Childhood is automatically associated with toys. We all have memories of favorite plush animals or that very special toy we wish we’d had and, whether we realize it or not, we grasped concepts by playing various games. What did we learn? That depends, but it’s a good chance that it stuck around in some way.
Playing with others, sharing our toys, reaching an accord on rules, those are just a few variables that everyone builds their experiences on. It’s a critical period in our development. As a simplified example for the first variable, people who didn’t play with others that much may end up being loners or, the opposite, needing to be surrounded by people.
When you’re a child with a disability, you have a different set of needs, maybe you want different things, but playing doesn’t wholly lose its appeal. It gets adapted. And maybe it’s not as easy for you to socialize or to build emotional intelligence, but there are toys for that too.
The Best Toys For Children With Disabilities
What therapies work for children with disabilities?
Any therapy that your child responds to in a good way is a therapy that works. We could talk about the quantifiable results of cognitive-behavioral therapy, which are well recorded, or the benefits of meditation, but that’s something that is usually added to a type of therapy.
Because we are talking about toys today, we’ll give a short rundown of Play Therapy and we’ll veer a bit into Deep Pressure Therapy to understand how important sensorial reception is for all children, but especially children with disabilities.
Play Therapy is a type of therapy that centers on games. The games can be exploratory, discovering new toys and seeing how the child interacts with them, directed, through a set of rules set by the therapist when the activity has a specific objective, prescribed, when the therapist teaches the child how to play, or even group therapy, to develop social skills and to help dismiss the idea that the child is alone. Each game is appropriate for a certain child and their personal needs.
Considering that the children can’t verbalize certain emotions and events—certainly a tough request even for an adult—they come out mostly through play. The child will project their feelings on the toys themselves and under the guidance of a trained therapist they can reach an understanding of the issue. That is where healing begins.
The benefits of Play Therapy are many. Reduced feelings of anxiety, depression, frustration, and stress, increased confidence, self-sufficiency, and self-expression, and an improved general feeling of control over their environment, are just a few of the positive effects Play Therapy can have. It helps with the treatment of a range of disorders like anxiety, behavioral issues, trauma, learning disorders, and physical disorders (cerebral palsy and more).
Deep Pressure Therapy
Deep Pressure Therapy is a therapy concerned with your parasympathetic (regulates involuntary functions like pulse, tears, and blood pressure), sympathetic (the part of your nervous system that alerts to bad things happening, the ‘fight or flight’ part) systems and their connection. Why? Because it turns out that’s where a key to treating anxiety is.
By making us aware of our breathing, our movements, and how they impact the way we feel, Deep Pressure Therapy helps us regulate better. It helps us mitigate the signals that our brain sends. For example, by compression—this is everything that we deem safe from a hug to wearing a weighted blanket—we release hormones that counteract the ‘fight or flight’ response.
But children with disabilities, especially those on the autism spectrum (ASD), don’t always react well to human touch. In those cases, compression objects or garments are used. They have been shown to mitigate the effects of a meltdown and make recovery faster. It’s a simple concept, but its applications are vast and very useful.
There are many types of toys out there, but we have chosen four that we think might appeal to you.
They are the type of toys that focus on the senses. Several characteristics are true for most, though by no means all, so this shouldn’t be taken a rule for what it means to be a sensory toy, but as a consensus. They are usually pleasurable to the senses, some with scent, more with sight and hearing, but most with touch.
Out of those aimed towards the touch, the majority are soft and/or textured. Catered towards sensitive people (children and adults), you will find sensory toys most likely used for children with ADHD and on the autism spectrum (ASD), but a whole range of other disorders and disabilities too.
1. SANHO Dynamic Movement Sensory Sox
Why is it on our list?
Sanho Dynamic Movement Sensory Sox works on the same principle of a weighted blanket—restricts movement without harming the child. It has a calming effect and helps create a portable safe space. This toy is useful in most of the same disabilities and disorders as the blanket, namely ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder—all presentations), ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), anxiety, and SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder).
Pros and cons
This toy is like a sock for the body, which is where the name probably comes from. It’s not a very tight one, the child can raise their arms and move their legs, but it is constricting. This is good for helping calm the child, but also improving balance, gross motor skills, posture, and spatial awareness. It boasts that it’s recommended by therapists and we know that the weighted blanket is used in a kind of therapy, Deep Pressure Therapy, which this product also seems to subscribe to.
There is one aspect, though, that makes the Sensory Sox better than the blanket: easy to take with you. It’s light and it doesn’t take space, so it’s simple to fold up and put in a bag. If the child experiences sensory overload or just stress while you are away from home, the Sensory Sox can replace the heavier weighted blanket.
It’s made out of a soft, breathable material. The Sensory Sox is made to appeal to children with sensitivity to the texture of things surrounding them. The material acts like an elastic, extending to pressure, and the dyes used are safe for the environment and don’t irritate the skin.
The manufacturer attests that the product is safe, though naturally they also warn about leaving the child alone while playing with it. Sanho also directs people to buy a Sensory Sox that is the child’s size and not larger. Our link is for the small version, but if you follow it, the medium and large versions aren’t far. The hassle inherent in picking the right size, maybe measuring the child, and the stress of the Sensory Sox actually fitting the child is about the only disadvantage we can see.
The Sanho Dynamic Movement Sensory Sox is a great toy for playing and for keeping your child calm.
2. Lanco Wooly Mammoth
Why is it on our list?
Lanco Wooly Mammoth is a soft toy made out of natural rubber. It can be used for teething or as a fun toy, but also to satisfy the needs of children with sensory disabilities, such as loss of hearing and loss of sight, and physical disabilities, developing or loss of dexterity. The toy covers all ages, from infancy (there is no danger of choking) to as old as you want.
Pros and cons
This product is a squeaky toy and that’s about the only disadvantage we can see. While also a good thing for certain categories as we’ll see later, it may be too much for your child. It also has a distinctive smell. If your child is afraid of loud and/or sudden noises, extremely sensitive to scents, or feels disturbed or overwhelmed by the sensory input that is generated by these two senses, this is a point to consider. If, however, your child is okay with it, there are multiple advantages to this feature.
As we mentioned above, children who experience some hearing loss can hear the squeak and can enjoy the other features, like the bright colors, that this toy has. Children who have some or total loss of sight can easily find the toy by the squeak, the unique scent, and the texture.
As for the rest, important characteristics are the softness, the responsiveness, the materials (natural rubber which allows all parts of the Lanco Wooly Mammoth to be pulled in different directions), and the range of textures. It’s similar to a fidget toy in that sense but different enough for both to have a place on our list.
Lanco is a company that was founded in Barcelona (1952) that boasts making their toys out of the best materials. As far as we can tell they’re on the right track: the wooly mammoth is made only out of natural rubber, without other materials added to it, and food-grade dyes are used for painting each one, so there are no toxins involved.
Also, every toy is completely handmade, from the process to reach a design and the construction of molds, to the choice of colors and applying the paint.
The Lanco Wooly Mammoth is a natural rubber, hand-made soft, squeaky toy.
3. Sensory Fidget Toys Set
Why is it on our list?
Sensory Fidget Toy Set is exactly what it says on the lid: a set of fidget-type toys. They are great if your child needs to do something with his hands and work very well for ADHD (all presentations), anxiety, or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
It’s a way to deal with stress and one of the healthier ones out there. Also, some toys in the set (the soft ones) can work great if the child is having anger issues like ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder) or is showing his frustration (at any disability, trauma, or change) through anger.
Pros and cons
By buying this set, you get twenty-two separate pieces. They are meant for a variety of ages, from three to eighty-five years old, so you can be sure that this toy will stick around for a while if only because, depending on age, kids are interested in different things. The toys are light and can be carried around (some can even fit in pockets) so they are an easy way to soothe a stressful situation, be it unforeseen or not.
These toys are designed to stop habits that you may want to be broken from the mildly annoying like bouncing legs, hair twirling, pen clicking to the harmful like knuckle cracking, hair pulling, nail-biting. They can also help self-soothing behaviors like rocking.
The idea is that by having toys that your child can squeeze, press, stretch, flip, and more, they will redirect those feelings causing the habits towards the toys. Additionally, they help to keep the child engaged in a boring situation.
Even though they are meant for children, the set can be shared easily—with a parent, siblings, or groups of friends. That aids the socialization aspect that many disabled children struggle with. Also, the toys are child-safe. Even the dense liquid inside three of the pieces is pectin, which is safe to touch and it requires only washing with water and soap, but you should still avoid contact with your eyes or swallowing it.
As for disadvantages, as we mentioned before, these toys are for children aged three and up, so if you have a smaller child this isn’t for them yet. Another thing you should know is that one of the pieces, the stress ball, is made to withstand between 200-400 squeezes if used regularly and 1000-3000 if not.
The Sensory Fidget Toys Set a multiple piece set, great for many ages, disorders, and disabilities.
Childhood is a period of development where we retain information mostly by playing. That characteristic follows us for most of our lives and, only in the last few years, we started researching ways to use that aspect of our nature.
That brought us Serious Games and they seem to have good results with children too, but the idea that we can learn through games was something that was cemented by innovation in working with disabled children.
1. Todd Parr Feeling Flash Cards
Why is it on our list?
The Todd Parr Feeling Flash Cards are a set of cards with lively drawings that makes understanding emotions fun. The manufacturer’s instructions say 3 months to 4 years but that could vary on the child. It’s a very good resource for children on the autism spectrum (ASD) as is for those with speech disabilities.
Pros and cons
There are twenty cards in the set, with 40 emotions drawn in loud, bright colors. The drawings are appealing and funny, as are some of the feelings described. We won’t spoil the surprise, but children have reacted positively to them.
They’re meant to encourage emotional intelligence and they do, though it depends on the child to which degree they manage it. For example, a child, in the beginning, may simply lift the card instead of saying what’s written on it when asked about an emotion they’re experiencing. But, as most people will tell you, communication is important and this is just the first step.
Each card has opposite emotions drawn on each card and that makes it easier, while first getting used to playing the game, to ask a question and show that the response belongs to a single card. For example, ‘are you happy?’ will have a card with ‘happy’ on one side ‘sad’ on the other as the response. They’re also large, but not overly so. The set is made sturdy out cardboard for children to manipulate themselves.
They’re portable; you can easily put them in a bag or backpack. However, they are larger than other items of this kind, having the dimensions 5.5”, 2”, and 7”, which does present as a disadvantage. They are a bit big but not so large that you can’t take them with you.
The Todd Pare Feeling Flash Cards can be very useful in your child learning about emotions.
2. Learning Resources Conversation Cubes
Why is it on our list?
The Learning Resources Conversation Cubes is a set of toys that do exactly what it says: finds ways to start a conversation. It is made up of six cubes and on every face of the cube is a new question. This set can be used in therapy, with parents, or a group of children.
It’s recommended for children on the autism spectrum (ASD) and children with learning disabilities who can’t talk very well or have problems with reading.
Pros and cons
The way this set of cubes works is by imagining various games played on the same theme: somebody rolls a cube like a dice, they get a face with a question, somebody reads the question (usually the person who tossed in the first place) and then the same person or another answers.
It can also serve as a good ice breaker and it’s usually useful in improving social skills. This is done by first getting the children and adults together, and then having them share with others while being trusted with information about everyone else.
Although it sounds like a simple concept, things are different in reality. Children with speech disabilities and reading disabilities would more than likely refuse to speak and read. It’s natural if you think about it, nobody wants to do something that embarrasses them and children are even more influenced than adults by what their peers think. Starting to play this game in a safe environment with parents or siblings may give the child enough confidence to lose themselves in the game.
The cubes are large and soft. That makes them especially good for children with disabilities, such as reading, speech, and ASD. They can even fiddle with them if they get stressed by pressing, squeezing, and rolling, while their softness and curved edges assure that they can be tossed safely.
Thirty-six is a small number of questions, though, and that counts as our disadvantage. The older children get bored quickly as do those who have played before. Also, some questions will need to be interpreted for smaller children.
Learning Resources Conversation Cubes is a great tool for developing social skills while dealing with speech and reading disabilities.
Technology is a part of the environment. For good or bad, it’s probably here to stay so there’s no reason we shouldn’t make our lives easier with it. Children with disabilities are no different. Smart toys, robo-toys, tech toys, and other toys like it, can do some of the work for the disabled children.
That could give them the confidence and self-sufficiency that’s so hard to conquer and sustain with a disability, but also steadily work in a macro sense towards accessibility and acceptance.
1. Zoomer Interactive Puppy
Why is it on our list?
Zoomer Interactive Puppy is a robot pet. You and your child can interact with him and, since he’s a second version, he has a large variety of behaviors pre-programmed.
Our reasoning for adding him to our list is partly because he’s not a real animal which is a solution for those disabled children who can’t have a pet, and partly because he’s a good way for children with speaking disabilities to practice without feeling judged or under pressure.
Pros and cons
The puppy is light, at 2 lbs, and can be easily maneuvered by a child. He’s capable of understanding three languages: English, French, and Spanish. The Zoomer Interactive Puppy comes when called and can be taught tricks, like rolling over, sit, or chase his tail.
And just like a regular puppy, he needs attention and care. He gets adorably excited for belly rubs and follows you around with extra-cute puppy eyes. However, with the Interactive Puppy, you don’t have to worry about allergies, germs, shedding, vaccinations, or making a mess.
As such, The Zoomer Interactive Puppy is great for children in and out of hospitals a lot or children who have trouble speaking. They will try to make themselves understood to be able to communicate with him and, because nothing bad is happening to them if they get a word wrong, they can gain the confidence to try the second time. He’s also a good companion for children with other disabilities, children with ADHD, for example, and even children on the autism spectrum (ASD).
There are two main disadvantages with the Zoomer Interactive Puppy: the age and the price. For the first, the company that produces it has established the minimum age as above five years old and the maximum age as ten years old. And for the price, the Zoomer Interactive Puppy can be expensive. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t cheaper brands. Look around, compare them yourselves, and decide if the puppy is worth it.
The Zoomer Interactive Puppy is a smart and adorable robot pet.
2. Modular Robotics Cubelets
Why is it on our list?
The Modular Robotics Cubelets are magnetic-faced cubes with different roles that improve original thinking. How does that help? And who does that help?
We’ll answer the second question first: children with physical disabilities. They need to learn that they can still create, maybe that they can have a place in society if they are at that level of comprehension, but mostly that they still have the ability to manipulate things that they can touch as they want to, especially with today’s technology.
Pros and cons
Cubelets are a great way to not only encourage new and creative combinations but also to learn how to use technology and an understanding of programming. Whether we want it or not, technology is here to stay and your child is going to live in a world full of it. This toy is a perfect first step in that direction.
You can start by easing your child into it, get them accustomed to the cubes by building together something using their magnetic faces that snap together and seeing what sort of a robot you made. The Modular Robotics Cubelets have ‘brightness,’ ‘flashlight,’ ‘blocker,’ ‘rotate’ and many other roles that have an impact on the final result.
Then, you start working your way up from the involuntary stage to the voluntary stage, in which the robot will have the characteristics that the child desires. Added to that there’s a Bluetooth cube that can be connected to your—or your child’s—tablet or computer and a whole range of activities online.
By having a ‘brain’, the Modular Robotics Cubelets, compensate for a reduced range of movement. If the toy can do so many things by manipulating it a bit, then the child doesn’t feel the restrictions as much. For example, a child with Cerebral Palsy (CP) can learn how to control the toy.
It’s a learning process, as is for any child in this case, but it’s not an impossible one. The Cubelets shorten the distance between what able-bodied and disabled children can do by being a challenge for both, while at the same time keeping a reduced level of physical interaction.
The Modular Robotics Cubelets are, unfortunately, for older children. The manufacturer’s recommendation is four to fifteen years. At four years old the child is a bit too young to really understand how the Cubelets work, but you can just have a bright child and there’s nothing wrong with starting early.
Robotic Modular Cubelets are a technological toy that can have a large range of applicability.
As part of therapy or not, meditation is important. It can really have a positive effect on a child, especially on a child with disabilities.
Being able to know and keep ourselves under control is one of the best achievements out there and for children to have access to that sort of accomplishment is wonderful. In the short term, it helps them cope with frustration, stress, anger, and other negative emotions and, in the long term, it’s a safety line that’s self-made.
1. Meditation Cards for Kids
Why is it on our list?
Meditation Cards for Kids are a wonderful tool for teaching meditation to children. They can learn it from a therapist—these cards make it easier to do that—but also, with the help of the Meditation Cards for Kids, from a teacher or a parent. It’s recommended for everybody, but especially for children with trauma and children with disabilities, to help keep stress levels down and cope healthily.
Pros and cons
We mentioned the cards helping parents teach children that meditation is a solution. That’s true; however, we didn’t get into how important a bonding experience it will be. It will bring you closer together and the time you spend together will be more productive.
Sharing this experience, talking openly, can do great things for your communication and, in turn, for the trust between you. Additionally, helping your child with the stress and anxiety caused by something extremely difficult to manage is so fulfilling. Even though you can’t change it, you can help in a pro-active way and that’s priceless.
The cards can stay as an activity you do together or it can develop further. The child might eventually try meditation by himself or they might bring it to a group of friends or as a family activity. They might work on it with their therapist. There are multiple ways for meditation to grow and develop a child’s social and coping skills.
The only weaknesses the cards have are that they are too few and this type of meditation might not suit your child. There are over twenty cards in the set (some based on guided imagery, some for the kids to draw their safe haven, and there’s even a mindfulness breathing exercise) but you’ll go through them eventually.
On the other hand, that would be true even if there were a hundred. And for the second mark against it, that’s how psychology is; different people want different things and that isn’t going to change when it comes to something as personal as coping with trauma or disability.
Meditation Cards for Kids is a wonderful tool to teach and learn meditation.
2. Mindfulness Therapy Games: Social Skills Game
Why is it on our list?
Mindfulness Therapy Games is a deck of cards with which you can play a mindfulness game. It’s in the name, we know, but we aren’t done. More precisely, it teaches you and your child mindfulness through a game, making it both fun and a group activity. It also develops social skills.
The reason it’s on our list is that most people (including children with disabilities) respond well to mindfulness and to being able to share their trauma in a group setting.
Pros and cons
We’ll start with the cards themselves first as it’s worth mentioning and understanding the context. They are 4” in width and 5” in length, big enough for children to hold onto without any trouble and to be seen by the rest of the group. A group should consist of three to fifteen players. Unlike most tools of this kind, they aren’t filled with affirmations; the deck has competitive activities, true/false questions, and visualization exercises.
As we previously mentioned, it’s an introductory guide to mindfulness in a group (therapy) setting. It’s a sentence that’s best taken piece by piece.
We’ll start with the latter part: it’s conceived as a group therapy game. It’s where it works best—under the guidance of a therapist, in an environment where they all feel safe mostly because they trust each other or are beginning to. Those conditions are the weakness we find for this game since they have to be satisfied for it to work as advertised.
What’s more, that first part of the sentence, ‘introductory guide,’ means that it’s a bit skewed for normal mindfulness. What do we mean about that? It’s competitive and there’s no competition in mindfulness. Those two concepts don’t mesh, so it might be a bit jarring for those who want the cards because they know the process and want to share it with their child, or for some children who aren’t into playing against somebody and/or aren’t ready yet for all that entails.
That being said, Mindfulness Therapy Games is a great start. Yes, this isn’t a tool that works for everybody, but what psychological aid does? And to those it is appropriate for, it succeeds in making the children understand and take the first steps towards mindfulness.
That has a lot of benefits for all types of children, including but not limited to, children who have anxiety and other psychological disorders like ODD, children have been through a trauma, children with new disabilities, or children born with disabilities.
Mindfulness Therapy Games is a competitive social game that helps children to understand mindfulness.
Frequently Asked Questions
What kind of toy do I bring a child with disabilities when I only know generalities about their disability?
Our recommendation would be a sensory toy. That’s your best bet, it appeals to most children. Something colorful, soft, and with various textures, should be fine.
Why isn’t sensory processing disorder (SPS) considered a real diagnostic when I can see toys that are recommended for children who have it?
It takes a relatively long time for new diagnostics to be introduced. The sensitivity put in this disorder’s vague definition hasn’t been studied fully yet. Maybe it’s another facet of the autism spectrum (ASD) or maybe it’s another presentation of ADHD; maybe it’s something else or maybe it’s both. We know it’s a problem so we’re trying to mitigate the symptoms while we’re trying to find its cause and its classification.
Are video games appropriate for children with disabilities?
As per usual with video games, it’s better to do your research on it beforehand. You should do that for your able-bodied child too so that’s not that big of a difference, but other than that, sure. It may even benefit them.
Choosing a game like Just Dance or Wii Sports may improve their coordination, balance, and physical condition, especially for children with disabilities such as cerebral palsy (CP).
What group activities are good for children with disabilities?
Most group activities are. Some have to be adjusted so they can take part and some children may not be ready to be part of a group, but that’s generally how we build and maintain social skills.
For children on the autism spectrum (ASD)—the ones that generally have the least positive reactions to a group—you can try starting with something called Sensory Friendly Performances, where the child can freely express themselves. They haven’t been around for that long but are gaining in popularity.
What do I do if my child has a sensory meltdown?
The first thing you can do is to be calm and keep calm. Panicking isn’t helping your child and it isn’t helping you to be on top of the situation. When you are confident in your success, try to find the triggers. You know your child, what is he likely to react to?
After identifying them, try to neutralize the triggers. If it’s sound, have noise-canceling earphones, if it’s sight, try to block the view, and if it’s a combination, try with a compressive material or garment, like a weighted blanket. After they’re all bundled up, remove harmful objects from around your child, and if you can’t, consider removing the child from that environment.
And try to distract them. Get them to make eye contact with you, maybe offer them a bottle of water or their fidget toy. Reassure your child of their safety, and your love and presence.