The best gifts for children with special needs, according to an expert

“On your mark … Get set … Go!”

I cheer in delight and crash the toy car into the paper blocks. Today, the child I am working with learned to respond to fill-in-the-blank statements and improve his language skills using simple toys and lots of energy.

As a behavior analyst, my daily life consists of treating children with autism spectrum disorders and then coming home and implementing similar practices with my own children. I use the same toys in the same way. Why? Because all kids like to have fun while they are learning. The challenge lies in finding developmentally appropriate toys and creating opportunities for learning and play.

An even bigger challenge? Finding non-electronic toys that will also yield great benefits for early learners. Toys are only as fun as we make them, so bringing them to life adds to the learning experience. Here are our top 10 toys that are effective in both therapy and at home for children of all abilities.

These items were hand-picked by our editorial team because we love them – and we hope you do, too. TODAY has affiliate relationships, so we may get a small share of the revenue from your purchases. Items are sold by the retailer, not by TODAY.

1. Melissa & Doug Water Wow Books, $10, Amazon

Melissa and Doug

Age Range: 3+

Skill: Fine Motor and Visual Perception

Pro Tip: Label each item they paint to increase expressive language.

2. Melissa & Doug Wooden Latch Board, $21, Amazon

Melissa & Doug

Age Range: 3+

Skill: Fine Motor, Receptive Language, Math

Pro Tip: Have the learner touch each animal inside the door to practice counting.

3. Playskool Mr. Potato Head, $7, Amazon


Age Range: 2+

Skill: Fine Motor, Expressive and Receptive Language

Pro Tip: Have the learner find their body part before putting it on the toy.

4. Melissa & Doug Band-in-a-Box Clap! Clang! Tap!, 10-Piece Musical Instrument Set, $19, Amazon

Melissa & Doug

Age Range: 3+

Skill: Expressive Language and Play

Pro Tip: Sing the child’s favorite song while shaking the instruments, then pause briefly for them to fill in the lyric.

5. Melissa & Doug Extra-Thick Cardboard Building Blocks, 24 Blocks in 3 Sizes, $20, Amazon

Melissa & Doug

Age Range: 2+

Skill: Play, Motor and Social

Pro Tip: Challenge your learner to take turns with a peer building a tower together.

6. “Let’s Play,” by Herve Tullet, $22, Amazon


Age Range: 3+

Skill: Following instructions, Attending skills, Fine motor, Play

Pro Tip: Use silly voices as you read to bring the book to life

7. Latex Balloons Bulk (160 Piece) 8 Color Party Balloons, $13, Amazon

Age Range: 2+ (with close supervision)

Skills: Play, Cooperation, Expressive Language, Motor, Oral motor

Pro Tip: Start blowing up a balloon then stop and ask the learner to tell you to blow more. Continue several times. This will provide motivation to use language.

8. Liberty Imports 120 Piece Deluxe Pretend Play Food Assortment Set, $22, Amazon


Age Range: 2+

Skill: Play, Imitation, Sequencing, Expressive and Receptive language

Pro Tip: Work on imitation by pretending to take big bites of food then provide verbal praise when the learner copies you.

9. Melissa & Doug Farm Wooden Chunky Puzzle (8 pcs), $10, Amazon


Age Range: 2+

Skill: Fine motor, Visual spatial, Language

Pro Tip: Puzzles can be boring so boost the fun making the animal sound when the learner puts the missing piece in the puzzle.

10. GoFit Core Ab Ball (Medicine ball), $16, Amazon


Age Range: All

Skill: Gross motor

Pro Tip: Using a larger ball can help teach large motor movements like kicking, throwing, rolling or tossing. Set up some cones and have the learner roll the big ball down the lane to play an adapted version of bowling.

AJ Rodrigue is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) with two energetic kiddos and two angels above. She founded The Behavior Momma, a platform that helps parents connect with their kids using simple, behavioral-science strategies. AJ believes that behavior analysis is a life-changing methodology that can help anyone with anything.

Looking for more suggestions? Check out the gift guide for babies, 1-year olds, 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds. Or try Good Housekeeping’s 2017 ‘Best Toy Award’ winners, the 10 toys that will be on every kid’s wish list this holiday season or Amazon’s top 2017 toy list.

If you need to check other people off your list, test out our interactive gift guide! You simply choose who you are shopping for, what they are like and how much you want to spend, then we generate the gifts for you!

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