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26 best gifts and toys for children with special needs in 2021

These gifts are effective in both therapy and at home for children of all abilities.
Little boy on a bead spread playing with shape blocks
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/ Source: TODAY

“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.

To quickly jump to the category you're looking for, click on the links below or keep scrolling to see all 26.

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

Best gifts for children with special needs under $25

1. Melissa & Doug See & Spell

Great for kids ages 4 who are still early in their literacy development. Preschoolers can use puzzle-solving skills to learn the alphabet, match words and pictures and compose short sentences.

2. Fat Brain Toys Dimpl Digits

For a colorful tactile experience, try this disc of squishy, silicone bubbles. Embossed with numbers and its matching word in English on one side and Spanish on the other, this toy is impossible to put down.

3. Fat Brain Toys Dado Squares

Encourage creativity, complex thinking and visual spatial reasoning with this set of 24 colorful hexagonal blocks. Kids ages 3 and older can connect the blocks' angular edges to create any structures they want. And if they're interested in a challenge, an illustrated building guide has 18 challenges with more than 50 possible solutions.

4. Melissa & Doug Jumbo Paint Brushes

Great for those ages 2 to 4 years old, these brushes have easy-to-grip handles for optimum brush control so kids can enjoy an easy creative experience. They're also designed to be easy to clean.

5. Playskool Mr. Potato Head

This toy works best for kids ages 2 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.

6. Melissa & Doug On the Go Water Wow

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

7. Melissa & Doug Wooden Latch Board

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

8. "Let's Play!" by Herve Tullet

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

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

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.

10. JaxoJoy 122-Piece Deluxe Pretend Play Food Set

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

11. Melissa & Doug Farm Wooden Chunky Puzzle

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

12. GoFit Core Medicine Ball

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.

13. “Adventures of the Sensokids: Oh Messy Me” by Reema Naim

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.

14. Raddish Kids Cooking Club Membership

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.

15. Educational Insights Vegetable Garden

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.

16. “Completely Me" by Dr. Justine Green

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.

17. GUND Elmo the Doctor Plush Toy

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.

18. Who’s the G.O.A.T.? Game

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.

19. Crave Naturals Glide-Thru Detangling Brush

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.

20. Roto Brain 3-D Puzzle

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.

21. Me Do. Super Sensory Calming Dough

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.

Best gifts for children with special needs under $50

1. Squigz 24-Piece Starter Set

These colorful little pieces flex and stick to each other to become whatever shape players want them to be. They help kids develop fine motor skills while also encouraging creativity, interaction and experimentation. And they easily stick to bathtub, walls, windows, tabletops and more. But don't worry, Mom and Dad, they don't leave a trace once they're gone!

2. Diamond Art

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. GUND Bedtime Elmo Plush Toy

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.

4. Sanuk Lil Puffer Low Slip-On Shoes

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.

5. Melissa & Doug Jumbo Cardboard Blocks

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

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 Gift Guide to shop for everyone on your list, including:

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