I hope the suggestions really take off and offer more, too.


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