Cool Gifts for Kids Who Don’t Like to Play With Toys

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I know, Christmas is a week away and Hanukkah has come and gone. But maybe you’re a procrastinator, too, and this list will still be useful. Even if it’s too late for the holiday season, there’s got to be a birthday coming up. I am willing to bet that sometime between now and 364 days from now, you will be looking for a gift and then you’ll be happy you read this.

The other day my friend Sarah showed me the wish list she created on Amazon. She has a daughter with special needs who doesn’t really like to play with toys. A lot of kids like hers (and mine) don’t. Our conversation reminded me of when my son was younger and didn’t want anything to do with toys and he couldn’t sit still for a board game. He was really, really, really hard to shop for. There were times when we’d wrap socks or underwear or other things he needed because he got the most joy from just unwrapping things.

Although my son now enjoys a growing number of toys, it’s still hard to come up with gift ideas for him because he gets frustrated with things that are hard to play with and he is always losing pieces. When people ask what he wants for his birthday, it’s still a difficult question to answer. You can only tell so many people to get him things that light up.

So what do you get a kid who doesn’t play with toys? Here are a number of suggestions.

Toys They Can Watch

My husband is really into Quadcopters, and the kids love watching him fly them. These remote control flying devices range in size and price and, I have to admit, they are fun to watch fly, especially when they get stuck in a tree (shh, don’t tell my husband I said that). You can get a mini one for around $20.

Disco balls and aquarium lamps are fun to watch and calming, too. Several years ago we gave out disco balls to all the kids who came to my son’s birthday party. It was by far the most popular goodie bag item we’ve ever presented. We got the disco balls for $5 each at a dollar store. They now start at $15 online. Aquarium lamps start at around $25.

There was a summer where we had three different Gazillion Bubbles hurricane machines. We used the bubble-blowing machine so much that we had to replace it a few times. The self-blowing bubble maker generates more bubbles than anything we’ve ever seen. The only downside was the number of times we had to buy new one.

aquarium collage

Cause and Effect

Kids, particularly with autism, like to see action and reaction. My favorite toy in this category is the Stomp Rocket. There was a time when we had a closet full of them to give as gifts. The kids love stomping the “launch pad” and watching a foam rocket soar into the air. Not only is it fun for them to see how high it gets, it also helps with gross motor skills.

The Hoberman Sphere has always been on my personal wish list. It’s a simple circle that contracts and expands by pushing and pulling. When my kids get their hands on one, they can’t seem to get enough of it.

Other great cause-and-effect items are the Gyro Wheel (especially ones that light up) and the Toysmith Liquid Motion Bubbler, which you flip over to watch the liquid elements inside float serenely to the bottom. The box even says, “This is not a toy,” so it’s sure to please your non-toy kid.

Sensory Gifts

Thousands and thousands of sensory tools that are fun for kids are for sale (an Amazon search for “sensory toys” yields almost 10,000 results). There are far too many good ones to list here, but two I’d put on my on my wish list are:

The Cozy Canoe is an inflatable canoe that offers deep pressure for those sitting inside it. It’s a great place to read, play or chill (it’s also hard to find right now).

A pack of Stress Balls and Squeeze Toys Value Assortment (21 Pack), because you can never have too many “fidget” toys. Kids love the feel of these squishy rubber items, and I like that you can get 21 of them for less than $25.

Items for Active Kids

A good occupational therapy (OT) gym can be a kid’s nirvana. Between the ball pit, swings, trampoline and rock wall, there is so much to do at OT. A lot of families I know try to recreate the OT gym at home. Trampolines — from mini-exercise versions to full-size, outdoor trampolines — are especially popular. Indoor swings are also great. Just be sure to get the right mounting/hanging gear. We ordered ours from Southpaw. All my kids — and their friends — love being able to swing indoors. We have our swing mounted on our basement ceiling, but there are also swings that attach to doorways or that you can attach to a free-standing base. A kiddie pool and a few bags of colorful plastic balls are an easy way to make an indoor ball pit. We’ve never done it, but they are always popular at friends’ houses.

Other Ideas

Consider a personalized picture book. On his sixth birthday, my son got one of these. I created this book on Picaboo, one of a number of online sites that allow users to create photo books. My son’s book is 82 pages of family photos and text, documenting milestones such as birthdays, vacations, the first and last days of school and other yearly traditions.

Something completely outside the box — two years ago, we had absolutely no idea what to get my son. He was obsessed with elevators. We looked for books about elevators and toys that might somehow resemble an elevator. After my son watched a video made by a teen who built his own for the millionth time, I thought it would be cool if my son could have his own elevator control panel. I scoured the Internet, found a local elevator company and e-mailed them to see if they had any suggestions.

Their response: “We actually have a briefcase that you open up and it has a whole panel of buttons that he can push and they light up. It just has to be plugged in. I would be happy to give that to you. We have not used it because we decided not to use that vendor’s panel.”

Places they can go — you can’t wrap classes, tickets or memberships, but any of these would be excellent choices. I have a number of friends who recently started therapeutic horseback riding. One friend gave her son a horseback riding lesson for his birthday. He loved it and now goes weekly. Tickets to shows and concerts (especially sensory-friendly ones) are also great choices, as are zoo or aquarium memberships. When a kid has a passion for animals, just a few trips to the zoo can more than pay for the membership.

Follow this journey on Special Ev.

The Mighty is asking the following: Create a list-style story about the holiday season related to disability, disease or mental illness. It can be lighthearted or more serious — whatever inspires you. Be sure to include an intro for your list. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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15 More Autism Parenting Rules I Live By on a Daily Basis

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Autism is a different journey for every family, but there are some common experiences we may share. Here are some of these experiences illustrated with scenes from some of my favorite movies and TV shows.

In case you missed the rest of the series, check out  Autism Parenting Rules 1 – 10 and Autism Parenting Rules 11 – 20.

Here are rules 21 – 35!

21. You may spend so much time and energy keeping your own child clothed that you overlook your own appearance.

Like going to the store looking like The Dude.


Gramercy Pictures/“The Big Lebowski”

22. When a meltdown is imminent, you may do anything to reduce extra sensory input. 


BBC/“Doctor Who”

23. Casual phone conversations are almost impossible.


BBC/“Doctor Who”

24. You suffer a moment of panic every time you see someone using the front burners on the stove. 

Because yours haven’t been used in years.


Columbia Pictures/“Paul Blart: Mall Cop”

25. Kitchen knives are kept hidden in a locked, secure location at all times.


Marvel Studios/“Deadpool”

26. Privacy in the bathroom does not exist. 

This is true for most parents really!

Warner Bros./”Lethal Weapon 2″

27. Autism parents can sweep a room looking for possible threats better than the Secret Service.


NBC/“The West Wing”

28. The concept of age- and gender-appropriate toys is invalid. 

They like what they like.


NBC/“Chuck”

29. Your child might not like their personal space invaded but has no problem invading anyone else’s.


CBS/“Get Smart”

30. Any assumption others have about your child’s ability is probably wrong.


Marvel/”Spider-Man”

31. If your child wants to wear a costume outside of Halloween, they’re going to wear a costume. 

We choose our battles!


USA Network/“Psych”

32. Running out of your child’s favorite food may lead to disregard of your own physical appearance in the panic of restocking the item to avoid a meltdown.


NBC / “Chuck”

33. Parent may celebrate after their child uses the potty for its intended use. 


ABC / “Castle”

34. Lines happen. 

And don’t even think about moving them.


AMC/“The Walking Dead”

35. Pants are overrated.

If Sam and Dean Winchester aren’t wearing them, who needs to?


CW/“Supernatural”

Read the first two parts of this series:

The 10 Autism Parenting Rules I Live By on a Daily Basis

10 More Autism Parenting Rules I Live By Every Day

Follow this journey at Autism Odysseys.

The Mighty is asking the following: Create a list-style story of your choice in regards to disability, disease or illness. It can be lighthearted and funny or more serious — whatever inspires you. Be sure to include at least one intro paragraph for your list. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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What’s Your Response to These New Autism Findings?

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Researchers at Harvard University and MIT have published a new study suggesting a specific chemical in the brain is linked to autism. Their findings, published in Current Biology on Thursday, say autistic behavior is associated with a breakdown in the signaling pathway of a chief inhibitory neurotransmitter called GABA.

Scientists speculate that reduced brain inhibition may be behind the hypersensitivity many people with autism experience, according to MIT News.

“This is the first time, in humans, that a neurotransmitter in the brain has been linked to autistic behavior. This theory — that the GABA signaling pathway plays a role in autism — has been shown in animal models, but until now we never had evidence for it actually causing autistic differences in humans,” study leader Caroline Robertson said in a Harvard University press release.

Robertson and her colleagues first tested 21 people ranging on the autism spectrum and 20 non-autistic people by showing them two conflicting images, one to each eye, according to Medical Daily. To focus on one image, the brain must suppress the other, or push it out of awareness. In this “binocular rivalry test,” the adults with autism were slower to suppress visual images. Researchers then measured GABA concentrations while subjects performed the task and found people with autism showed GABA dysfunction.

“Individuals with autism are known to have detail-oriented visual perception — exhibiting remarkable attention to small details in the sensory environment and difficulty filtering out or suppressing irrelevant sensory information,” Robertson said.

The findings suggest a drug that can boost GABA’s action may improve challenges people with autism face.

A question for our Mighty community: How do you respond when new research is published around the causes and/or symptoms of autism? What does news like this mean for your day-to-day life? Let us know in the comments below.

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My 10 Biggest Therapy Takeaways as a Special Needs Dad

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Experiencing a great deal of stress brought on by a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder in my eldest son, I decided to seek help from a mental health professional. Here are the top 10 things I’ve learned about myself, parenting and relationships from just over a year of psychotherapy.

1. Don’t give it back.

It seems like kids are hardwired to annoy you. My psychiatrist’s theory is that back in pre-historic times, agitating their parents was one of the best and most efficient ways children had of gaining attention, thus protection from nasty beasts. When your children deliberately annoy you or yell at you, I learned I shouldn’t give it back. Of course, if a Jurassic beast is indeed involved, you may want to look into it.

2. Building resilience in your kids starts with love.

What I’ve learned from interacting with my own children and speaking with my psychiatrist is that building resilience and confidence needs to start with love. Always remind them you love them, and never leave them wondering.

3. Understanding your own emotions makes you a better husband and father.

Talking about feelings doesn’t come naturally to me, or to many men in general. Faced with conflict or perceived disrespect, I would often shut down and go into “the cave.” Talking to someone about my frustrations helped me recognize and express them more assertively. Although this may ultimately lead to a greater number of mini-arguments, I’ve come to understand that…

4. Conflict is inevitable and even desirable.

When you and your partner can more freely express your feelings with each other, mini-conflicts are likely to surface more often. These little ruptures can actually be healthy because they teach you important conflict resolution skills. The alternative is suppressing feelings and emotions, leading to wilder conflicts.

5. Time for yourself and your partner is crucial.

When my eldest boy was diagnosed with ASD, his pediatrician told us to make sure we made time for ourselves and each other. We didn’t really listen. We felt guilty — like every minute not spent researching his condition and possible treatments would consign him to a life of misery. Our relationship suffered as a result. While time for ourselves and each other is not back to pre-kid levels (and probably won’t be until they move out!), at least we’re more conscious of it now. I now know that if I’m able to get a round of golf in, it isn’t a selfish act — I actually come back refreshed, rejuvenated and ultimately a better husband and father.

6. Your partner might need to come in with your to a therapy session.

When talking to an independent therapist, you and your partner will often say things that will provide great insight for the other. Hopefully your partner is amenable to attending. Mine took a little convincing, but when she finally agreed she saw the value in the exercise.

7. Connecting to others is so important. 

Experiencing significant stress and anxiety, I naturally isolated myself for fear of burdening others. I also lacked the confidence to engage with others and felt guilty spending time away from my family. Seeing a psychiatrist provided clarity about my thoughts and the confidence to articulate what my family was going through to significant people in my life with whom I’d become distant.

8. Whatever doesn’t kill you…

My psychiatrist uses the analogy of a boat. As a couple, you’re on a boat sailing in calm, pleasant seas. Everything seems OK on the surface. But you can’t stop wondering what would happen if a storm came. Would your boat be strong enough to withstand the pressure? Well, for us a storm did come. It rocked us, made us seasick and we came pretty close to capsizing, but ultimately we weathered it and made it through to the other side. Now, back in calm, pleasant seas, we know our boat is strong. Very strong in fact, and in some ways we’re glad we faced the storm in the first place — know we have no doubts about the strength of our boat and its storm-weathering capabilities.

At least I think that’s what he meant.

9. It’s important to seek help from someone you trust.

Culturally, asking for mental health help is seen as a sign of weakness. Hopefully by now people understand this is nonsense. After my psychiatrist I saw listened to the grief and hardship my family was undergoing, he simply said, “heartbreaking” — that one word showed me in an instant he got it and was here to help.

10. It’s OK to keep seeking help, even after you’re “fixed.” 

Although my family and I are no longer in “crisis” and many of our problems have largely been resolved, I continue to see my psychiatrist on a monthly basis. To paraphrase him, the traditional approach is to treat mental health issues like a broken leg — heal the break then send the patient on their way. A better approach to improving and maintaining mental health in an individual, however, is to keep seeing them once they have been “healed.” During this period, you can capitalize on what you’ve learned, achieving long-term, sustained, positive mental health outcomes.

Follow this journey on The Adventures of T-Bone and Sea Bass.

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When My Wife Proved My Dad Wrong About My ‘Autism Quirks’

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This past December 7 marked the 74th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and also my and my wife Kristen’s third wedding anniversary. When I guest-speak on autism, I like to joke, “My wedding anniversary is December 7, and due to autism I came into my new family like a kamikaze  — a blazing whirlwind of fire.”

When I was a young adult and my dad became frustrated with my autism quirks, he would say, “You’ll never find a woman willing to accept your rigid routines.”

Kristen, by her unconditional love, has proven him wrong.

On our third date I revealed one of my main autism quirks: my inability to deviate from my rigid patterns. I told Kristen, “After work every night I spend two to three hours in Bible memory time. This daily routine empowers me to be able to quote over 10,000 Scriptures, including 22 complete books of the New Testament and more than 5,000 quotes.” Again, both my parents had agreed, “No woman in her right mind will put up with your memory time!”

Kristen, by her unconditional love, proved my parents wrong.

After we had been dating for three months I revealed another autism-induced quirk of mine: eccentric behavior. I carried around a stuffed prairie dog named Prairie Pup from kindergarten to sixth grade. I also collected and continue to collect Calico Critters: 3-inch animal figurines dressed in handmade outfits.

My Calico Critters collection reminds my coworkers and friends of a scene from “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” — hundreds of unopened boxes lined in perfect rows up against my bedroom wall at my parents’ house. With a concerned voice my dad said, “No woman will want a husband who collects children’s toys and stuffed animals.”

Again Kristen proved him wrong by her unconditional love.

As a gift for the one-year anniversary of our first date, Kristen gave me the Calico Critters Meerkat Family. Two years later we had Calico Critters on our wedding cake; the bride and groom were cats and the priest was a beaver. During our honeymoon in Chicago, as we walked from the train station to our hotel an angry honey badger stuffed animal in a storefront display window caught my eye. My special interest took the best of me and the honey badger found a new home.

My final autism quirk is sensory issues with certain smells and sounds. When I experienced meltdowns as a child from my dad using bleach to clean the bathroom, he would say, “No woman will want a husband who screams and throws a tantrum over the smell of a little bleach.”

Thank God Kristen proved him wrong.

Kristen has accepted my kryptonite weakness of electronic noises and bleach. She demonstrates her compassion and sensitivity to my sensory issues by not using nail polish in our apartment or playing music with bass.

Proverbs 31:12 describes my wife perfectly: “She brings her husband good, not harm, all the days of her life.” Thank you, Kristen, for loving me unconditionally even with all my autism quirks. In March the newest member of our family, Makayla Marie, will arrive. On April 5, Charisma House is publishing my book, “A Parent’s Guide to Autism,” and I have dedicated my book to my beautiful wife, Kristen.

Follow this journey on Spectrum Inclusion.

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To the Special Needs Parent Having a Pity Party

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Dear parents of a child with special needs,

I probably don’t know you, but I know that look you sometimes get. Maybe you’re feeling sorry for yourself, but you’re also feeling guilty about it. It can be common among us special needs parents, so don’t be too hard on yourself.

I just experienced that guilty sadness when my 10-year-old son had an epic meltdown within minutes of walking into a birthday party.  He hadn’t even taken off his coat before demanding that the host turn on more lights and then crumbling to the ground, screaming, swearing and crying when she said no.   

It’s ironic. We special needs parents lament about how our kids never get invited to birthday parties, and then when we finally get an invitation, we might wonder why we’ve accepted it.

It’s been a particularly difficult couple of days for me, and I’m feeling uncharacteristically bad for myself.

It’s time for a pity party.

You should know I almost always consider myself a glass-half-full kind of person. But this week my son keeps drinking from my glass, and now it’s empty.

He takes his first sip at the birthday party, and as the week progresses he keeps drinking.

He calls his brother a bunch of swear words. There’s a drink right there.

He smacks his sister on the back. That’s a gulp.

He refuses to come in from outside because he’s having too much fun. That’s a sip.

Finally he empties the contents of my glass by darting out into the street to retrieve a ball. He is about to return home when I turn around from the mailbox just in time to shout “Don’t move!” The oncoming car stops and lets him cross.

The scenario that plays in my head is much different. In this version, he is in the middle of the street and the car doesn’t stop. A parent should not have to worry about a 10-year-old running into the street.

So what do I do?

I hug my son because I’m so relieved he is safe, and then I plan to throw myself a pity party. You’re welcome to join me.  And not because misery loves company, but because sadness sometimes needs company. (Didn’t we learn that from the movie “Inside Out”?)

So now that you’re here, welcome.

Did you bring any wine?

How about brownies?

Not too many, I hope, because this party won’t last long. It can’t. Unfortunately I don’t have any brownies to offer, and I can’t justify opening a bottle of wine at 9 a.m.

I love a good pity party, but on one condition: It has to be short, and my kids aren’t invited. I guess that’s two conditions.

Feeling sorry for yourself sometimes is perfectly acceptable (and therapeutic) because every person deserves the chance to grieve. We need to accept and acknowledge our feelings even if they aren’t pleasant. We shouldn’t expect to be happy or positive all the time. That’s why I like to have a good but short pity party. 

At times I like to party solo by letting myself think all the bad thoughts, and sometimes that’s enough. There are other occasions where talking a walk is just what I need to work through all the feelings that shout in my head. It’s OK to eat an entire bag of M&Ms or my favorite, Jelly Bellys. Sometimes I call another autism mom to unload. She doesn’t have to say anything. Just listening is enough. I know she gets it.

On the day when I realized my cup was emptied, I told my son I was feeling sad. Right before he got on the bus I asked him what he does when he feels down.

“I cry,” he says.

I ask: “Does that help?”

“Yep.”

He’s right. I feel better.

The party’s over. It was a short one. It almost always is.

Like I said, bad or stressful things happen all the time, and it’s OK to grieve occasionally. Have a pity party in a way that works for you, but don’t stay too long because good things happen, too. Don’t our children give us so much more to celebrate? Common behaviors for other kids can be huge milestones for ours. And you don’t want to miss those joyful moments by spending too much time at your pity party – even if there are brownies and wine. 

Follow this journey on SpecialEv.com.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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