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Choosing Toys for Children with Special Needs

Every holiday season is full of giving, and while that means children of all ages typically get a special gift, for families of children with special needs the holiday season can present a challenge. Purchasing a toy for a child with special needs involves taking into consideration the child’s specific limitations, developmental level and/or adaptations needed in order to avoid giving the child unneeded frustration due to a toy he/she is unable to play with. It is possible to give the child a toy he or she can truly enjoy. For example, some children on the autism spectrum can be over-stimulated by excessive noise and flashing lights, so toys with those features should be avoided. Other children who function at a much younger developmental level may do better with a toy that is listed for a lower age range.

If you are buying a toy for a child, it’s important to select something that is based on his/her individual need. Every child is unique. Children who lack fine motor skills often have trouble doing things with their hands, like holding a crayon or using a fork, so they might enjoy toys with large knobs or big levers that will enable them to grasp them more easily. It may also be helpful if the toy can be secured to a table. If a toy does not come with a means to secure it, using something like a non-slip drawer liner or silicone mat can help keep the toy in place.

There are many people to talk to in order to help you determine appropriate toys. Parents often are a great place to start to see what toys work best for their child, or it may be helpful to talk to a therapist they see in the clinic or a teacher they work with at school.

Some children with special needs may have difficulty with different senses. Certain children may be tactilely defensive, which means they don’t tolerate textures very well. This can be anything from tags in clothes to something sticky or slimy, even something that’s very soft like velvet. Other children may be sensitive to sound, so toys with different volume levels will generally be a good option. Depending on their needs, a particular child may not like bright toys that light up. It is even possible that some children may even experience seizures when presented with flashing or blinking lights, like a strobe light. One thing to also consider is if the child is orally seeking, which means they like to put things in their mouth. It may be dangerous for them to have toys with small pieces due to concerns that they will try to chew on or eat the pieces, which obviously presents a choking hazard.

Some children have such limited coordination skills that they are unable to play with common toys sold in stores. They may need to have them adapted based on their needs. It is best to start with a simple toy with minimal buttons and then progress to more buttons as you get more comfortable with adapting toys. There are special companies that sell adapted toys, and there are also places that will show people how to adapt toys. At Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio for instance, we have a program that teaches parents and other adults how to make the adaptations themselves. For example, a “switch” can be added to a toy that might not have one, therefore giving the child a way to play with it. It can be beneficial for families to look for places in their area or online where they can learn to adapt toys.

While it may seem like a daunting task to purchase something for a child with special needs, by taking a few things into account you will have better luck getting something that the child will love to play with.

Suellen Sharp, OTR/L, MOT
Suellen is a graduate of Wittenberg University, and completed her masters degree in Occupational Therapy at The Ohio State University. Suellen has been a member of the occupational therapy team at Nationwide Children's Hospital for the past 6 years. She currently works PRN with the inpatient team. She previously worked on the rehabilitation unit for 4 years and was a clinician in seating clinic for 2 years.

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