If you are the parent or friend of a child with special needs—particularly a child with profound special needs—it may be difficult to select an appropriate gift for that child. Some high-functioning children with special needs, such as those with mixed receptive-expressive language disorder or high-functioning autism, may have a wish list similar to that of his or her typically developing peers. Other children, however—perhaps children who are nonverbal or have other profound needs—may be a bit more challenging.
Don’t Assume Any Therapeutic Gift is OK.
My four-year-old is nonverbal and has a high need for oral sensory input. In the past, we’ve used chew tubes, chew necklaces, and other items to help relieve his need to chew. This fall, his need to chew accelerated to an almost unmanageable level. He chews most toys we set out, he chews household furniture, and he sometimes chews his wooden bed frame. (To clarify, we do not allow unsafe chewing or destructive chewing. We offer safe items to chew at bedtime and during the day. That said, he is nonverbal and mobile; sometimes he makes attempts to chew an inappropriate item if I turn away for a moment to help his younger brother or, you know, set out his lunch.) While Christmas shopping recently, I found a textured rubber toy that looked like something my son would love chewing. I quickly figured out it was a dog toy, but bought it without hesitation. However, I would feel extremely hurt if a friend or family member purchased my son a dog toy for Christmas. I wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with a teething ring, depending on the design, but I would bristle at a dog toy. Actually, I would do more than bristle. I would probably burst into tears. So, fair warning: seeing the parents of a special needs child purchase a specific item for their child is no indicator of whether or not you should buy that item for that child. That said, my friend Renee and my sister-in-law Tiffany have purchased therapeutic toys for us in the past. We absolutely loved these gifts—and I was blown away at the thoughtfulness employed in finding gifts we would actually use. Ultimately, what softens my heart toward any gift—even a mildly offensive one—is a heartfelt note explaining why the gift was chosen. Maybe this all sounds very high-maintenance. And maybe it is. But being sensitive toward our loved ones at Christmastime is a small burden to carry in the grand scheme of things.
Consider Non-Toy Gifts.
Whether because of immobility or developmental delays, some children are denied the simple joy of playing with toys. And it isn’t fair in any way, shape, or form—but it happens. Consider a practical non-toy gift for the precious child on your list who isn’t able to play with toys. A soft cotton blanket is a practical gift that Mom and Dad will likely use (especially if the child still experiences toileting issues and frequently needs linens changed) and the child will likely enjoy; choose a soothing color or a favorite book or television character if you know the child’s preferences. Books are usually a safe gift; if the child has fine motor delays and cannot turn the pages, Mom and Dad may read the book aloud. Finally, a membership to a local attraction such as a zoo or aquarium provides an opportunity for the child to enjoy quality time with his or her family when restaurants, movie theaters, and other businesses neurotypical families frequent are often difficult for special needs families to visit.
When in Doubt, Ask Mom and Dad.
This is a good idea when giving presents to any child, but especially important when gifting to children with special needs. For example, my oldest son is four years old—it would be perfectly reasonable to assume a toy for a child aged three and up would be appropriate for him. However, because of his high need for oral sensory input, toys with small pieces are usually unsafe for him. I feel especially bad when someone has gone the extra mile to do autism research and has thoughtfully purchased an educational toy like Play-Doh. My face falls as they excitedly share, “I was reading that Play-Doh is really good for kids with autism and I found these really cool shape cutters to go along with it…” Then, I’m in the awkward position of gently sharing, “That’s so sweet; I wish we could play with Play-Doh. Unfortunately, he eats it…” I of course gratefully accept the gift if nothing is said to accompany an item—but I feel weird just nodding silently when a friend is sharing research that isn’t true of my son. As the adage goes, if you’ve met one child with autism (or any special need), you’ve met one child with autism (or any special need). All kids are different and, while some high-functioning ASD sensory seekers may enjoy playing with Play-Doh, others may be unable to use it at all. If you are unable to ask Mom and Dad about an appropriate gift in advance, Amazon gift cards are usually a safe bet. Amazon carries many specialty therapeutic items, along with hundreds of thousands of other items. If an Amazon gift card doesn’t feel personal enough, consider a Fun and Function gift certificate; Fun and Function carries a wide variety of therapist-designed, kid-friendly sensory tools and toys.
The best gift you can give a special needs child, however, is the best gift you can give any child: your time, your sincere attention, and your unconditional love.