Toy Shopping for Differently Abled Children

Toys for disabled children

Photo by Wendy Bulawa
Five-year-old Amanda Russo oversees 2-year-old Patrick Bell as he works on bead sequencing.

Milford -

Two-year old Patrick enjoys colorful toys — especially those big enough for him to pincher grasp- while 5-year-old Davis would rather spend time jumping on a trampoline. Both born with Down syndrome, Patrick and Davis seek increased stimulation in the toys with which they play —Patrick in size and color and Davis in sensory feedback.

Choosing toys, specifically for children with special needs, can be an overwhelming experience. Parents, friends and colleagues seeking the perfect gift are met with crowded toy store aisles and a vast array of options—none of which clearly identify that a particular item is appropriate for a child with a disability. One in 12 children in the U.S. has special needs tied to one or more physical challenge, sensory disorder, hearing impairment, or developmental delay.

Kerry Gendron, mother of three children, indicated that her 3-year-old daughter with special needs particularly enjoys any toy that makes noise. According to her, “M.E. would resonate towards toys that made noise—and the louder the better—as she really sought out auditory stimulation.” Meg, on the other hand enjoys blocks and stacking toys—items that she can bang together, build up, and eventually knock down. Meg’s mother also reports that Meg is fond of mirrors and items she can see her reflection in as she works on sign language and communication skills.

Finding the Right Toy

Many children with disabilities work with therapists or early-intervention professionals who have access to interesting and engaging items which children enjoy — but are not easily found at the standard toy stops. For those charged with purchasing items for a child with a disability, the responsibility increases and options are seemingly not as plentiful. Fortunately for those individuals, companies do exist whichcater to children who adore music, abhor textures, or enjoy all things bold in color. And, many items can be purchased via the Internet.

SensoryEdge, founded in 2003, is one such Internet-based retail store that caters to all children—including those with special needs. The variety of toys, furniture and items carried is astounding, but fortunately, the company also distributes a hard-copy catalog.

Alycia Shapiro, who co-founded SensoryEdge with her husband Ed, was attending UCLA Law School when her son started exhibiting developmental delays. She put her education on hold to learn about developmental challenges and the approaches therapists employ when working with each individual issue.

“People who learn that their child has a disability are usually overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. We wanted to create a store that included toys to help children develop important skills,” said Shapiro.

SensoryEdge inventories a broad range of products but applies a few simple standards for the toys it carries. “We want toys that are fun, that serve an educational purpose, and that are well made. We choose toys that therapists use with children with special needs, but also try to present toys in a novice-friendly way. Giving parents an alternative to higher-priced catalogs was also a prime motivator in creating our business.”

Now, nearly 10-people big, SensoryEdge has become a passion and third child for the Shapiros. “Having your own business is difficult under the best of circumstances and the same can be said about motherhood. People say that being a mom is the hardest job in the world but when you have a child with special needs it is more so.”

Diana Nielander is another such mother, who also serves as the executive director of the National Lekotek Center, a non-profitorganization based in Chicago that has provided therapeutic play services since its founding in 1980. Under Nielander’s guidance, the company recently launched side project,—an Internet site dedicated to helping parents determine what toys may be best suited for a child given age, diagnosis, and area of delay or interest. Nielander said that the organization created Ableplay using expertise gained from years of play therapy using real toys with differently-abled children.

Officially launched in November 2005, AblePlay posts reviews of toys that have been extensively evaluated by certified Lekotek family-play specialists. “Our goal for AblePlay is to help others understand the features of a toy and how those features may or may not be of benefit to their child. We focus on deep-level content and detailed information about a toy that cannot be gotten simply by looking at a toy or reading the outside of its box.”

This level of detail is especially useful for friends and relatives unsure about what items may or may not be appropriate for a child with special needs. Before an item is purchased, visitors can learn about the size of a toy’s buttons and the number of steps required for activation. Information is organized by disability category (physical, sensory, communication and cognitive), and items can be searched for by play ideas, age range, brand and product category.

Content on the AblePlay site is updated regularly with new toys and reviews are added—to the tune of 40-50 per year. Specialists from Lekotek put toys through a rigorous testing in real-world environments prior to completing a rating sheet, which ultimately reaches the site. “Should a toy rate high in one category and not in others does not mean it isn’t a wonderful toy,” said Nielander. “In fact, should a toy receive a high rating — it means it is a good toy — but part of our objective is to educate both manufacturers and parents that stars across all categories may not be possible.” 

“When our early intervention therapists make suggestions about items that would be beneficial to our daughter, we definitely leverage the advice and buy similar items. Now that we know where they are getting recommendations, we’ll definitely do more online shopping ourselves,” said Kathy Healy Norton of Stow.

Holiday Toy Choices

Morning Travelers, a playgroup located in North Andover, calls hundreds of families with children with special needs as members. At a recently playgroup, parents and their children trialed selected items donated by SensoryEdge — all of which provide a form of stimulation for children of different abilities. SensoryEdge sent a variety of products including stuffed animals and multiplayer games to magnetic mazes and a mini trampoline. Each item was chosen based upon its ability to engage and stimulate children — especially those who are working to further develop muscle strength, hand-eye coordination, sensory awareness and other motor skills.

Several items included in the toy trial were:

Advice for toy buying (SensoryEdge)


By Wendy Bulawa
Parents and Kids Mon
Oct 22, 2007, 08:58 AM EDT