San Diego is home to a diverse array of awesome families––and a growing list of local businesses strive to be all-inclusive and accommodating for kids of all backgrounds. If your child is on the spectrum, we’ve found 13 amazing, autism-friendly experiences that are designed to cater to their needs. From equine therapy and gymnastics to tennis and museum-going, read on for our top picks.

San Diego Children's Discovery Museum

Get ready to explore! The first Sunday of the month from 9-10 a.m is sensory-friendly. Wake-up and investigate the museum with special activities geared for those on the spectrum. Also good to know that during sensory-friendly mornings the museum offers a designated quiet space located in the indoor classroom. Even more, you'll get family time in an accepting setting. Also, after 2 p.m. daily this museum has quiet times.

Cost: $8/person

San Diego Children's Discovery Museum
320 N. Broadway
Escondido, CA 92025

Sensory-Friendly Night at PlayWerx

Jump, climb and play with other little ones on the spectrum. Every second Thursday from 6-8 p.m. head to Playwerx for fun and food. Further, meet other families with kids on the spectrum. Secondly, enjoy an evening free of judgment. There are tables for parents to sit and talk while they watch the crew. 

Cost: $8/child; plus there is a snack bar.

6060 Avenida Encinas
Carlsbad, CA 92011

Halloween Dance Party

It's a boo-tiful thing. Dress up (optional) and celebrate Halloween and dance, dance, dance at this party. Parents get in for free with tickets for little ghouls an goblins ($3 each). Amp up the volume more with a VIP pass and your kiddo will get a special badge.

Date: Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018
Time: 6-8 p.m.

Boys & Girls Club
4635 Clairmont Mesa Dr.
San Diego, CA 92117

Sensory Playtime with STEAM

It's time to get hands-on at your local library. On the first Sunday of the month, the La Mesa Library opens an hour early (11 a.m.) for this tactile event. Little learners get to touch and play and engage in friendly-play. Truly the best part is you can make noise and move about! 

La Mesa Branch Library
8074 Allison Ave.
La Mesa, CA 91942

Family Gymnastics Night

Just roll with it! Every third Saturday of the month (check the calendar to be sure!) head to the gymnastics center of the Magdalena Ecke YMCA for a running, jumping and swinging good time. The fun takes place from 4-6 p.m for families with little ones on the spectrum. Also, there is no childcare at this event so it's truly a family affair. Even more, they'll serve pizza so everyone leaves full and happy. You can bring a side dish or dessert to share.

Cost: $5 donation per family recommended

Magdalena Ecke Gymanstics Center
6100-B Avenida Encinas
Carlsbad, CA 92011

Horse N’ Around

Clippity-Clop! Let your littles brush the soft hair of a horse and learn to get-up and sit on its back. Your little rider may let out a quiet, “giddy-up” while learning to direct and ride the horse. You may say a little “yee-ha” at your child's developing balance and hand-eye coordination. If you live in North County, sign-up for the six-week therapeutic riding lessons at Ivey Ranch Park. In the La Mesa area, Partners Therapeutic Horsemanship works with special needs riders. And in Rancho Santa Fe, Helen Woodward Center Animal Center teaches autistic kids to ride.

Helen Woodward Animal Center
Therapeutic Riding
6461 El Apajo
Rancho Santa Fe, CA 92067

Partners Therapeutic Horsemanship
15665 El Monte Rd.
Lakeside, CA 92040

photo: Rachel Cobb

San Diego Botanic Garden

Nothing says nurture like the San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas. Tots can walk through a kid-sized garden house, say a little choo-choo at the outdoor train village, or dig a ditch in the dinosaur playground (all found at the Seeds of Wonder). Bigger explorers can traverse to the treetops, play with petite boats in the creek, or join a garden game of tic-tac-toe (all found in the Hamilton Children’s Garden). We love the fact that nature is grounding and calming.

Hours: Daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Cost: $18/adult; $10/kiddo; 2 and under free; parking $2

230 Quail Gardens Dr.
Encinitas, CA 92024

photo: Pretend City

Family Autism Event at Pretend City

This special evening is an opportunity for kids and their parents, siblings and caretakers to have some fun in an autism-friendly environment along with other families. Many of the museum's community partners, who specialize in supporting children on the autism spectrum, will be on-hand to enrich your family’s play experience with welcoming smiles and practical support.

Hours: Last Monday of the month, 5-7:30 p.m.
Cost: Free

Pretend City
29 Hubble
Irvine, CA 92618

Serve 'Em Up

Tennis is super easy and accessible with Aceing Autism. Your little sports-star can feel the victory when the tennis ball meets the strings and also say hello to some new friends. Shorter courts and softer balls makes tennis simple and social. Dust off those tot-sized tennis shoes and serve-up an ace for autism.

Omni La Costa Resort
2100 Costa Del Mar Rd.
Carlsbad, CA 92009

Reuben H. Fleet Science Center

Future scientists will feel at ease when the Science Center opens its doors one hour early for families of autistic kids to tinker, discover and think. Catch the first IMAX film screening that runs with more lighting and lower sound. Little inventors can pull levers and turn knobs moving balls down a wall, shop for groceries, or experiment with air. Bigger kids can build a skyscraper; learn about cells, electricity, and tornadoes, all in a comfortable environment that’s creative and fun. If things get too exciting, a calm cool-off space will be available.

Hours: 3rd Saturday of the month, 9 a.m. (an hour before opening); IMAX showing at 10 a.m.
Cost: $21.95/adult; $18.95/kiddo (3-12); free for kids under 3

Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
Balboa Park
1875 El Prado
San Diego, CA 92101

Let's Go to the Movies!

Going to the movies doesn’t have to be a challenge. AMC Theaters raises the lights and lowers the sound on the second and fourth Saturday of each month for families with kids on the autism spectrum. They also allow walking and talking during specific showtimes. So now you can catch the latest shows in a more comfortable setting.

Tip: The sensory-friendly show times are listed on the website. However, movie times come out about every Wednesday. If you’re planning ahead, you can always call the theater and ask.

Hours: 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month

AMC Mission Valley
1640 Camino Del Rio North
San Diego, CA 92108
Online: amctheatres/sensory-friendly-films

AMC Palm Promenade
770 Dennery Rd.
San Diego, CA 92154
Online: amctheatres/sensory-friendly-films

Natural History Museum

Feel the Nat’s welcome on ASD mornings. Let your littles explore a quiet, more manageable museum an hour early. Walk with the dinosaurs, settle back and see the Ocean Oasis film, shown with the lights turned-up and the sound turned-down. Relax in a theater with less people and more room. Wander downstairs to see the habitats of Southern California, or explore the Coast to Cactus exhibit (complete with RV and camping). Join other autistic families at this early exploratory hour. Need a little silence? A room is provided — away from the event —to recharge.

Insider’s Tip: You need to call ahead and reserve a spot.

Hours: 2nd Sunday of the month, 9 a.m. (an hour before opening)
Cost: $19.95/adult; $11.95/youth (3-17); Children two and under are free.

San Diego Natural History Museum
Balboa Park
1788 El Prado
San Diego, CA 92101

photo: Gabby Cullen

Monthly Family Pool Party

Swim around a saltwater pool at this monthly indoor swim party. Perfect pool temperature paired with free family fun, complete with pizza, drinks and lifeguards.

Hours: 2nd Friday of the month, 6–8 p.m.
Cost: free ($5 donation for food appreciated)

San Diego Autism Society & Aqua Pros
(Boys & Girls Club indoor pool)
4635 Clairemont Mesa Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92117

Featured image: Rachel Cobb/San Diego Botanic Garden

––Nikki Walsh


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