When you have a special needs child, sometimes getting out of the house and into the crowds and hustle and bustle of the city can be difficult. Whether you need wheelchair access or a quieter atmosphere, simple excursions like heading to the zoo for a couple hours can become an all day activity. Here are some tips to help make your outings a little easier.
Bring a comfort from home or save a special new toy to open when you get to your destination. My son is obsessed with his LeapFrog Twinkle Twinkle Little Scout and his Fisher Price Kid Tough See Yourself Camera. I can’t imagine leaving the house with out one or the other, or both! Having something from home that he loves helps ease the transition into a new situation. Alternatively, you could save a new Hot Wheels car, small doll or other toy for them to receive as a gift as part of the trip. Fixating on the new toy could be just the distraction they (and you) need if it gets too hectic on your outing. (At the same time, you don’t want to associate every trip out with a gift, so that’s a tactic to use judiciously.)
Another thing to try is to go to busy places at off-peak hours. The zoo is, well, a zoo (both literally and metaphorically) first thing in the morning. Many young families head out around 9:00 or 10:00 a.m. to get the fun in before lunch and before nap time for preschool-age children. Try having an early lunch at home and getting to the zoo or museum during the lunch hours. Alternatively, if the attraction is open later, try going during or right before the typical dinner times in your area as well. Oftentimes it is easier to go at your own pace and get through the crowds, if there are fewer crowds to deal with.
Find a sensory park. Many larger cities are building “sensory parks,” some even with wheelchair access. A sensory park usually has textured walls, sand and water areas, music panels, and a variety of swings, slides and play structures. These can help build muscle tone, aid in sensory therapy, as well as just being a fun place to play. It doesn’t have to bear the name “sensory park” in order to help your child. Find a park near you that has a variety of activities, besides just the typical monkey bars and swings, and you can create your own therapeutic and fun experience.
Call ahead or check websites for special needs-friendly activities. Many movie theaters now show “Sensory Friendly Films.” AMC theaters has a great program where they leave the lights up during a film and kids are allowed to talk, walk around, and be themselves without other patrons getting upset or not understanding why the kids need to move around so much. The program started after a parent of a child with autism requested this, and more than 300 people attended that first screening. Now offered nationwide and by other movie chains, this is the perfect way to also meet other families dealing with similar situations in your community.
Bring travel toys, snacks and food from home. Yes, it can be tempting to grab fast food or eat at the cafe in the zoo or museum, but many aren’t equipped to handle special dietary restrictions. Bringing your child’s favorite treats and foods from home guarantees that they won’t get upset because they are hungry and you won’t have to worry about food allergies or other restrictions. Also, don’t forget snacks for yourself! We often pack everything for the kids and forget ourselves in the process. A granola bar might be just the thing you need to keep from being famished yourself.
Follow your child’s lead. If your child becomes stressed or anxious in any situation, it can make you anxious as well. Make sure to watch for cues from your child and know when to avoid a certain place, area, or time of day. The whole purpose of the trip is to have some fun, so make sure that’s exactly what you’re doing.
These are just a few tips to help make your family outing special and as stress-free as possible. Do you have any activities your special needs child particularly loves? Share your tips and places below!