The best toys for children with special needs, according to a behavior expert

AJ Rodrigue and Terri Peters
·10 min read

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“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 and gifts 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 gifts that are effective in both therapy and at home for children of all abilities.

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Don’t forget to check out Shop TODAY’s 2020 Gift Guide to find the perfect present for everyone on your list!

Best gifts under $25

1. Playskool Mr. Potato Head

Playskool Mr. Potato Head

Playskool Mr. Potato Head (Amazon / Amazon)
Playskool Mr. Potato Head (Amazon / Amazon)
  • Playskool Mr. Potato Head $11.99 at Amazon

  • Playskool Mr. Potato Head $5.00 at Walmart

This toy works best for kids ages two and up. It refines fine motor, expressive and receptive language skills. Pro Tip: Have the learner find their body part before putting it on the toy.

2. Melissa & Doug On the Go Water Wow

Melissa & Doug On the Go Water Wow!

Melissa & Doug On the Go Water Wow! (Amazon / Amazon)
Melissa & Doug On the Go Water Wow! (Amazon / Amazon)

Melissa & Doug On the Go Water Wow! $10.99 at Amazon

These water color books are a great way for kids to get creative with play. Label each item they paint to increase expressive language.

3. Melissa & Doug Wooden Latch Board

Melissa & Doug Wooden Latches Board

Melissa & Doug Wooden Latches Board (Amazon / Amazon)
Melissa & Doug Wooden Latches Board (Amazon / Amazon)
  • Melissa & Doug Wooden Latches Board $19.99 at Amazon

  • Melissa & Doug Wooden Latches Board $20.99 at Target

To improve developmental skills, have the learner touch each animal inside the door of this toy board to practice counting.

4. "Let's Play" by Herve Tullet

"Let's Play" by Herve Tullet

"Let's Play," by Herve Tullet (Amazon / Amazon)
"Let's Play," by Herve Tullet (Amazon / Amazon)
  • "Let's Play" by Herve Tullet $11.39 at Amazon

  • "Let's Play" by Herve Tullet $3.68 at Barnes and Noble

  • "Let's Play" by Herve Tullet $13.31 at Walmart

This interactive book will have your child smiling for days. Use silly voices as you read to bring the book to life.

5. Melissa & Doug Band-in-a-Box Clap! Clang! Tap!, 10-Piece Musical Instrument Set

Melissa & Doug Band-in-a-Box Musical Instrument Set

Melissa & Doug Band-in-a-Box Clap! Clang! Tap! Musical Instrument Set (Amazon / Amazon)
Melissa & Doug Band-in-a-Box Clap! Clang! Tap! Musical Instrument Set (Amazon / Amazon)
  • Melissa & Doug Band-in-a-Box Musical Instrument Set $20.99 at Amazon

  • Melissa & Doug Band-in-a-Box Musical Instrument Set $17.97 at Walmart

Got an aspiring musician in your household? Try this instrument set. For some added family fun, sing the child's favorite song while shaking the instruments, then pause briefly for them to fill in the lyric.

6. Melissa & Doug Extra-Thick Cardboard Building Blocks

Melissa & Doug Deluxe Jumbo Cardboard Blocks

Melissa & Doug Deluxe Jumbo Cardboard Blocks (Amazon / Amazon)
Melissa & Doug Deluxe Jumbo Cardboard Blocks (Amazon / Amazon)
  • Melissa & Doug Deluxe Jumbo Cardboard Blocks $19.99 at Amazon

  • Melissa & Doug Deluxe Jumbo Cardboard Blocks $24.99 at BuyBuyBaby

Challenge your learner to take turns with a peer building a tower together with these blocks.

7. Liberty Imports 120 Piece Deluxe Pretend Play Food

Liberty Imports 120 Piece Deluxe Pretend Play Food

Liberty Imports 120 Piece Deluxe Pretend Play Food (Amazon)
Liberty Imports 120 Piece Deluxe Pretend Play Food (Amazon)

Liberty Imports 120 Piece Deluxe Pretend Play Food $18.95 at Amazon

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

8. Melissa & Doug Farm Wooden Chunky Puzzle

Melissa & Doug Farm Wooden Chunky Puzzle

Melissa & Doug Farm Wooden Chunky Puzzle (Amazon / Amazon)
Melissa & Doug Farm Wooden Chunky Puzzle (Amazon / Amazon)

Melissa & Doug Farm Wooden Chunky Puzzle $7.99 at Amazon

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

9. GoFit Core Medicine Ball

GoFit Core Medicine Ball

GoFit Core Medicine Ball $17.57 at Amazon

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.

10. “Adventures of the Sensokids: Oh Messy Me” book

“Adventures of the Sensokids: Oh Messy Me” book

Adventures of The Sensokids: Oh Messy Me (Amazon / Amazon)
Adventures of The Sensokids: Oh Messy Me (Amazon / Amazon)
  • “Adventures of the Sensokids: Oh Messy Me” book $18.99 at Amazon

  • “Adventures of the Sensokids: Oh Messy Me” book $20.70 at Walmart

  • “Adventures of the Sensokids: Oh Messy Me” book $18.99 at Barnes and Noble

The first book in the “Adventures of the Sensokids” series tells the story of Nora, a child who has decreased tactile sensory awareness and receives a visit from the Sensokids heroes, who help Nora choose activities that will help her feel sensations more effectively.

11. Raddish Kids Cooking Club Membership

Raddish Kids cooking club membership

Raddish Kids cooking club membership $24.00 at Raddish

This monthly cooking club lets families spend time together learning the important life skills of handling food and cooking meals. Each month is themed around a different type of cuisine and comes with recipes, kitchen tools and more. There are also new question cards each month to get families talking around the dinner table.

12. Educational Insights Vegetable Garden

Educational Insights Vegetable Garden

Educational Insights Vegetable Garden 13-Piece Plush Set, Pretend Food, Early-Learning Skills, Ages 2+ (Amazon / Amazon)
Educational Insights Vegetable Garden 13-Piece Plush Set, Pretend Food, Early-Learning Skills, Ages 2+ (Amazon / Amazon)
  • Educational Insights Vegetable Garden $21.99 at Amazon

  • Educational Insights Vegetable Garden $21.99 at Kohl's

  • Educational Insights Vegetable Garden $21.31 at QVC

This pretend garden set encourages sensory and imaginative play and comes with a parent guide complete with activities to do together to include the plush veggies in daily learning.

13. “Completely Me” Book

“Completely Me” Book

Completely Me (Amazon / Amazon)
Completely Me (Amazon / Amazon)

Written by a doctor who is deaf in one ear, “Completely Me” is about a little girl who stands up for herself after others point out her disability. The book is about accepting all people, especially yourself, and shares the ways imperfections make people perfect.

14. GUND Elmo the Doctor Plush Toy

GUND Elmo the Doctor Plush Toy

GUND 6058911 Sesame Street Doctor Elmo (Amazon / Amazon)
GUND 6058911 Sesame Street Doctor Elmo (Amazon / Amazon)
  • GUND Elmo the Doctor Plush Toy $19.97 at Amazon

  • GUND Elmo the Doctor Plush Toy $19.95 at Target

For kids who feel nervous about visiting the doctor, this sweet Elmo plush is the perfect way to ease some of their nervousness. Elmo comes in a doctor’s lab coat and is safe for kids ages 12 months and up.

15. Who’s the G.O.A.T.? Game

Who’s the G.O.A.T.? game

Who's the G.O.A.T.? Game
Who's the G.O.A.T.? Game

Who’s the G.O.A.T.? game $19.99 at Target

Complete challenges together and determine who the greatest of all time is in this fun party game. Kids with special needs will love the squishy goat who can be tossed at the winner of each challenge or squished in their hands when the game gets tense.

16. Crave Naturals Glide-Thru Detangling Brush

Crave Naturals Glide-Thru Detangling Brush

Crave Naturals Glide Thru Detangling Brush for Adults & Kids Hair - Detangler Comb & Hairbrush for Natural, Curly, Straight, Wet or Dry Hair (PINK) (Amazon / Amazon)
Crave Naturals Glide Thru Detangling Brush for Adults & Kids Hair - Detangler Comb & Hairbrush for Natural, Curly, Straight, Wet or Dry Hair (PINK) (Amazon / Amazon)
  • Crave Naturals Glide-Thru Detangling Brush $9.88 at Amazon

  • Crave Naturals Glide-Thru Detangling Brush $21.15 at Walmart

Hair-brushing can be tough for kids who have sensory issues. This easy-to-use hair brush from Crave Naturals is an Amazon bestseller that removes knots and tangles in an easy, tear-free manner. As a bonus, the brush comes in a variety of colors, making it a fun gift to personalize to the recipient.

17. Roto Brain 3-D Puzzle

Roto Brain 3-D Puzzle

Roto Brain 3D Puzzle Sphere - Brain Teaser Puzzle Game to Fidget, Twist, Turn - 3 Levels of Difficulty, Crack The Code for This IQ | Memory Booster! for Kids and Adults, Age 8+ (Amazon / Amazon)
Roto Brain 3D Puzzle Sphere - Brain Teaser Puzzle Game to Fidget, Twist, Turn - 3 Levels of Difficulty, Crack The Code for This IQ | Memory Booster! for Kids and Adults, Age 8+ (Amazon / Amazon)

Roto Brain 3-D Puzzle $19.99 at Amazon

The Rubik’s cube gets a fun reboot with this puzzle sphere from Roto Brain. The colorful toy is perfect for fidgety kids and takes problem-solving to a whole new level.

Best gifts under $50

1. Paradise Galleries Sleeping Tall Dreams Reborn Doll

Paradise Galleries Sleeping Tall Dreams reborn doll

Paradise Galleries Reborn Toddler Doll with Heartbeat- Sleeping Tall Dreams, 20 inches, SoftTouch Vinyl, Weighted Body, 5-Piece Reborn Doll Set (Amazon / Amazon)
Paradise Galleries Reborn Toddler Doll with Heartbeat- Sleeping Tall Dreams, 20 inches, SoftTouch Vinyl, Weighted Body, 5-Piece Reborn Doll Set (Amazon / Amazon)
  • Paradise Galleries Sleeping Tall Dreams reborn doll $79.99 at Amazon

  • Paradise Galleries Sleeping Tall Dreams reborn doll $99.99 at Paradise Galleries

  • Paradise Galleries Sleeping Tall Dreams reborn doll $99.99 at Walmart

This beautiful reborn baby doll has lifelike details and a heartbeat embedded in her chest. Kids will love the calming effect of snuggling up with this beautiful sleeping doll and feeling her tiny heart pound out a rhythmic beat against their body.

2. Diamond Art

Diamond Art

Joyous Ladies
Joyous Ladies

Diamond Art $54.99 at Diamond Art Club

These Diamond Art painting kits are a creative cross between paint-by-number sets and cross-stitch, and they use resin rhinestones to create colorful canvas paintings. Kids simply stick the colors on the adhesive canvas with the attaching tool and before you know it, they’ve got a stunning work of art. As a bonus, the repetitive motions of adhering each tiny rhinestone is a relaxing task.

3. Me Do. Super Sensory Calming Dough

Me Do. Super Sensory Calming Dough

Me Do. Super Sensory Calming Play Dough - 10 oz Jar Pack of Four (Amazon / Amazon)
Me Do. Super Sensory Calming Play Dough - 10 oz Jar Pack of Four (Amazon / Amazon)
  • Me Do. Super Sensory Calming Dough $29.00 at Amazon

  • Me Do. Super Sensory Calming Dough $9.99 at Patti + Ricky

This four pack of sensory play dough is scented with essential oils to promote a sense of calm in kids with special needs. Additionally, playing with the colorful dough promotes fine motor skills and creativity.

4. GUND Bedtime Elmo plush toy

GUND Bedtime Elmo plush toy

GUND Elmo Bedtime with Light-Up Flashlight (Amazon / Amazon)
GUND Elmo Bedtime with Light-Up Flashlight (Amazon / Amazon)
  • GUND Bedtime Elmo plush toy $32.85 at Amazon

  • GUND Bedtime Elmo plush toy $34.99 at Walmart

Transitioning to bedtime can be difficult for kids, so give them this adorable plush Elmo to help them get in the bedtime mindset. The stuffed toy comes with pajamas and a toy flashlight and is ready to snuggle down and fall asleep.

5. Paradise Galleries Lions, Tigers and Bears, Oh My Reborn Doll

Paradise Galleries Lions, Tigers and Bears, Oh My reborn doll

Paradise Galleries Reborn Baby Doll Boy Lions & Tigers & Bears, Oh My! Realistic Baby is Weighted and Comes with 3 Outfits. Kids 3+ (Amazon / Amazon)
Paradise Galleries Reborn Baby Doll Boy Lions & Tigers & Bears, Oh My! Realistic Baby is Weighted and Comes with 3 Outfits. Kids 3+ (Amazon / Amazon)
  • Paradise Galleries Lions, Tigers and Bears, Oh My reborn doll $99.99 at Amazon

  • Paradise Galleries Lions, Tigers and Bears, Oh My reborn doll $99.99 at Paradise Galleries

This realistic doll comes with multiple outfits and is made of soft vinyl for the perfect snuggle session. The lifelike appearance of this boy doll will make kids feel like they’re caring for a real baby and the weighted body and beautiful eyes and eyelashes add to the experience.

6. Sanuk Lil Puffer Low Slip-On Shoes

Sanuk Lil Puffer Low slip-on shoes

Sanuk Kids Girls' Lil Puffer Low Mule, rainbow, 1 M US Little Kid (Amazon / Amazon)
Sanuk Kids Girls' Lil Puffer Low Mule, rainbow, 1 M US Little Kid (Amazon / Amazon)
  • Sanuk Lil Puffer Low slip-on shoes $50.00 at Amazon

  • Sanuk Lil Puffer Low slip-on shoes $50.00 at Sanuk

These easy-to-slip-into shoes from Sanuk have no laces or clasps to worry about and are a brilliant and fun rainbow pattern kids will love. Keep shoe time simple for kids by gifting them with this slip-on style.

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.

Still looking for the perfect gift? Be sure to check out Shop TODAY’s 2020 Gift Guide to shop for everyone on your list, including:

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