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19 Gift Ideas for Kids With Sensory Needs

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If your child with sensory needs is anything like mine, you know the stress of shopping for toys and gifts for them. Over the years, I’ve seen my son on the autism spectrum lose interest in almost any toy that’s out there. There was a time when he loved trains, and every time we entered a Toys “R” Us, he would run to the spot where they had a train table for kids to play with. He would spend several minutes there. We finally decided to get a train table in the small condo we rented. Having no place to keep it, we had it smack in the middle of our living room where the coffee table should have been. It only made sense to have the center of our lives’ center of life at the center of our house.

But soon enough, the trains lost their charm, just like toys often do for all kids. But he did not graduate to other “big boy” toys — he just stopped playing with any. That was four years back. He was around 3 then. The only one he has not given up on is his kiddie laptop, which has a few geometrically-shaped buttons that light up some images on the “screen” and plays music. He still likes to play with it, but we’ve tried several musical toys since then without any success.

Going to a regular toy store is not just stressful, it’s actually sometimes upsetting, because I feel lost among the cars, remote-controlled helicopters, board games, action figures, video games and the like. So many toys, but seemingly none for my child! I feel guilty for not finding something that fulfills his sensory needs. However, over time I have been able to think outside of the box and come up with some things to gift him, thanks to various forums and Facebook groups that have such a wealth of information. So, I decided to pay it forward and come up with my own list of gifts for children with sensory needs, which by no means is complete — let alone comprehensive — but it’s a start, and I hope someone might get some gift ideas from this list.

Let me tell you a bit about my son. He is on the autism spectrum, and he is nonverbal and has fine motor skills challenges, which can make playing with a toy more of a chore than fun. Mobile games don’t hold his attention for long. He struggles with language and reading, so books are not often something he is excited about, nor does he have any favorite superhero or comic book character he obsesses over. Keeping these challenges in mind, most of my suggestions will be geared towards sensory toys that don’t require too much input from the player but can still excite them. Here we go:

For kids who like movement:

1. Rope ladder — You can hang this from the ceiling of your child’s room, and it swings freely while your child climbs up. It can be challenging and still exciting.

2. Hammock — Yup, I can say from my personal experience this hammock has saved the day on several occasions. It swings, gives my son with sensory needs the deep pressure he likes, and he can have his own sanctuary, looking up at the sky, clouds, stars, birds. It appears to calm him down. He uses it as a swing, too. In winter, we bring the whole thing inside as well so he can continue to enjoy it.

3. Kids’ pod swing chair — He is outgrowing this, but he really enjoyed it. The best part about this is it can swing in any direction. On top of that, you can twist the whole thing around and release it for a fun spin for your child with sensory needs.

4. Trampoline — Well, the benefits of this toy are probably known to everyone. It’s a must-have for those days when their energy seems to be infinite and unending. This trampoline can be the best tool to release some of it.

5. Spinning/rocking chair — This could be a simple rocking chair, or an office chair, or a fancier one that looks like a capsule. The spinning and rocking fulfills an important sensory need for my child; many kids on the autism spectrum love to rock and spin as a form of stimming.

6. Exercise ball — We stumbled onto the advantage of this by chance. I found my son bouncing on my exercise ball while watching his rhymes. The combination of music and movement can keep him engaged for a long time (and can give me a much-needed break). A win-win situation for both of us.

For kids who love visual stimulation:

7. Lava lamps or bubble tower lamps — These are so soothing to look at. Even I could spend hours just looking at these. Watching the bubbles move around keeps the kiddos with sensory needs hooked.

8. Liquid motion toys — These come in different sizes, shapes and prices — take your pick. I can bet your sensory-seeking child will love to sit and watch the colored bubbles drip and float and do their magic.

9. Newton’s cradle — The set of balls swinging and hitting and swinging back again can be a fun thing to look at. My son loved to watch it, but I had to keep doing it for him, which can get tiring. If your child is able to lift and release the ball, it can be endless hours of fun, and it also teaches them cause and effect.

10. Fiber optic lamp — These generally come with a clear base with color-changing crystals inside and can be mesmerizing to watch as the long, optical fibers glow in different colors. It can also work as a soothing night light for your child’s room.

11. Plasma ball lamp — Another great visual toy for the kids and, if I might add, the adults, too. Kids often love to interact with it, as the globe responds to their touch and has a wonderful display of light inside it.

12. Gears set — This is like a board with gears of all shapes and sizes interlocked on it. Kids can have fun spinning one and watching the entire board spin. This can be very visually stimulating.

For kids with strong tactile sensory needs:

13. Microwavable plush toys — Though these say microwavable, apart from warming them, you can also place them in the freezer for kids who seek cold (like my son). Most are filled with an aromatic filling, like lavender, that can be soothing for the kids, too.

14. Kinetic Sand — This is another one I could gift to myself. I have caught myself digging my hands into it so many times. It’s fun to watch it move when you drop it slowly or just fidget with it. It comes with different molds and now even has glitters in it. There is a whole array to choose from. I’m sure this gift will be a hit with your child with sensory needs.

15. Play-Doh — Who doesn’t like Play-Doh? If your sensory seeking child loves to touch and knead and squeeze, this is a good option. If they can, help them make their favorite object out of the doh, and that should be an activity both of you can enjoy.

16. Massager or vibrating toys — My kid loves things that vibrate. He likes to press them on his cheeks or feel them with his hands. Many kids with sensory needs might also love this. Just make sure you have enough batteries on hand.

17. Fidget cube — If you are part of any autism community on Facebook, you’ve probably seen this on your feed. I’ve not tried this, only because I think my son’s limited fine motor skills might not allow him to enjoy this as much, but if your child can use the knobs and switches on this cube, I believe it’s a gift they would thank you for.

For kids who seek oral sensory input:

18. Chewy tubes — Gone are the days when chewy tubes were big, knobby tubes in conspicuous shapes that, when hung around your kid’s neck, looked almost ridiculous. Now, they have all jazzy and snappy shapes that look like nice necklaces. They look hip and serve the purpose, too.

19. Vibrating oral tools — My son’s brushing struggles finally found a breakthrough when we started using a vibrating toothbrush. He would sit still if I let the brush stay at a spot inside his cheek. He enjoyed the vibration, until his sound sensitivity took over and the sound of the vibrations started bothering him. But for those kids who seek oral inputs, a vibrating oral toy can be a great gift. Vibrating toothbrushes like the Z-Vibe or Nuk massaging brush are some of the options.

Apart from these, other sensory gifts like a weighted blanket, lap pad or vest can be wonderful additions to their treasure troves. These can help kids be more aware of their bodies in space and keep them calm.

For kids who have auditory processing issues, noise-canceling headphones or noise-reducing earplugs are also something you can invest in. My son hates anything on his head or face: caps, hats, glasses, headphones — everything gets thrown off, so we’ve not been very successful with it. But I’ve personally known people who swear by how helpful noise-canceling headphones have been.

Although my son is not big on toys, we’ve had limited success with the Discovery Kids magnetic building blocks set. He enjoys how the pieces attract or repel each other. I’m also planning to get a wooden tree marble run toy. We’ve had a marble run toy in the past that my son loved, but its setup was elaborate and very unstable, so I’m hoping the tree marble run would be something he might enjoy. Another interesting toy set is the LED light-up building blocks. It might be fun for kids to watch the blocks light up the moment they are put together.

Another gift that could be fun and useful is the wearable GPS tracker for kids. This can help keep them safe and keep you sane.

For kids who like their iPad and apps, I would especially like to recommend Speakaboos, an interactive story app that I really liked. And for parents like me who can manage to code a few lines, maybe you could build your very own custom app for your kid to make them feel extra special.

Though there are tons of gifts out there, I believe the best ones cost nothing — hugs, lots of love, and the belief that your child is no less.

A version of this post originally appeared on Brain Droplets.

Originally published: March 29, 2023
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