One of the things we love most about LA is that it is home to families of all shapes, sizes and varieties—which includes those with special needs and on the autism spectrum. There is also a growing community of support and activities available for families. From working with animals to getting out on the sports field, there are a million (or 19!) outings that are not only inclusive of kids with autism but specifically designed for them.
Working with Animals
The Gentle Barn
Ellie Laks founded The Gentle Barn in 1999 as a way to connect her love for animals and kids. Laks felt deeply connected to animals and believed in their healing qualities from a young age. Having studied psychology and special education she created the Gentle Barn to create a space where animals and children can heal each other. The Gentle Barn is not a petting zoo but an animal sanctuary. The barn rescues abused and traumatized animals, brings them back to health and gives them a space to live the rest of their lives peacefully. The Barn is open to everyone but was also created to provide a space for at-risk and special needs kids. Lak says the Barn is a safe, quiet space where kids can explore and “they are free to be themselves, they are completely accepted for how they show up, and the animals love them unconditionally.” The Gentle Barn is located in Santa Clarita and is open to the public Sundays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Check their website for tickets and schedules.
15825 Sierra Highway
Danny’s Farm is an inclusive petting zoo that is housed at Cal Poly Pomona. The farm was created by former Dodger’s pitcher Jim Gott and his wife as a way to honor their son Danny, who has autism. As they discovered more about their son, they found that he had a love for farm animals, which in turn had a therapeutic effect on him. The farm is operated by the Cal Poly Pomona’s Veterinary Sciences department and its students. While the farm no longer offers a specialty autism program, it does provide a safe space where all children are welcome. The farm is open Saturdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., March through mid-November. Danny’s Farm also hosts a mobile petting zoo, which will come to you.
4102 S. University Dr.
photo: Paul Weaver via Flickr
Get out on That Field: Sports and Rec
Little League Challenger Division
American Little League has stepped up to the plate to provide a safe and rewarding place for all kids to play ball. The Challenger League is open to kids 4-18 (or up to 22, if they are still in high school) and teams are created based on ability rather than age. The game is tweaked slightly to allow everyone a chance at bat and on the field and there is no score keeping. The buddy system is used, though players are encouraged to do as much on their own as possible with their buddy always nearby to help. Check their website or call for more information about a Challenger division near you.
The American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) offer what the call the VIP program for all kids with special needs. In this program, trained coaches and volunteers work with kids and provides a “buddy system” during the games to help kids learn the game and interact with new friends in a safe and supportive environment. Check their website to get more details about league locations.
The Help Group “Kids Like Me” Program
The Help Group has created a series of campuses throughout the L.A. that offers pre-K through high hchool programs for kids on the spectrum. “Kids Like Me” is an extracurricular program open to the public that offers typical after-school activities like sports, art, dance and even specialties like film making. The objective of the program is to combine fun activities with a social skills based curriculum. The staff is trained to observe interactions between students and use their experience as teachable moments for social interaction. The program is open to all students across the autism spectrum, and the faculty works to group kids chronologically and developmentally to ensure they are with the best possible peer group.
Locations in Sherman Oaks and Culver City. Check out their website for the current schedule.
Gymnastics For Life
Coach Shawn Marsh has been living in the world of gymnastics for over 30 years. As a teenager growing up in South LA, an introduction to gymnastics provided a focus to pull him through the challenges of the neighborhood and stoked a lifelong love for gymnastics. He has taught in gyms throughout the city and personally coached a Special Olympics gymnast who went on to earn 4 gold medals. Coach Marsh has developed a curriculum that offers “traditional” and “non-traditional” gymnastics that allows little gymnasts to set their own standards that are appropriate for their age and developmental stage. A big bonus is that Coach Marsh offers group classes and in-home visits throughout LA and the San Fernando Valley. Check the website for locations and details.
Broadway Gymnastics School
Broadway Gymnastics School has been in the business of training little gymnasts since 1979. With a huge facility near Playa Vista, Broadway Gymnastics offers traditional classes and a special needs program that has been recognized by the Autism Speaks organization. Classes are open to babes 18 months and up. 1-on-1 coaching is available as well as group classes. There are after-school classes as well as a variety of camps, because we can all use a little help when school is out.
5433 Beethoven St.
Los Angeles School of Gymnastics
Tucked into Culver City, The Los Angeles School of Gymnastics has been training gymnasts of all ages since 1975. Now they are also working to bring the benefits of gymnastics and physicality to kids (and adults) with special needs. The qualities of gymnastics are used as a means for rehabilitation and can be considered part of your little tumbler’s occupational therapy. Plus, the LASG is linked with nearly every major funding organization, so you may be able to receive financial assistance for gymnastics classes.
8450 Higuera St.
If you’re a parent in LA, chances are you’ve heard of My Gym, which has locations throughout the city (and the whole country). My Gym offers classes for kids from 6 weeks old and up. Classes include gymnastics, karate and dance. While every My Gym does not offer classes specific to kids on the spectrum, their locations are open to kids no matter their developmental challenges. Those on the spectrum are welcome to join classes and feel their way through it as well as bringing a shadow, if needed. Check their website, find your local gym and ask what classes might be best for your little mover.
Multiple locations across Los Angeles, check the website for details.
Space to Play
We Rock the Spectrum
The top philosophy at We Rock the Spectrum is, “Finally a place where you never have to say ‘I’m sorry.'” WRTS is an indoor gym and play space that is fully inclusive for all children. The gym was founded by Dina Kimmel, whose son Gabriel is on the spectrum. After years of therapy and apologetically explaining that her son was autistic when out in public, she decided to open a space to welcome families living with autism and educate those who are not. WRTS is unique in that it is open to all kids whether or not they are on the spectrum. WRTS has locations across the country (and now in Malaysia) and all are equipped with 10 pieces of sensory equipment designed to help kids with sensory processing disorders. But don’t think for a minute that the gym won’t appeal to kids of all abilities and ages. Who doesn’t want to spend time on a zip line or rock on a hammock swing? And parents are encouraged to interact right along with their kids; so go have a good jumping session and everyone will be better for it.
Dream Big Children’s Center
If you’re in the market for an indoor play space, Dream Big Children’s Center in Monrovia fits the bill. This is an inclusive space that welcomes all kids but the center’s creator, Cristina Cordeiro, created the space with autistic kids in mind. Cordeiro has worked with autistic kids for over 15 years and has been the director of a behavioral therapy organization for the last five years. This experience combined with her new found life as a mama pushed her to create a space where all children—no matter their needs—can play together.
The space was meticulously designed with the needs of autistic kids in mind, with multiple themed rooms that designed to soften sound; the overall design of the center is neutral to help kids avoid sensory overload from bright colors and bright lighting. Dream Big’s staff have autism training and the center offers Applied Behavior Analysis therapy both in-home and at the center. A huge plus is that families with multiple kids can bring the whole family for some play time while meeting their child’s special needs. It’s a win-win.
612 S. Myrtle Ave.
Travel Town Museum
As one of the pillars of the Griffith Park experience, Travel Town is a must for any Angeleno, but it also happens to be a superb place for many kids on the spectrum. While nothing is a one-size-fits all scenario, the outdoor space combined with train tables and the experience of climbing into a real engine makes for a positive take-away. This LA classic comes highly recommended from families with kids on the spectrum.
5200 Zoo Dr.
Into the Pool: Swimming Lessons
The Water Whisperer
Learning to swim and feel comfortable in the water is both a matter of safety and a boost in confidence for all young people. Emily Cohen, The Water Whisperer, employs a unique technique for teaching kids to swim and provides one on one classes for those with special needs. As an artist, Cohen takes a creative approach and uses toys, songs, games and lots of encouragement to get kids in the water. Cohen also believes in the power of routine—especially for kids with special needs—and adheres to the class routine to provide swimmers with a sense of security. The Water Whisper holds classes in Sherman Oaks and Woodland Hills. When contacting them be sure to provide all info about your little swimmer’s needs.
One With the Water
One With the Water was created by Coach Kenneth Rippetoe. After working in Bolivia, Venezuela and Spain with “sponsor a child” programs to help kids in need receive education, Rippetoe founded One With the Water. Semi-private and private special needs classes are offered in community pools throughout the LA Area. One With the Water is a non-profit and is dedicated to providing scholarships to special needs kids and families who could use financial assistance. The organization also works closely with other therapy organizations to create a lasting community for its participants. Check out their website for more details.
Putting the Hands to Work: Performance and Creation
The Miracle Project
We all know the healing and therapeutic properties of the arts, but The Miracle Project has taken this idea as a mission. This organization has created an inclusive space where individuals with and without autism collaborate to develop and perform original musicals. The Miracle Project uses a methodology that combines theater, film, music, movement and other expressive arts and allows kids with autism to collaborate with others to develop as peers and artists.
Program director and teacher, Ryan Berman says this community helps “bring out the best” in those with autism and allows them to find their voice in a unique way. The Miracle Project offers classes in musical theater, improv, movement and music. You can also check out the documentary Autism: The Musical, which tells the story of The Miracle Project.
9301 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 507
Purple Twig in Eagle Rock is a great place for art exploration for young artists of all abilities. The space offers specialized workshops and art classes as well as an open studio on Saturdays where kids can dig into a large variety of sensory (and recycled!) materials that can be a big plus for some kids on the spectrum. While Purple Twig does not specialize in art classes for kid with autism, it is a welcoming space. Check it out and see if it works for your family.
2038 Colorado Blvd.
Another spot that comes highly recommended by parents is the building workshop sensation Rolling Robots. RR has multiple locations and offers after school robot building workshops. Though RR does not offer specific special needs classes, it is an inclusive space. From the most basic to more complicated robotics this is a great spot where kids on the spectrum can focus, work with their hands and be a part of a community. RR also offers birthday parties and camps.
Rolling Robots las locations in Glendale, West LA and Palos Verdes. Check the website for details.
Giddy-Up: Horseback Riding
Ride On Therapeutic Horsemanship teaches adaptive horseback riding to kids and adults with cognitive and physical disabilities from the age of 6 & up. The organization also uses the art of horseback riding to provide physical, occupational and speech therapy by using the movement of the horse to improve medical conditions as well as equine assisted psychotherapy. (Yes, that’s a mouthful, but it works!) Horseback riding is a unique form of therapy for kids on the spectrum because it is calming and stimulating, which provides a way for kids to physical regulate their bodies. Beyond that, connecting with the horses and other kids in the group allows those who may struggle socially to make connections they may not be able to otherwise. Scholarships are available for those in need.
Locations in Chatsworth and Newbury Park; check the website for details.
Children’s Ranch Foundation
The Children’s Ranch in Griffith Park is yet another bit of genius created by a mama inspired to help her child and others like her. Jackie Sloan began horseback riding with her own daughter as a therapeutic approach to living on the spectrum. Sloan was struck by the transformative effect riding and caring for animals had on her family and left her job as a practicing attorney to create the Children’s Ranch Foundation.
Working with animals, says Sloan, has a way of drawing children with special needs into a group setting and making social connections. The Ranch offers, therapeutic horseback riding, Ranch Play and Ranch Hands where kids are introduced to the animals and learn to care for them, as well as sibling and parent workshops. The Children’s Ranch is a deep commitment for families and takes a bit of paperwork to get going, but if your family is looking for a deeper therapeutic process, it’s more than worth the effort.
4007 Verdant St.
Do you have any wonderful organizations or activities that are perfect for kids on the spectrum? Please share them with our community in the comment section!
—LeTania Kirkland Smith