Very Necessary Holiday Gifts for Kids With Special Needs

The holiday shopping frenzy approaches! While most kids look forward to holiday gifts, extra-thoughtful gifts for kids with special needs are extra-appreciated. Our kids aren't always easy to shop for, but when giftors hit the mark -- with my son at least -- the appreciation fanfare is spectacular.

Last year I wrote the guide Terrific Holiday Gifts for Kids With Special Needs, including general and specific recommendations. The generalities are important, so I'll include the CliffsNotes version here:

  • Don't get derailed by age ranges on toy labels, because they don't always apply.

  • Try to focus on the child's interests, on what they actually like to do -- this is where interrogating the kid's parents or caregivers comes in!

As for specifics, I have a whole new bunch of recommendations to help you fast-track your inherent thoughtfulness:


I am impressed by this year's Toys R Us guide for Differently-Abled Kids catalog. Though for me the encyclopedic and carefully categorized toy choices are almost overshadowed by the shockingly matter-of-fact inclusiveness of the catalog itself -- the child models are not special angels, nor are their differences de-emphasized. They're just happy, slightly over-airbrushed kids, like all the other moppets who appear in these catalogs -- imagine that! And, sure, the toy choices look reasonable.

If you want a toy to choose right now: our family plays a lot of relatively old-fashioned games that encourage cooperation, dexterity, and problem-solving, like Perfection, Don't Break the Ice, and Twister. We've also enlisted Scrabble for off-label use: practicing high-frequency sight and vocabulary words with Leo.

Cheeky T-Shirts

I have a real soft spot for a quirky kid in a cheeky tee. My son has a huge collection of shirts with attitude, some from Target ("All I Do Is Win") or Sears ("I'm Just Here for the Pizza"), others from Busted Tees, Threadless, and ThinkGeek. In my opinion, the best one-stop shop for true geek kids is the "relentlessly cheerful" nerd culture mashup offerings of James Hance -- his Stormtrooper Fields Forever tee was the perfect gift for an Aspie middle schooler with a passion for both the Beatles and Star Wars. I also love seeing one of our kids in a Mythbusters tee, dishing out the dual meanings.

iTunes Gift Cards

These are almost always a win, as they let kids choose their own apps, movies, music, TV shows, or videos. If you want to make the child in question extra-happy (though possibly not their parents, and definitely not a sensory-sensitive child) put the iTunes card inside a musical card -- the latter is often a bigger hit than the gift card itself.

Speaking of Movies and TV Shows

We've been watching (and in Leo's case, watching and re-watching) a lot of older movies and TV shows. These offerings tend to be more earnest and lighter on the subtext, plus the editing and pacing are less frenetic and easier to follow. And who doesn't love getting to pull a "Well, back in my day, we watched..."?

Leo loves musicals like Singin' in the Rain or the original Muppet Movie, and fantasies like The Dark Crystal (though the latter does have some scary parts). For TV, he's always enjoyed Pee Wee's Playhouse, and is now a fan of Speed Racer. He also likes Bugs Bunny and the Flintstones, but I'm less of a fan of the latter due to the need for running commentary on that show's overt and outdated sexism.


These can be gifted directly to email addresses, which is a time-saver. Make sure you do your research, as not all apps for kids with special needs are created equal. (There's also no need to stick solely with apps in special needs categories.) My preferred sites for app recommendations and freebies are Tech in Special Ed, Apps for Children with Special Needs, Moms With Apps, and of course the Autism Apps spreadsheet I help maintain.

The sites above will direct you to innumerable apps for many different needs and interests, so in terms of specific apps I'll just tell you what Leo currently plays every single day: Park Math*, Match That Shape, My Underwear, Moo Baa La La La, and Harold and the Purple Crayon.

I'm also pleased that Disney is now offering enhanced storybook apps like Beauty and the Beast*, as many of our kids never outgrow their love of the Mouse's oeuvre, and these apps let them immerse themselves in beloved stories while controlling their own experience.

Graphic Novels

These are helpful for emerging readers -- the graphics serve as anchors for specific parts of stories. Plus books in general -- always an excellent excuse for parents and loved ones to spend time with our kids.

It's no secret that our family adores the work of Jenni Holm, author of the Babymouse series (her brother Matt does the illustrations). The newest Babymouse offering is -- appropriately enough -- A Very Babymouse Christmas*, which is more inclusive of other wintry holidays than the title implies. The Holm siblings also have a new graphic novel series for budding science nerds, Squish the Amoeba*. We're also fans of Marvel Comics' small-format Adventures series for kids. For more recommendations, has put together a list of graphic novels by age.

Kids Who Stim

Does the kid in question like to fidget and stim; do they find it soothing and relaxing? Lots of kids (and adults too) are fans of the "Autism Toys, Relaxers, and Rewards" at Ozmo or Office Playground. Take a look, and be warned that you might be tempted to pick up a few things for yourself.

Dining Gift Cards

Here in the Bay Area we have Waiters on Wheels, a company that brings food from your favorite restaurants right to your door. The surcharge is significant, so this type of service is a luxury welcomed by families of kids who are picky eaters or who aren't restaurant fans. For kids who do like to eat in restaurants, gift cards to their favorite haunts -- especially for eateries their parents need coaxing to enter -- are usually a hit.

The Gift of Your Time

Our kids don't always get to spend a lot of time with adults who are not their parents, teachers, therapists, or aides. For trustworthy, responsible types, homemade gift certificates for one-on-one time or an outing can be a real treat. Even if this means an extra time investment while you learn or get trained on that 1:1 experience!


Shannon Des Roches Rosa was gifted the *be-asterisked apps and books, but -- as she frequently notes as,, and -- her iPad is exploding with apps and her bookshelves with books, and she only writes about the ones that stand out.

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