Caring for those in Need

Tips for Shopping for Kids with Special Needs

When it comes to holiday shopping, friends and family members of children with developmental disabilities have a lot more to consider besides whether a given toy or activity is trending on TikTok.As with typical children, thoughtfully-selected activities can be a great way to facilitate social engagement with children who have special needs, and also enhance a variety of cognitive and motor skills. Here are some quick tips to help you select a toy or activity for each child on your holiday shopping list.

BY Bonnie Ivers, M.A., Psy.D. | December 2022 | Category: Family, Community + The Holidays

Tips for Shopping for Kids with Special Needs

Consider Developmental Age, Not Chronological Age

Many children with special needs have a cognitive disability, so the age range listed on a particular toy may not be suitable for them. A parent or other caregiver will know the child’s developmental age. However, remember that while some toddler-age toys may be developmentally-appropriate, they could present a barrier to social interaction for older children. For example, a typical teen may be less inclined to engage with a teen who has special needs, if they’re playing with what they’d consider a toddler-age toy.

Consider Sensory Preferences

In general, it’s good to look for toys that engage a child’s senses, such as touch, sound and sight. But remember that loud sounds and bright or flashing lights that delight one child, can be distressing for another. Similarly, certain textures and scents can be comforting to some children, but unpleasant to others. The child’s parents are the best source for identifying sensitivities and sensory preferences that can affect your gift selections.

Take Into Account Physical Challenges 

Like typical children, those with special needs can benefit from toys that encourage them to use their fingers and hands in ways that build fine motor control, while encouraging creativity and imagination. This can include building blocks, such as wooden blocks and snap-together sets, as well as arts and crafts. Even simple musical instruments like kazoos, drums or xylophones can be both fun and enriching, while toys such as rocking bowls can help a child develop better balance. For a child who uses a wheelchair, consider whether the toy will be accessible from the chair or if it will require assistance. 

Look for Durability

Like typical children, those with developmental disabilities, require repetition to master new skills which, in turn, encourages them to try new and different things. So, look for well-made, quality items that will last and can handle heavy use, since children with special needs may keep and enjoy playing with a given toy much longer than their typical peers. 

Build Social Skills

While independent play is important, many children with developmental disabilities, especially autism, struggle to develop social relationships. Activities that promote social interaction, such as board and card games, can help children engage with others and practice communication skills, sharing, problem solving and understanding others’ feelings. Of course, remember to verify that the game does not have any very small parts that could pose a choking or other safety hazard. 

Consult the Child’s Therapist

Many toys and games can foster important physical, cognitive, social and behavioral/emotional development. The therapists working with the child can be a great resource for toys and gift ideas that use play to nurture developmental progress and reinforce lessons and skills learned in therapy sessions. 

Safety First

Children with developmental disabilities can be at greater risk for injury, so standard advice about toy safety – such as avoiding high-powered magnets, tiny batteries and other small parts -- may not be sufficient. When in doubt, opt for the safer choice. 

Of course, these tips and suggestions are just a start. Since no two children are exactly alike, the key is to individualize your gift choices. In my experience, no one knows a child better than his or her parents and often teachers and therapists, so don’t hesitate to ask them what’s appropriate and what the child might truly enjoy. Not only will most parents welcome questions about prospective gifts, they’ll appreciate your thoughtfulness in wanting to select activities that will support their child’s development and bring happiness and enjoyment. 


A clinical psychologist, Bonnie Ivers, M.A., Psy.D., is Clinical Director for Regional Center of Orange County, the private, nonprofit organization contracted by the State of California to coordinate lifelong services and supports for more than 23,000 Orange County residents with developmental disabilities and their families. The Regional Center is the first stop for those seeking to obtain local services and supports to help them live safely and with dignity in the community. Developmental disabilities include intellectual disabilities, autism, epilepsy and cerebral palsy. Learn more at 

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