The hustle and bustle that comes along with a visit to a business that caters to our littlest friends can be tough on a kid with special needs. That’s why some local businesses block off specific times where the noise is dialed back, lights are dimmed, crowds are kept small and kids are, well, free to be themselves! Read on to learn about museums, play spaces, theatres, a gym and more that keep special needs kids in mind when developing their programming.
Play for All at Chicago Children’s Museum
Chicago Children’s Museum is committed to providing exhibits, programs and public spaces that are inclusive and interactive for all families. On the second Saturday of every month from 9 a.m.-10 a.m., they invite children and families with disabilities to experience playful, multi-sensory exhibits for a special private hour. The first 250 visitors to register receive FREE admission. CCM opens to the public at 10 a.m. and Play For All families are welcome to stay and continue exploring the museum all day. Note: Pre-registration is required.
Outside of the one Saturday a month opportunity, the museum has sound-reducing headphones, lap trays for wheelchairs, personal museum schedules, visual rule cards, an online Therapeutic Play Guide, a partnership with Francis W. Parker School to provide specially-trained student guides for your child and the entire museum is wheelchair accessible.
Chicago Children’s Museum, 700 E. Grand Ave., Navy Pier; Online: chicagochildrensmuseum.org
We Rock the Spectrum Kids Gym
We Rock the Gym is a safe space for kids all across the spectrum where apologies are never needed and uniqueness is celebrated. They’re committed to providing all children a fun, motivational environment to help increase strength and improve movement, sensory processing, communication, social interactions and self-care skills, while also incorporating positive behavior modification. Offerings include structured class times and open play sessions with drop-in and membership opportunities.
We Rock the Spectrum Kid’s Gym, 553 E. Dundee, Palatine; Online: werockthespectrumchicagopalatine.com
photo: Blue Man Group via Caroline Talbot Photography
Blue Man Group goes sensory-friendly
Blue Man Group and Autism Speaks team up throughout the year to offer shows with slight modifications such as dim lighting, bean bags, calm environment and quiet corners to better accommodate individuals with autism. Sound levels are reduced at select moments and noise isolating headphones also available upon request. Keep an eye on their website for dates.
Briar Street Theatre, 3133 N. Halsted, Lakeview; Online: blueman.com
Get cultured with a Red Kite Project
Chicago Children’s Theatre created the Red Kite Project to bring on-going theatrical adventures, dynamic learning opportunities and camps to children on the autism spectrum and their families.
The Station, 100 South Racine Ave., West Loop; Online: chicagochildrenstheatre.org
Special needs screenings at Studio Movie Grill
Studio Movie Grill hosts family-friendly movies free for children with special needs and their siblings with the purchase of an adult ticket. These special screenings are shown with the lights up and the volume lowered. Don’t worry if your movie date likes to stay on the move, children are free to move around, talk and even dance in the aisle. All screenings are shown at 11 a.m. on select dates.
Studio Movie Grill, 301 Rice Lake Square, Wheaton, 630-480-9557; Online: studiomoviegrill.com
Fish around for fun times at Shedd Aquarium
Shedd Aquarium’s inclusion program, Calm Waters, extends hours on select days exclusively for persons with disabilities. These evenings include a Caribbean Reef dive, during which you can watch a scuba diver explore the habitat alongside the animals, a 4-D Experience that combines the elements of a 3-D film with additional sensory effects like water mist and bubbles, plus an opportunity to learn how Shedd’s marine mammal trainers care for the animals.
Before you visit Shedd, download their sensory-friendly app designed for guests with autism and sensory-processing disorders in mind. It includes video social guides that offer information on individual exhibit spaces, including photos, tips on temperature and noise levels. The app also includes a visual schedule, communication tools, sensory-friendly maps and more tips to plan your visit, set expectations and ease anxiety. And for our Spanish-speaking friends, a Spanish version is now available.
In addition, the aquarium has created a quiet room providing a dedicated space that can be used as a calming room, prayer room or place to privately recharge mobility devices.
Shedd Aquarium, 1200 S. Lake Shore Dr., Museum Campus, 312-939-2438; Online: sheddaquarium.org
Have wild fun at Lincoln Park Zoo
While Lincoln Park Zoo doesn’t have set times to bring kids who need special accommodations, they do have a great resource guide on their website giving tips on best times to come and which animal houses are the quietest, have lighting that’s comforting or are all-together sensory neutral. They also give information on best places to park, have wheelchairs available for rent with $20 deposit, ASL guides for the deaf and sighted guides for visually impaired visitors.
Lincoln Park Zoo, 2001 N. Clark St., Lincoln Park, 312-742-2000; Online: lpzoo.org/accessibility
Visit the dinos at The Field Museum
The Field Museum understands that some kiddos may have specific sensory processing needs in order to have a great museum experience. For that very reason, they open the doors to the Crown Family PlayLap one hour early on select Saturdays, so families can enjoy a crowd-free space. There are tactile opportunities and sensory tools to help ensure an enjoyable experience for all.
The Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Dr., Museum Campus; Online: fieldmuseum.org
Popcorn and a show at AMC
AMC partners with the Autism Society to offer specialized movie showings where the lights are turned up and the sound down so you can get up, dance, walk, shout or belt out a tune. The Sensory Friendly Film program is available on the second and fourth Saturday of every month.
Check for theaters and listings near you at amctheatres.com
Reach for the clouds at Sky High Sports
Every Tuesday, Sky High Sports turns off the music, dims the lights and dials down the distractions for the comfort of their guests. Jump sessions for kids with special needs and their families is a passion project for Sky High founder Jerry Raymond. The father of a special needs son, Jerry has witnessed how jumping can help improve motor and sensory skills, social interaction and overall fitness for kids and young adults. Times of the jump vary by location, so check the website for the location nearest you before heading to jump.
Go blue at Brookfield Zoo
For the last 4 years, Brookfield Zoo has hosted Autism Awareness in April, where they dye the fountain blue and have special activities—like crafting, quieted carousel rides, tailored Zoo Chats with animals and designated areas for quiet time geared toward special needs families. If you’re visiting on a day outside of the designated Autism Awareness Day, you can pick up a BZ Care Kit for free that includes noise-reducing headphones, hard copies of visual schedules, autism stickers and safety alert badges and ID bracelets in case a child gets separated.
Also good to note, Brookfield Zoo has an online map that shows quiet spaces throughout the zoo where you can duck into when needed. They also have wheelchairs and Electronic Convenience Vehicles available for rent, ASL interpreters upon request and those with disabilities are not required to wait in any lines. They have a robust Accessibility Guide online that’s worth a look through before your zoo visit, as well.
Brookfield Zoo, 3300 Golf Rd., Brookfield; Online: czs.org
Jump, jump, jump around at Airtastic
Start your week off with jumps at Airtastic’s Music FREE Mondays. They turn off the music to remove extra noise that can bother some children.
Airtastic, 850 S. Frontenac St., Aurora; Online: airtastic.com
Spend Your Third Thursday with DuPage Children’s Museum
On the Third Thursday each month, DuPage Children’s Museum incorporates special resources and programing for visitors with accessibility or medical issues. You’ll find regularly scheduled activities like trained comfort dog visits, DCM Studio sensory art projects and after-school programming with specialists to assist with specific IEP and at-home goals and objectives that involve playing. One-on-one caregivers or therapists receive a complimentary admission ticket when accompanying a child requiring medical assistance.
If you find a member of your crew needs a break from the action, let a DCM worker show you to the Quiet Room. You’ll find a soft couch, dimmed blue lights and a calming marble wall full of light and touch sensations. TIP: After school and early evening are often quieter times for family or therapeutic visits.
DuPage Children’s Museum, 301 N. Washington St., Naperville; 630-637-8000; Online: dupagechildrens.org
Take a nature walk at Morton Arboretum
A trip to the Arboretum is a great first ingredient for a good day for both kids and parents. It’s a fun place to explore and develop a love of the great outdoors. While they don’t have specific hours that target families with special needs, they do offer a thorough resource page on their website to help navigate the Arboretum comfortably and special Visual Schedule books are available at the Information Desk in the Visitor Center on a first-come, first-served basis. The book helps guests plan their visit and is designed specifically for individuals on the autism spectrum or with learning or development disabilities.
To expand your nature walks beyond Morton Arboretum, check out our story Hiking Trails That Even Toddlers Will Love.
Morton Arboretum, 4100 IL Rte. 53, Lisle; Online: mortonarb.org
Take a swim with JCC
JCC Chicago has created an All-In Swim program for children on the autism spectrum designed to teach water safety and swim skills in a comfortable, supportive environment. Their unique curriculum focuses on valuable life-saving techniques, recreational swim therapy and increased independence and self-esteem. Each class incorporates creative games and play, as well as visual instruction such as picture cards. For certain sensory sensitivities, textured mats, wet suits, water toys and flotation devices may be used to maximize the experience. With seven levels of learning, students will make progress at their own pace.
If JCC Chicago isn’t convenient for you, reach out to one of the pools in our story 6 Swimming Schools That Will Float Your Boat to inquire about your child’s unique needs.
Programs available in West Rogers Park and Northbrook; Online: jccchicago.org
WHAT TO WATCH
The A Word on Sundance TV
Follow the thought-provoking story of 5-year-old Joe and his family after an autism diagnoses in The A Word on Sundance TV. It’s an authentic and light-hearted portrayal of a multi-generational family trying to make sense of the word for themselves and the young boy.
Find out more at sundancetv.com
HOW TO SUPPORT
Walk Now for Autism Speaks
This no-pressure, three-mile walk takes place in two locations in the spring, downtown Chicago and Northfield. The downtown walk takes you leisurely by the Field Museum and Shedd Aquarium and along the lakefront. Strollers—and even Radio Flyer wagons — are welcome. And, that’s right: no registration fees. You won’t get a T-shirt unless you raise at least $150 for Autism Speaks, but anyone is welcome to participate, whether or not you choose to fundraise. This annual event also features an after-party with kid lures like inflatable bouncers, sensory sensitive activities and a petting zoo.
Find out more at autismspeaks.org
— Maria Chambers