Holiday Shopping Tips for Children with Special Needs

Physical therapists emphasize the importance of play.

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ALEXANDRIA, VA, November 15, 2012 — This holiday season, many people will brave crowded malls and push through scores of determined shoppers to find the latest toys they hope will hold the attention of a child. Play has an important role in the growth and development of children, but it is particularly valuable for children with special needs. Just in time for the holidays, the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) is providing tips for those shopping for children with disabilities and developmental delays. 

"Parents of children with special needs should focus on strengthening and developing their children's capacity to engage in play because children with disabilities learn best through play," says Joan Bohmert, PT, MS. "Physical therapists can design individualized programs for children that facilitate appropriate play, and that address physical and communication disabilities and developmental delays." 

Bohmert suggests that when shopping for toys for children with special needs, parents look for items that teach social routines—such as turn taking, listening, and responding—as well as those that initiate movement and thinking. "Focus on toys with technology that allows the child to make his or her own decisions," Bohmert explains. "Decision-making promotes self-determination, and this empowers children—particularly those with special needs—to set and meet developmental goals." 

The following tips are designed by physical therapists to help shoppers find toys that promote physical, cognitive, and social development in children with special needs. These tips are not all inclusive, but provide general guidance on several conditions that can be treated by pediatric physical therapists. Before you shop, identify the child's play capability and consider his or her individual needs and the skills a toy can expand or develop.

Toy Buying Tips for Children with Special Needs: 

  1. For children who have difficulty communicating as a result of autism, select toys that encourage repetition of movements, have purpose, and promote activities that use both sides of the body together. Toys should not be battery operated or include lights or electronic sounds.
  2. For children who have autism but do not exhibit communication needs, select toys that encourage use of both sides of the body and repetition of a purposeful activity.
  3. For children who have motor delay with crawling capability, select toys that encourage fine motor practice, sitting balance, mobility, problem solving and communication, and that require repetition of movement.
  4. For children who have motor delay and standing capability, select toys that encourage fine motor practice and imitation of daily activities. Also, choose toys that require repetition of movement and encourage mobility.
  5. For children who use motorized chairs for mobility, select toys that encourage manipulative activities that develop arm strength. 

View examples of toys associated with each of these tips

On November 19, 2012, at 12:00 pm, ET, APTA will host a show, Holiday Shopping for Children with Special Needs, on Move Forward radio, during which Ellen Seidman of Love that Max and Jennifer Byde Myers, a founder and editor of The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism and blogger at, will share their personal experiences raising children with special needs and tips for holiday shopping. They will also discuss the role of physical therapy in their children's development. Joan Bohmert will share her expertise as a physical therapist and discuss the impact physical therapy can have on children with communication disabilities and developmental delays.  

About APTA 
The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) represents more than 80,000 physical therapists, physical therapist assistants, and students of physical therapy nationwide. Learn more about conditions physical therapists can treat and find a physical therapist in your area at Consumers are encouraged to follow us on Twitter (@MoveForwardPT), Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest