Ideas to help parents get out of the house with children who have special needs

Getting out of the house with your children can be quite an ordeal.

Ideas to try

When it comes to selecting a new activity for your child with
developmental differences, it can be hard to know where to start.
According to Lorell Marin, director of LEEP Forward, and Ellen
Sternweiler, owner of The Sensory Kids Store at Bellybum, here are
some inclusive and supportive activities for children of various

  • The Red Kite Project. It’s a branch of the
    Chicago Children’s Theatre that creates theatrical adventures and
    learning experience for children with autism and special needs. The
    current show, Red Kite, Brown Box, runs through March 1.
  • AYSO VIP Soccer. The Buddy Program pairs
    students with kids with special needs to have buddies to help them
    at practice and games.
  • Go Time Chicago Karate. A martial arts program
    that is supportive of helping kids with sensory issues, such as
    reducing the lights and noise. Lessons offered one on one and in
  • Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. The museum
    holds special events adapted to support children with developmental
  • Jump Sky High. Once a month, it offers a day
    when they turn off the music and dial down distractions for
    children with special needs.
  • Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The interactive
    Family Matinees are open to all children, including those with
    special needs.
  • AMC Theatres. On a monthly basis, AMC offers
    Sensory Friendly Films where the lights are turned up and the sound
    is turned down.


Yet, experiences outside of the home are important to a child’s growth and social development. For children with developmental differences, trying new activities requires a completely different approach.

According to Lorell Marin, director and founder of LEEP Forward, families of children with special needs often feel isolated or trapped at home because of the fear of meltdowns or having to explain their child’s differences.

“It can be very isolating for these families, and they often are not participating in as many community activities,” Marin says. “But in reality, these families need a sense of community and just have to take some extra steps to find the right activities for their children.”

Ellen Sternweiler, a Chicago mom of three children with developmental differences, knows first-hand the challenges of feeling included and part of everyday society.

In response to her own inability to find resources and items for her children, Sternweiler opened The Sensory Kids Store at Bellybum, where parents of kids with developmental differences can find what they need in a typical and inviting store environment and shopping experience.

“Considering that one in six families has a child diagnosed with developmental disabilities, there is no such thing as typical anymore,” says Sternweiler. “It’s about time inclusion extends beyond classrooms and becomes a part of everyday life activities. Differences are beautiful and need to be supported.”

When looking for new activities or classes for your child, Marin suggests focusing on how to set your child up for success.

“Think about your child’s sensory needs prior to picking activities and know their sensitivities when searching for programs,” Marin says. “If they are sensitive to noise, look for smaller groups. If they are easily distracted, avoid activities where multiple classes are spaced closely together. If they are upset by unexpected events, choose classes inside rather than outside to eliminate the element of surprise.”

Marin also suggests once you select an activity, visit the space with your child beforehand and even try to meet the instructor in advance to start building a relationship.

“You can walk through step by step and see what distractions or issue there may be.”

She says watching videos online or creating a social story about the activity helps.

For children with developmental differences, parents’ goals may not be about their child playing the sport or creating the art, but rather about socializing with peers in an inclusive environment.

“Inclusion may take time and a few extra steps, but stay positive,” Marin says. “It builds a sense of belonging for the child and family to be part of a community and it helps the child’s sense of self-esteem grow when they are included.”

If a new activity doesn’t work out the first time, Sternweiler recommends parents don’t get too frustrated or disappointed.

“We all have hits and misses as parents of special needs kids. Just because an activity didn’t work right away doesn’t mean it never will,” Sternweiler says. “For example, our first attempt at a water park was a complete disaster and now our kids love them.”

Sternweiler emphasizes that your child will never learn to acclimate if you don’t try inclusive activities.

“If it’s possible to be in an inclusive environment, it benefits the kids with developmental differences and the children without challenges,” she says. “Kids need to be exposed to the differences among us because it makes them better people and benefits everyone involved.”

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