7 tips for choosing gifts for children with special needs

If you are looking for the right present for a child with special needs this holiday season, consider these ideas from therapists at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.  Above all, keep in mind the particular personality, preferences and ability levels of the child you are shopping for. Your thoughtfulness will be appreciated by parents and caretakers—and if the gift doesn’t work out well, the receipt usually will!

1. Ask for insight

Each child is unique, and each child with special needs will respond well to different gifts. If this is your child, use their preferences as your inspiration. If you are buying for someone else’s child with special needs related to development or cognitive issues, feel free to ask them if there are any types of toys, sounds, lights, or textures that this particular child does or does not respond well to. Parents are experts in their children with special needs when it comes to the ability level, preferences, and potential gift options.

When asking for guidance, ask for some details on the child’s motor skills and strength, as well as the caretakers’ or parents’ level of comfort assisting. Maybe there’s a toy that requires grasping something the child can’t quite handle, but that the parent can help with. Maybe buttons and switches are a challenge, but the caretaker is happy to help. Or, you may learn that it is best to pick something that does not require certain actions or steps.  This information can help you narrow your choices to items best for that particular child.

2. Gift an experience

Socialization and new experiences are incredibly important to a child’s development. The child you’re shopping for may enjoy tickets to a movie, passes to a local children’s museum, or other local activities. Depending on the particular ability or social level of this child, you may want to call ahead to ask about accommodations, like those needed by children with wheelchairs, or hosted events that serve children with special needs.

3. Interactive tablets

We’ve seen many children, particularly those who may have difficulty communicating because of physical or developmental challenges, excel at using tablets. We love the ideas for tablet use from Friendship Circle, a non-profit that provides programs and support to families of special needs. Read more about apps they recommend for children with special needs.

4. Paint supplies

We have seen a great response to painting from children of many ability levels and special needs. In particular, a lot of our young artists respond well to chunky brushes and thicker paint. If you aren’t sure the child’s family will appreciate this potentially messy item, beads are also popular in our activity room. You can purchase all sorts of different, affordable beads that children can string together to create jewelry or key chains.

5. Personalization pizazz

Some children with special needs may use assistive devices. Whether this is a new idea or something they’ve done before, you may be able to gift some dazzle for their wheelchairs or other devices. Think about their preferred items or colors, maybe they could use a name plate or lights.

6. Imaginative play

For some children, toys and play will be a powerful mode of expression. Consider make-believe toys like kitchen sets or tool benches. Keep in mind that the age limit associated with these toys may not be accurate for a child with physical or cognitive impairment.  Playing dress up also sparks imaginations. Dress up is usually a good option for all ability levels. Even if a child needs help to get dressed, they can practice with these play clothes.

7. Sensory stimulation and motor skills

Toys can be a way for children to explore new motor patterns and interactions. Some toys offer this through lights, sounds or feelings. Some allow a child to push or pull, press or lift, giving practical motor skills alongside the fun. Some toys now have descriptions of the purpose or benefit of it that may help you find examples for this.

When considering toys that feature lights or noises, keep in mind that it may be overwhelming to a child. Often, the toys we use at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital have subtle lights and gentle sounds that can be turned off if needed. Things like projection machines, bubble makers with some light features, or play wands that have lights and vibration have offered the right amount of stimuli for some of our children with special needs.

ADD TO OUR LIST! Do you have any special tips you’d like to share with our readers? Use the comments section below to share your advice!  Thank you!

For more ideas and resources:

Looking for a way to help?
The Mott Family Network purchases assistive devices, such as iPads, for children with special needs.  For information on making a donation to the Mott Family Network, call Sandy Knight at 734-763-9370.


University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital is consistently ranked one of the best hospitals in the country. It was nationally ranked in all ten pediatric specialties in U.S. News Media Group’s “America’s Best Children’s Hospitals,” including #4 in the country for heart and heart surgery. In December 2011, the hospital opened our new 12-story, state-of-the-art facility offering cutting-edge specialty services for newborns, children and women.