2016 Holiday Gift Guide for Special Needs Kids

Byrds Fore A CureOn the podcast this week, I shared my frustration about how our kids with SMA intellectually outgrow babyish toys, but don’t gain the strength a typical child has in order to operate more age appropriate toys. This is never more a challenge than at the holidays, when friends and family–while thoughtful and generous–buy our kids toys they can’t play with very easily, because they don’t realize how complicated it can be to find just the right fit for our kids! I shared some gift ideas for kids with SMA as they grow up (or for almost any kiddo with a fine motor impairment), based on my experience with my nine-year-old twins.

I’ve collected this holiday gift guide for special needs kids onto my Maven board, to make viewing and shopping them super easy! Give the podcast a listen for the reasons why these items made my list!

Click through to my board to browse the list and even shop, or read here (in order of suggested age):
1. Xylophone
2. Disney Princess MagiClip dolls
3. Kinetic Sand
4. LeapFrog LeapPad
5. Hexbug Nano
6. Orbeez Hand Spa Kit
7. Pokémon trading cards
8. Nintendo 3DS (with two new Pokémon games)
9. Nintendo Wii U
10. Xbox One

If you have other ideas, I’ll include them in our next podcast! Comment here, or email me at cassandra@byrdsforeacure.org!

I Made a Gift Guide for Preschoolers, So You Don’t Have To!

As you may remember from this post, my sister and I both have an older singleton and then a set of twins. My twins are nine years old now (when did that happen??), but hers are just 2, and the sad fact is that’s a challenging age to shop for unless your kids are currently in that age bracket.


Melissa & Doug Pizza SetAs I brainstorm ideas for them, I’m also jogging my memory by sifting through photos of my twins at that age in an effort to see what kinds of gifts they opened back then: there was a lot of Elmo + Sesame Street, Caillou, tea sets + pretend food, and puzzle boards! I specificallyMelissa & Doug Wooden Latches Board remember the Melissa & Doug pizza set being a hit with both of my twins, and they, and their O.T., loved the latches board! They’re of such high quality, we still have them today (somewhere, in the dark corners of the play room I still need to sort through…).


Now that I’ve done the research for myself, I’ve curated some of the best gift ideas from the PBS Kids Shop and Melissa & Doug, which is a toy company with some of the most high quality products I’ve seen. You can’t go wrong with these brands, and the upcoming holiday season is the best time to shop for them–just in time for Black Friday!

Click through to view, or visit my newest Pinterest board!


A Shape Mag-nificent Summer!

Listen closely–do you hear that? It’s the sound of a quiet house! You know what that means? The kids are back in school! Obviously, I love my kids and appreciate their cherubic charm at all times, but I also appreciate a peaceful cup of coffee with Kathy & Hoda and it’s been three months since I’ve enjoyed either of those two things.

My oldest is in 7th grade–which suddenly makes me feel old–and the twins are now in 4th grade. The school year is off to a great and healthy start for all of us, thank goodness!



Shape Mags 1Over the summer, the kids received a care package from the kind folks at Shape Mags, and it has been the only thing to draw them away from their screens for the last month. As you may recall, one effect of the twins’ SMA is weakness of their voluntary muscles, including their hands. Traditional Legos and other snap-on types of building blocks require more dexterity and strength than they’ve ever had, so when I heard that this product uses magnets I was intrigued. You can see from Lauren’s video that she can easily pull them apart and put them back together as she builds things. The kids’ occupational therapist thinks they’re a great activity to keep their hands (and minds) busy, and I agree. We only have two sets so far, but there’s a wide selection of over a dozen different sets here, ranging from $10-$99. I think it’s a fun alternative to Legos for children who can’t “do” Legos–or even for those who can, because what kid doesn’t like to play with magnets? The kids can even combine their Little People pieces, Hot Wheels, or small stuffed animals with Shape Mags to create even more imaginative play! Plus, I don’t see Shape Mags as a choking hazard for small children like I see with Legos. The Starter Set even comes with idea books (also sold on Amazon for $10 each)!
Shape MagsLauren also reminded me that “Shape Mags are good for age three to eighty-three!”, as the box says, so we brought them to my dad to see if he would use them. My father has advanced Parkinson’s and is in a rehab center right now, so I also got to show off the Shape Mags to his therapists. They hadn’t heard of Shape Mags, but they all agreed that the gentle magnetic feature make it an unusual and fun way to keep his hand strength and dexterity. His speech therapist also pointed out that with some “rules”, it could be a cognitive exercise, also–use only the red shapes, or see how many types of round shapes he can make, for example.




Lauren, in particular, is also a big fan of toy reviews by kids on YouTube, so I let her record one–hopefully, this will jump start her career as a young YouTuber, and will jump start that college fund!

Shape Mags have been a fun addition to our toybox, and now they may temporarily relocate to my parents’ house when my dad comes home! Santa may have some ideas already…

Shape Mag







Shape Mags provided the toy starter sets, but we were not otherwise compensated for this posts. Opinions here are my own.


Cassandra can be found on Twitter @aclevergirl.  Learn more about her family’s unique challenges and why she has hope for a cure for Spinal Muscular Atrophy at byrdsforeacure.org.

Springtime Updates for Your Child’s Living Space!

We recently had the pleasure of talking Spring DIY with the good folks at Trulia, your home for real estate! As we noted last week Spring Break is almost upon us–what about using some of this time to collaborate with your children to refresh their bedrooms (and maybe even, coughcough, some spring cleaning)? We are pleased to feature a guest post by Hannah Goodman of  Trulia with some tips and the latest trends in kid-friendly design!


Spring is a time for new beginnings. As the days get longer and the heat of the Arizona desert begins to rise again, many homeowners in the Phoenix metropolitan area are struck by the inspiration to take on home improvement projects that they have been putting off. For some, spring projects may be as simple as cleaning and redecorating for the summer months, while others will choose to take on a larger remodel or upgrade project. If you are a parent and thinking about taking on a larger scale project, spring is the perfect time to upgrade your child’s living space. With your kids still in school most of the day, you will have time and space to execute your remodel before the summer months begin. The following are some trends and factors to consider when remodeling your child’s living space.

Springtime Updates For Your Child's Living Space!Choose a Design Aesthetic that will stand the Test of Time

Perhaps the most important thing to take into account when conceptualizing your child’s room is the adaptability of the design. Will the color scheme and theme you choose outlast the inevitable changes that adolescence bring? Choosing a neutral color palette for your remodel in Chandler can give you a great base to build upon throughout your child’s formative years. That hot pink or bright green color scheme may seem like a good idea in the moment, but it may end up costing you more time and money down the road. While this upgrade is typically a simple one, repainting can be a daunting and sometimes costly task. so try using wallpaper or wall decals as time and cost-effective method to satisfy the decorative wants and needs of your children. Another way to navigate your child’s change in style is to choose a theme for the whole room. Travel and adventure motifs, in particular, lend themselves to growth and change while also inspiring imagination and creativity.

Springtime Updates for Your Child’s Living Space!Purchase or Upgrade Built-In Furniture

This trend has been around for a few years and seems to be here to stay. Built-ins not only offer great space saving techniques for smaller spaces, they are also easy to modify as your child grows. For instance, built-in shelves that hold toys for young children can be repainted or redecorated and used later on to hold books, schoolwork and picture frames for teenagers. Currently, some of the most popular built-ins are beds with storage drawers. Not only do these furniture pieces help cut down on clutter, they add a classy touch to any design scheme. However, we know that your child will outgrow his or her childhood bed, and that the installation of built-ins can be more complex than a simple paint job. So, as an alternative to purchasing a costly new bed frame with built-in storage every few years, pick up an under-bed storage bag or box which can be reused with each new bedframe.


Springtime Updates for Your Child’s Living Space!Add a Loft or a Decorative Partition

Does your home in Fountain Hills have high ceilings? Consider adding a loft to your child’s room. Although this project is perhaps the largest undertaking, the benefits are immense. Lofts can serve many different purposes and hold everything from beds to desks to reading areas stuffed with pillows. For children sharing a room, lofts can also make each individual child feel as though they have their own space to escape to. Lofts also create more storage and living space in a smaller room. For a more temporary solution, try setting up a reading nook with pillows in a window seat or create some divisions in your child’s room with decorative partitions.

There are many different ways to update your home this spring. While it may be tempting to go for the typical kitchen or living room remodel, consider an improvement to your child’s space, as it can save you time cleaning and repainting for years to come. If you’re looking for more inspiration, check out Trulia’s Life at Home blog for more tips and tricks!

Brace Yourselves–Spring Break is Coming!

Spring Break: It’s like summer break, but only lasts one week and we parents still want to pull our hair out three days into it.

Do you remember when we were kids, and Spring Break was a glorious week of no school, of sleeping in while Mom & Dad went to work and left us with the house to ourselves and our pesky siblings? The only house rules we had back then were 1) Do not open the door for anyone, including and especially the Ice Cream Man and people giving away puppies, and 2) Do not use the stove until Mom gets home.

Well, it’s 2016. I wish my kids would run outside to chase down the ice cream man. Or try to cook. Anything to get them to forget about the Xbox for a few minutes and overpay for a cold, creamy-yet-crunchy, and sugar-laden facsimile of a taco (Choco Tacos are the best!).

Brace Yourselves--Spring Break is Coming!
Type 2 Diabetes Not Included (but coming soon)

Other rules we have at our house here in 2016 include the children playing only educational games on their $500 electronic tablets (I could have bought three Nintendo 64 consoles in 1984 with that kind of money), which for the most part has simply resulted in the children arguing the educational virtues of Minecraft. You know what, just turn the volume off when playing that game and we’ll call it a deal.

Another rule is if the kids don’t get their chores done, we change the house wi-fi password and they won’t get the new password until their work is done. Kids entirely dependent on wi-fi? This is in stark contrast to 1981, when the only “fi” in the house was the hi-fi speaker on my pink record player.

Brace Yourselves--Spring Break is Coming!
The only password this needs is TOTALLY BITCHIN


Aside from growing weary of enforcing house rules, I have some other, more serious ideas on how to spend Spring Break with your kids. Many of these are specific to the Phoenix area, but you should be able to adapt my suggestions to Looneyville, Texas (that’s a real place) or Normal, Illinois (again, real), or wherever it is you may call home–You know your town better than I do!

Brace Yourselves--Spring Break is Coming!

My daughter and me outside the tattoo parlor

You could take your kids to:

Visit the public library
Make “art” at a pottery painting shop (i.e. As You Wish)
Spend the kids’ college funds at Dave & Busters
Enjoy the Phoenix Zoo, Wildlife World Zoo (Litchfield Park), or Sea Life Aquarium (Tempe)
Venture down one of Phoenix’s 40 hiking trails
Not catch butterflies at Butterfly Wonderland (Scottsdale)
Get concussions at a trampoline park
Get calloused with indoor rock climbing
Hold a dance off with tortoises at the Herpetological Society (Scottsdale) (the tortoises are terrible dancers, so you may win)
Get matching emoji tattoos




Spring Break only lasts a week. Your kids won’t even get bored of hanging around the house until at least two hours after they get home from school on the Friday that leads into Spring Break. Wouldn’t it be fun if this led to a lively dinnertime discussion about how you enjoyed Lake Havasu every Spring Break of your college career? Pro tip: Describe yourself as wearing twice as many clothes as you really did in the version of the story you tell your kids. They’ll figure it out when they get to college.

Brace Yourselves--Spring Break is Coming!


One-Pan Four-Cheese Sun-Dried Tomato & Spinach Pasta Bake

Finally! A dish so incredibly delicious, and is meat-free so you can plan it for Meatless Monday!

The recipe fell into my lap courtesy of Half-Baked Harvest.  Here’s my finished result–read the recipe and scroll down for my personal tips, and then you gotta go make this yourself.


1.  Skip adding the 1/2 cup of wine.  Add an extra 1/2 cup of broth, and then go drink the wine.  There is so much flavor in this dish, you don’t need the wine.

2.  If you like basil, double or triple the amount the recipe calls for

3.  I wasn’t paying attention and did the steps out of order.  The recipe suggest you combine all the dry ingredients (except pasta) and sort of mix it together and then add the rigatoni.  Instead, I dumped the pasta into my pan and then layered all the ingredients in order on top of the pasta–it worked just fine.

4.  As the recipe author points out, you can take liberties and add Italian sausage or your other pantry favorites: artichoke hearts, black olive, cannelini beans, and roasted garlic!


This recipe is good enough to make every week.  Try it!


Cassandra can be found on Twitter @aclevergirl.  Learn more about her family’s unique challenges and why she has hope for a cure for Spinal Muscular Atrophy at byrdsforacure.org.