ALBANY — Those with special needs can often fade into the background, and not much thought may be given to their ability to function with the rest of their peers.

Depending on where you look and the age of the individual, there are adaptable products out there that can help those with special needs function as their peers would. For children, one of the first things a parent may look for is the right toys to aid their development.

“When shopping for a toy for a kid with special needs, keep it simple,” Anna Lee, owner of Imagination Emporium in Camilla, said. “Don’t pay so much attention to the age recommendation on the box, instead consider how the toy works. Is it logical and straightforward? Will the child you’re buying for be able to play with it independently?

“If you answered yes, then you’re on the right track.”

Lee said some important things to keep in mind when shopping for a toy for a special needs child are:

— Which of the five senses does it appeal to?

— Will the child be able to activate the toy?

— Where will the toy be used and will the child be able to use it in various positions? For example, in a wheelchair, stander or lying on the floor?

— Is the height of the toy or the volume on the toy adjustable?

— Will the toy allow the child to interact with others or allow the child to play on his/her own?

— Is it safe for that child’s intellectual age, well-constructed and durable?

— Is it appealing and interesting to the child?

— Is it right for the child’s physical capabilities?

Lee said some toys may have multiple uses and benefits and may be used for play and therapy exercises. A child with cerebral palsy can benefit, for instance, from a metal toy shopping cart that can be used for therapy to learn to take steps as well as for imaginative play.

“Dress-up clothes and costumes are also great ways to nurture a child’s imagination as well as improve their fine motor skills with the actual process of putting on the costume,” Lee said. “Pretend or imaginative play is an important part of child development. It actually helps children learn about the world, helps to build speech, social skills and often has fine and gross motor benefits.

“Puppets, dolls, action figures and Mr. Potato Head are all great toys to encourage creative, imaginary play.”

Lee added that art activities like drawing and painting are great to help children develop fine motor skills, provide a good sensory experience and are considered important activities that help kids learn how to print as they get older.

“Maintaining grasp of a pen or pencil can be hard for many children with special needs,” Lee said. “However, there are a variety of crayons and pencils available that are shaped in ways to make it easier for special needs kids to hold onto them and utilize them.”

She also said many children with special needs enjoy music, so parents can consider providing musical instruments such as drums, maracas and tambourines. For children who may be sensitive to certain sounds, a CD of music or soundscapes they enjoy is also helpful.

“Books are great for language and cognitive development,” she continued. “They are also a great way to spend one-on-one time with family and friends. Puzzles are a great tool for developing motor skills and language as well. Melissa & Doug carries a great line of sound puzzles and blocks. When you put the pieces in correctly or join the blocks correctly, you hear an associated word or sound.

“For kids with autism, it is important to choose toys that are perfect for calming, encouraging social skills, and fostering sensory and language development.”

Some examples of toys Lee said are good for autistic kids include:

— Play Foam by Educational Insights: Play Foam provides tactile and sensory stimulation and develops fine motor skills. The soft foam allows the child to explore their creativity by sculpting whatever they’d like, or simply squishing it and watching it ooze between their fingers. It doesn’t stick, so it can be used for indoor, outdoor or on-the-go play. It never dries out, and the colors orange, purple, green and blue are included.

— Mad Mattr by Waba Fun: Mad Mattr is another great tactile and sensory stimulator with many of the same benefits as Play Foam.

— Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty: For nearly 15 years, Aaron “Crazy Aaron” Muderick has been creating dynamic putties with dynamic colors for abilities of children and adults worldwide. He also works very closely with the special needs community in his hometown of Philadelphia, helping individuals develop vocational skills and economic self-sufficiency as full-fledged putty makers.

— Lava Lamp by Schylling: Lava lamps and ooze lamps can be very soothing and comforting for a child with autism.

— Teeter Popper by Fat Brain Toys: A child can use this teeter-totter-for-one to rock, sit, spin or stand. As they rock, they can listen to the soothing pops from the suction cups as they stick to and release from the floor. This toy builds strength and balance and helps to develop gross motor skills.

— Spin Again by Fat Brain: This toy combines vibrant color and dynamic motion into one fantastic stacking toy. Each dual-colored disc spins and whirls when the child drops it onto the special corkscrew rod. This toy teaches coordination, imaginative play and motor skills.

— Poppers by Hog Wild Toys: This cause-and-effect toy lets a child launch soft foam balls up to 20 feet when they squeeze its belly. This is a fun toy for both indoor and outdoor play. Occupational therapists use it in their clinics to help kids build hand strength and visual motor skills. Applied behavior analysis therapists often use this as a reinforcer toy.

— Magnetic Mazes by Melissa & Doug: To play, children may use the magnetic wand to move the magnetic balls around the wooden maze frame. They may also choose to tilt the board, moving multiple balls at once. Balls come in two colors, allowing users to sort them into sections of the board. Holding the magnetic wand and manipulating the board are great ways to help kids build fine motor skills, while the puzzle element exercises coordination, planning, sorting and critical thinking.

— Suspend Game by Melissa & Doug: Considered good for working on fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination with older children. There are 24 notched, rubber-tipped wire pieces that players must hang from a tabletop stand. As each player adds another piece, the balance of each wire piece changes. It takes skill, concentration and careful planning to make sure the pieces don’t fall. A fun game for those who are highly visual.

— Honey Bee Tree by Game Zone: Allows for working on hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills and cause-and-effect. This game is designed for children ages 3 and up and is a big hit with both preschool and elementary school students. To play, students pick a numbered flower tray. Next, they turn the tree so that the hole faces them and then they must carefully remove a branch from the tree. If some bees fall into their tray after they pull out the branch, the student must hold onto them. The one with the least amount of bees at the end of the game wins.

Alexandra Connell, founder of Patti + Ricky, a company that produces clothing and accessories for those with special needs, said she was inspired to bring such products all under one marketplace by personal experience. Her company is named for her mother and cousin — who, respectively, had cancer and a condition impacting his ability to walk or talk.

She is personally affected by dyslexia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and anxiety. Many of the others in her company also know the struggles associated with special needs.

“Many of our designers have family members with disabilities,” Connell said.

Some of the Patti + Ricky products, available on the company’s website, include magnetic button-down shirts for those with Parkinson’s disease and cerebral palsy, pants without zippers or buttons for people with Down syndrome and fidget jewelry that looks like real jewelry for those with ADHD or anxiety. All are meant to help people adapt while also making them feel comfortable.

Other popular items include compression vests for children and clothing that cannot get snagged in wheelchairs for adults, the company’s founder said.

“A little adaption to clothing or accessories can really make them (easier to use) for more people,” Connell said.

In the case of Connell’s mother, a cane with a leopard print was one such item that eventually turned into a conversation piece. This is when it first dawned on her that there might be a way to help those with special needs feel more comfortable about themselves.

Her mother and cousin still both serve as her motivation, and she said the products found on Patti +Ricky’s website may have made a significant difference for them in their lifetime.

“I saw (with the leopard print cane) the power of fashion and saw a product that can be medical and beautiful,” she said.

Connell said her products are being sold at www.pattiandricky.com, with a pop-up shop planned to open in New York in the fall — and the hope that more brick-and-mortar locations will open up in the future.

In the meantime, she said the company is encouraging people to take advantage of its online suggestion page for further guidance on what products to design next.

“That is really what is guiding what we are doing,” Connell said. “We are adding new products every week. This has been life-changing for people. That is why I love my job, because of the response we get. That is why we are doing what we are doing.”

Perhaps there may be a day that Patti + Ricky products make it into department stores.

“We are up to the challenge to do what our customers want,” Connell said.

Tools for Life is considered a top resource for assistive technology in Georgia. More information can be found at http://www.gatfl.org/.

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Staff Writer

I'm a 2007 graduate of Georgia Southern University, and I've been a reporter for The Albany Herald since 2008. I cover news related to health care, Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany, SOWEGA Council on Aging and other areas as assigned.

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