Parenting is hard work across the board and parents of kids with differently-wired brains face unique challenges. If your child has special needs or requires additional support, the holidays can be a particularly challenging time.
The types of toys or gifts that are a hit with typically developing children may not work for your little one, and educating your loved ones about special needs toys can be an added layer of stress to an already exhausting holiday season.
After my son’s autism diagnosis, my partner and I changed our approach to the holidays so that we could better support him and it has made a world of difference. And now that we better understand his needs, we have an idea of the types of autism toys that will make his eyes light up.
Here are some of Truly Mama’s favorite special needs toys for babies and toddlers with differently wired brains.
- What are Special Needs toys?
- Best Special Needs Toy: Educational Insights Textured Squares
- The Best Toy for Children with Autism: The Original Toy Company Fold and Go Trampoline
- The Best Toys for Autism: Waterfall Toy
- Best Toy for Non-Verbal Autism: The Tiny Talker
- Best Toys for Children with ADHD: Tangle Jr. Fidget Toy
- Best Toys for Children with ADHD: Kinetic Sand
- Best Sensory Toy for Toddlers: Spikey Sensory Ball
- Best Speech Therapy Toy for Toddlers: Dimpl Duo
- Best Toys for Children with Down Syndrome: Squigz
- Best Hands-On Toy for Kids with Down Syndrome: Cao Chameleon Bean Bag Toss
What are Special Needs Toys?
A special needs toy is any toy that has been designed or adapted for use by children with disabilities. It’s a pretty broad category that can include a wide range of toys to fit many different needs and developmental differences.
The type of toy that works best for the special needs child in your life depends on that child’s particular needs. For example, some kids with autism become overstimulated by flashing lights and loud sounds, so battery-operated toys that play music or loud noises may not be a good fit for them. Other neurodivergent kids may be drawn to stuffed animals, fidget toys or play-doh because these toys fulfill a particular sensory need that helps them feel calm.
“Some children with autism become overstimulated by flashing lights and loud sounds, so battery-operated toys that play music or loud noises may not be a good fit for them."
Just as with any child, paying attention to what the special needs child in your life is interested in can steer you in the right direction. For instance, many kids with autism have a special area of interest that excites them and you can’t really go wrong if you get them a toy that aligns with that interest. Other toys may help encourage the development of skills in areas that may be delayed for certain neurodivergent kids, like fine motor skills, language and communication, or imaginative play.
It’s also important to keep in mind that a toy doesn’t have to be labeled “special needs” to be a good fit for a child with a differently-wired brain. Many toys that appeal to neurodivergent kids—like fidget toys—are also great toys for neurotypical kids.
That said, there are some types of toys that may appeal more to neurodivergent kids, including flexible toys that can be played with in a variety of different ways and toys that require low levels of focused attention or physical coordination. The following categories are a good place to start.
Best Special Needs Toy
Educational Insights Teachable Touchable Textured Squares
These soft squares made with different fabrics and textures offer stimulating sensory play for babies and toddlers. This toy comes with small beanbags and pillows that include a variety of textures, from silky and soft to slippery and scratchy. Little ones can stack, sort and match the squares to encourage fine motor development and hand-eye coordination. Plus, this set comes with a bag for easy clean-up and storage.
This sensory toy comes with 20 different fabrics and textures for little ones to explore. It is a great choice for children with autism or down syndrome because it enhances the sensation of touch, which can be incredibly calming to little ones.
But this toy isn’t limited to special needs babies and toddlers. In fact, learning to identify different textures can help promote tactile awareness and language development in all babies. Plus, this toy encourages open-ended and imaginative play as the squares could be used as blocks to stack, in imaginative play as pillows for baby dolls, or as pretend rocks at a construction site.
- Each beanbag measures two to three inches
- Comes with 20 textured squares (10 pairs)
- Made with polyester
- No batteries required
“Such a great toy! I bought it for my 8-month-old because she is very into different textures and she LOVES it. My friend ended up buying it for her 8-month-old as well because he loved it so much.” — Target review
Keep in mind:
Some reviewers pointed out that while the textures of the squares do differ slightly, they aren’t robust enough for sensory-seeking kiddos who may benefit from a more intense sensory experience. The bags are also pretty lightweight, which can be a good thing for little ones trying to carry them, but may fall flat for kiddos looking for more vigorous sensory play.
The Best Toy for Children with Autism
The Original Toy Company Fold and Go Trampoline
If your child loves to run and jump and you’re constantly looking for ways to help them get out all that never-ending energy, this trampoline may just be the perfect fit. It’s small and compact enough to fit indoors but big enough for your little one to jump to their heart’s content. This toy is particularly great for autistic kids because it encourages gross motor play and sensory integration, helping children organize their bodies through active movement.
Jumping for Joy
If you celebrate winter holidays, this trampoline is a great gift for indoor play when you can’t run around outdoors. But while this trampoline is compact enough to fit in a corner of the living room, it doesn’t have to stay there.
The frame’s durable finish equips this trampoline for both indoor and outdoor use once temps start warming up again. Plus, with a weight limit of 150 pounds, your child is unlikely to outgrow this trampoline for many years. Assembly with this toy is also a breeze. All you need to do is screw on the legs and attach the handle and it’s ready to go.
- Padded frame cover
- 150-pound weight limit
- Instructions and tools included
- Measures 36” in diameter
“Absolutely worth the price. I bought this in 2016 when I had one kid. Now I’ve got a second one. The oldest is 60lbs and autistic and the little one is 30lbs. It lives in the middle of the living room because it’s used as a sensory thing and is so soothing for my oldest kid.” — Amazon review
Keep in mind:
As far as trampolines go, this one is pretty easy to set up. But you’ll want to check the screws periodically as you may need to tighten them over time.
The Best Toys for Autism
Calming Autism Sensory Liquid Motion Toys Waterfall Visual Illusion
Water toys can be very soothing to children with autism. My son loves to watch water move down waterfalls, through tunnels and out fountains. These toy waterfalls help encourage the development of fine motor skills as kids explore how the water moves through. According to the seller, this toy is great for sensory stimulation for kids and helps calm children on the autism spectrum as well as those with learning difficulties. It can also be used as a 'timer' for little tasks/challenges.
Wild for Water
The simple movement of water often captures (and keeps!) the attention of autistic kids. This toy is a great soothing sensory activity, and with three different structures, this toy is sure to keep your child entertained for a good stretch of time as they create their own waterfall magic.
- Can mix and match colors
- Sensory stimulation
- Promotes calming
- Ideal for children on the spectrum
- Useful for children with learning disabilities
Keep in mind:
The potential for messes and spills is high with this one, so you may want to designate it as an outside toy in the summer or use it indoors in the bathtub or in a large plastic tub.
The Tiny Talker
The Tiny Talker
This device is really more of a tool than a toy, but young kids will love using it. Designed for nonverbal or verbally-delayed children, this augmentative and alternative communication device (AAC) helps kids communicate their basic needs with buttons that say simple words, like “yes,” “no,” “thirsty,” “hungry,” “hurt,” “all done,” and “bathroom.”
This device enables kids with speech delays to communicate their wants and needs. The Tiny Talker comes with 12 different buttons that convey different messages when pushed.
Pair this toy with the book, “Lucas the Lion Loves the Tiny Talker” to show your child how it works and get them excited about using it. Unlike similar communication devices on the market, the Tiny Talker is small and compact so it can easily be stored in a diaper bag on the go and your little one should have no problem carrying it around.
- Small enough to fit in a pocket
- Runs off two small batteries
- Buttons measure 3/4 inches
- Soft buttons are easy to push
“I bought several of these to use with my nonverbal students. They are great to have around just to try voice output with students and for basic needs. They are pre-recorded with a child voice (hooray), and easy to activate.” — Special Needs Essentials Review
Keep in mind:
This device comes with pre-recorded words in a child’s voice. If you’d like a device you can record your own voice on, try the Tiny Talker Too.
Best for Children with ADHD
Tangle Jr. Fidget Toy
Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often struggle with focus, sitting still, impulse control and hand-eye coordination. Fidget toys that kids can manipulate with their hands are great for children with ADHD because these activities help them regulate their bodies and improve focus. The Tangle Jr. fidget toy is compact and lightweight, perfect for taking to school or bringing with you to a restaurant or an appointment. This toy includes three snake-like structures that are made of connected pieces that can be pulled apart and put back together in different patterns.
This lightweight fidget toy helps improve fine motor control, calm anxiety and increase focus for kids with ADHD. The pieces of this snake-like fidget toy are durable and smooth so they easily slide across little fingers and are small enough to be manipulated with one hand.
Bring this toy with you on car rides or to the grocery store. With so many different ways to twist and turn this device, your child can explore their creativity while calming their mind.
- Measures 1.5” x 2” when coiled
- Extends to 7” uncoiled
- Consists of eighteen 1″ curved sections
- Brightly colored sections
“Definitely worth it! This tangle is so pretty and really helps me focus and relax. 10/10 would recommend to people with sensory disorders!” — Tangle Creations Review
Keep in mind:
This toy does not come with a storage bag and because it is so small, it could be easily lost or misplaced. Also keep in mind that due to separating sections and small parts, this toy is not recommended for children younger than three years old as it could be a choking hazard.
Best Toys for Kids with ADHD
This is a great option for any child, but especially for neurodivergent kids with autism or ADHD. You can build, mold, sculpt, stack and squish this sand and it does not stick to you like regular sand. The soft, squishy texture is a great form of stress relief and can feel very soothing. You can also buy different kinetic sand sets to accompany this gift.
Beach Fun, Without the Mess
If your child loves playing in the dirt or in the sand at the beach, you can bring that fun (without the mess!) indoors with kinetic sand. This smooth, squishy and moldable sand crumbles between your fingers yet holds its shape rough to allow for sculpting.
My two kids love this stuff. I keep it stored in the closet in a large plastic bin and place blankets underneath the bin when my kids want to play with it. It keeps them engaged for a long period of time and the bin keeps the mess (mostly) contained.
- Recommended for kids ages 3 and up
- Feels like sand, but holds together and molds like play-dough
- One bag is three pounds of sand
- Cleans up easily and doesn’t try out skin
“My kids love playing with this. Literally hours of fun. I have a sandbox inside my house and this is what they pick to play with 99% of time. Doesn’t get hard and not messy at all, easy to clean.” — Target review
Keep in mind:
Kinetic sand can be a choking hazard for toddlers, so this toy is recommended for children ages three and older.
Best Sensory Toy for Toddlers
Squishy Sensory Fidget Spiky Ball
These squishy, spiky balls are fun to squeeze and toddlers will love bouncing them off the ground. Not only do these balls offer a sensory experience, but they also teach cause and effect and can be quite soothing for both autistic kiddos and those with ADHD. Roll the balls back and forth with your child or see who can bounce a ball the highest.
A Roll Lot of Fun
You just might buy these balls for your toddler only to find that you can’t put them down either. These fun and interesting sensory balls are sure to capture the attention of your little one as they experiment with squishing, rolling, and bouncing. The nubbly texture feels soft in your child’s hand and as they squeeze the ball they can feel the rubber stretch. These are great open-ended toys that your child will surely find many new and creative ways to play with.
- Each set comes with 4 balls
- Each ball is 4” in size
- Made with highly durable PVC Phthalate-free plastic
- Latex-free and BPA-free
“My 1-year-old loves these! Soft enough to be tossed safely, textured for curious hands and colorful to the eyes! All things that make it a win for the child and mama!” — Fat Brain Toys review
Keep in mind:
These balls are the perfect size for toddler hands, but that also means they can easily roll under couches or get stuck under beds. You may have trouble keeping track of these balls, so you may want to designate a particular storage space or bag.
Best Speech Therapy Toy for Toddlers
This simple, yet engaging toy not only helps encourage language development but also serves as a sensory toy as well. Toddlers will love running their fingers over the squishy shape buttons and popping them in and out. Plus, this toy is perfect for talking with your toddler about the different shapes and colors and asking questions to promote back and forth conversation.
Try Not to Steal This Toy
All of your kids will love this toy—and adults probably will too! In fact, this engaging sensory toy can also help promote speech and language development with adult interaction. Point out the colors and shapes to your toddler and let them touch the buttons and feel the different sensations on their skin.
Talk to them about each shape and color. For example, you could say, “That red circle reminds me of the sun. Where is the sun?” Just a few minutes a day can help your child with language acquisition.
- Made with 100% food-grade silicone
- Made with high-quality materials for lasting durability
- Unique tablet feature
- Dimensions: 8.76 x 1.8 x 7.75 inches
“This toy for my 1-year-old granddaughter is very stimulating. She was a premature birth. She caught on very swiftly approximately a week prior to her 1st birthday. A great toy!” — Fat Brain Toys review
Keep in mind:
While many reviews rave about this toy being great for young toddlers, others point out that the buttons are too hard for their toddlers to push. If your child also struggles with fine motor skills. this toy may be a better fit when they’re a bit older.
Best Water Toy for Children with Down Syndrome
This open-ended versatile toy comes in many different forms and provides hours of creative play. You can get the original Squigz or variations, like Minisquigz or Pipsquigz. These toys are small suction cups great for stacking and building all sorts of contraptions. Put these in the bath for endless fun or spread them out on the coffee table and let your child use their imagination to come up with various ways to connect them.
Bath Time Learning
These small suction cups provide hours of open-ended fun while promoting fine and gross motor skills. You can even use Squgz to help strengthen balance and coordination by encouraging your child to stick them to a vertical surface while standing on a wobbly surface, like a couch.
They’re also great to use in the bath since they are silicone, easy to clean and don’t leave a residue. Plus, the vibrant colors offer visual sensory stimulation, and the “pop” noise the Squigz make when pulled apart is sure to make your little one giggle.
- Made with 100% food-grade silicone
- Easy to clean
- BPA free
“My three-year-old loves these and we bought some more as a present for another three-year-old friend! They are great for independent play or playing together. We also like to play with them on our glass door.” — Fat Brain Toys review
Keep in mind:
Keeping track of all the little Squigz can be challenging, and if your child is anything like mine, you might just find these scattered all over the house.
But if you monitor your child while playing with them and have a bag or box to put them away in, you can likely keep these contained.
Best Hands-On Toy for Kids with Down Syndrome
Cao Chameleon Bean Bag Toss
This puzzle game is great for kids with down syndrome who often struggle with fine motor skills. Kids can easily grab and toss the large bean bag pieces and the level of difficulty can be adjusted depending on the child.
Don’t Toss This Game Out
Help encourage your child’s hand-eye coordination with this bean bag toss game. This game comes with eight numbered and color-coded beanbags kids can toss into the holes. You can make this game harder or easier by moving the target closer or farther away and it’s created for either indoor or outdoor use.
- Sturdy metal base
- Made with polyester fabric
- Wipes clean
- Dimensions: 24.5” H x 12.25” W x 20” D
“My 4-year-old grandson and I had a blast playing with this. It reinforced his recognition of numbers and of course beating grandma was the highlight for him.” — Kohl’s review
Keep in mind:
Some parents claim the holes aren’t quite big enough for the bean bags to easily fall through, so you may need to use some force when tossing.
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