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How to Pack a Grab-Bag for a Special Needs Kid

After working with pre-teens for many years, Mary is also the mum of a tween with ASD and ADHD, and uses her experience to help others.

An example of a sensory toy grab bag

An example of a sensory toy grab bag

What Is a Grab Bag, and Why Do I Need One?

Essentially, grab bags are a ready-packed bag of essentials, such as a hospital bag when you're getting close to your due date or the bag of passports, weapons, and cash a spy has in a movie.

Special-needs grab bags are made under the same premise; you need a bag of particular things, ready to go at a moment's notice for those unexpected events. In it, you place everything that your child may need to help them cope with a trip out, and it's completely unique to the child.

Everything from a change of clothes to sensory toys and noise-canceling headphones can go in the bag. The bag should be placed near the door and be ready to go at the drop of a hat. You can, over time, teach your child to pick up their own grab bag so that they will be able to have some sort of normality, even if you have to leave the house quickly or in an emergency.

Not only are they convenient when life takes an unexpected turn, but they can be used to help encourage independence by giving the child a task to do every time you go out, especially if you're heading out in a rush.

It might not seem a lot to the uninitiated, but for those of us in the thick of things, it can feel like winning an Olympic medal when they start to do something that they have otherwise been unable or unwilling to do, such as go out at short notice.

4 Items You Will Likely Need in a Grab Bag for Your Special Needs Child

  1. Clothing
  2. Sensory Toys
  3. Emergency Contacts
  4. Books

#1 Clothing

For children who are incontinent, or who have sensory issues, having a spare set of clothes in a grab bag is essential. What you'll likely need:

  • One or two changes of underwear (or nappies/pull-ups, if that's what they wear) and some wipes,
  • a pair of socks,
  • a skirt or pair of trousers,
  • a top, and
  • a jumper or cardigan can all be placed at the bottom of the bag.

I recommend having them in a plastic carrier bag, too, especially if your child is incontinent, as it is always useful to have a plastic bag to carry dirty clothes in so that you can wash them or dispose of them as you see fit.

#2 Sensory Toys

There is a huge range of sensory toys on the market nowadays, and I'm not going to go into any detail about any of them, as each child has their favourites, and they all have their pros and cons. If you're a special needs parent already, you'll know which ones your child prefers, and you're the best person to judge which ones would be best to go into the grab bag for your child.

The one thing that I will suggest is that, whichever sensory toys you put into the bag, buy them in pairs, so that you have one at home and one just for the bag. If you just take a favourite sensory toy and put it in the bag, then that bag is going to get turned out several times a day so that your child can have access to that toy at home, and that is entirely beside the point.

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Don't just stick to sensory toys, though. Anything can be therapeutic if the person who needs it decides it is. A cuddly toy, a Rubix Cube, an etch-a-sketch, or a length or ribbon can all be just as calming for a child with special needs as all of the sensory toys on the market. Choose a few things, regardless of what their actual purpose is, and let them live in the grab bag.

#3 Emergency Contacts

This is especially important if you have a runner. Make sure that you have your contact details somewhere in the child's grab bag, and make them carry it themselves when they're out. That way, if your child gets lost or runs off, they will always have your contact details on them.

If your child has an Awareness/Alert Card, put that in there, too, and let them know that it is okay to give this card to someone like a police officer or shop assistant if they can't find you.

If they have a phone or tablet, enable some free tracking software, and get them to keep it in the grab bag when they're not using it or charging it. All of these things may seem a bit over the top, but if you're the parent of a runner, you'll know how important it is to ensure that you have ways of finding them whenever they run off.

#4 Books

Books. There are so many types of books that special-needs kids find enjoyable:

  • Reading books,
  • non-fiction books,
  • colouring in books,
  • puzzle books,
  • activity books,
  • magazines,
  • comic books...
  • the list goes on.

Having a bag that is heavy and full of books is not going to encourage your child to pick it up and take it with them wherever they go, so bear this in mind and only pack one or two smaller books and a small pencil case.

Try to pack a favourite book or one that they are happy to read/do on their own. Part of the grab bag principle is to encourage a little bit of independence and self-sufficiency when out, and so, as much as you might like to see your child sat there with Homer's Illiad or Tolkein's Lord of the Rings, if they're happier with a Paw Patrol magazine, then put that in there. You won't be doing yourself or them any favours if you push them to have things they don't like in the bag.

Take a grab bag whenever you go out; you never know when you'll need it

Take a grab bag whenever you go out; you never know when you'll need it

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Mary Orpwood (author) from Oxfordshire on August 01, 2017:

Thanks, Denise! It's possible to put together a bag for any age, even adults, it just depends what they find calming and helps them to regulate. A toddlers bag would have sturdier items, for example, while a teen or adult may find a book, a phone, and a pocket-sized fidget enough.

Denise W Anderson from Bismarck, North Dakota on July 31, 2017:

When our daughter with special needs was young, it would have been nice to have something like this! I am glad that you are getting the word out!

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