New York City offers countless cultural events and fun kid-friendly activities for all families, including those of children with special needs. Visit the museums, local community centers, and more for special programming that is created with your child with special needs in mind.
Children with special needs, disabilities, or sensory issues can face certain challenges when it comes to connecting with peers and making friends, especially when many are uncomfortable or unable to participate in all kid-friendly activities. Here, a list of kid-friendly venues in New York City and its boroughs, including museums and the public libraries, that dedicate time and space for children with special needs and all abilities to have fun, play, and most importantly, and interact and make friends with each other.
Accessible Shows Under the Big Top
For more than 25 years, the Big Apple Circus has presented Circus of the Senses, a special show for vision- and hearing-impaired audience members, free of charge. Gather beneath the Big Apple Circus’s Big Top tent to experience a unique performance. Headsets will be provided to children with vision impairments, who will hear a lively, running description of the action in the ring. Spotlighted American Sign Language interpreters narrate the show to the hearing-impaired. Large-print, Braille programs are available, and scripts are sent to groups in advance of the performance to help them prepare for their Big Top experience. Prior to the performance, volunteers bring costume fabrics and other materials and props for sight–impaired children in the audience to feel, to help them better understand the show as it is being audio described. Following the hour-long performance, a group of sight–impaired children will be invited into the ring for a “touch session.” They will be able to feel the sawdust, touch the fabric of the elegant costumes, and meet some of the performers—both the two–legged and the four–legged ones.
To learn more and to request tickets to the performance, visit bigapplecircus.org/circus-of-the-senses.
The circus also recently began presenting autism-friendly shows featuring adjusted lights and sound, calming centers, pictorial social narratives, and plenty of folks to assist in creating a memorable event for everyone. Check for tickets at bigapplecircus.org.
Broadway for All
Autism Theatre Initiative, a program of the NYC-based nonprofit Theatre Development Fund, regularly presents autism-friendly theater performances. The program has included Broadway shows such as The Lion King and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark as well as performances of Disney Junior Live on Tour. Shows are typically in Midtown Manhattan, either in Broadway theaters or at Madison Square Garden.
Visit tdf.org/autism to sign up to receive notifications on future performances.
For those with physical disabilities, TDF also presents ASL Interpreted/Audio Described/Open Captioned Performances, which help make Broadway shows more enjoyable for people who have limited hearing or sight. For tickets to these performances, you must apply for a TDF Accessibility Membership at tdf.org/tap (there’s no fee, but you must have a documented physical limitation to apply).
Meet Your Seat at the New Victory Theater
The New Victory Theater in Times Square (229 W. 42nd St.) regularly hosts special shows for those with disabilities, including autism-friendly performances. The theater partnered with Autism Friendly Spaces, Inc. to modify these performances as follows: a relaxed atmosphere in the theater that allows kids to move around and make noise, limited capacity to ensure comfort, an activity area in the lobby, calming corner, gender-neutral family restroom, lower sound levels and advance warning of any startling noises, partially dimmed house lights, and trained autism support specialists on-hand. Families who have never been to the theater are invited to “meet their seat” in advance of each performance and explore the lobbies and seating areas. For more info or to buy tickets, visit new42.org.
The Autism Society partners with select local AMC Loews theaters to present Sensory-Friendly Films, during which the lights stay up, the sound is turned down, and children with autism and/or sensory issues can feel free to get up and dance, shout, or sing as needed. See a full list of participating theaters in NYC.
More than Reading at the Library
The Brooklyn Public Library has launched The Child’s Place for Children with Special Needs, which is dedicated to providing unique programs for children with and without disabilities (from newborn to age 12). These free programs, which include read and play activities, gardening workshops, and educational events for parents, are hosted at the following library locations:
• Flatlands Library, 2065 Flatbush Ave., 718-253-4948 (voice), 718-253-5034 (TTY)
• Greenpoint Library, 107 Norman Ave., 718-349-8504
• Red Hook Library, 7 Wolcott St., 718-935-0203
• Saratoga Library, 8 Thomas S. Boyland St., 718-573-5224
• Sunset Park Library, 5108 Fourth Ave., 718-567-2806
These five Brooklyn Public Libraries are wheelchair accessible, and staff members are specially trained to work with children who have special needs.
Get Movin' at the Y
The Samuel Field Y offers a twice-weekly after-school program for preschool-aged children (ages 3-6) with developmental disabilities. This year-round program features adaptive physical education followed by a professionally facilitated play experience in a personalized setting.
Programs are ongoing and may be joined at any time. Supportive assistance for parents and activities for siblings are also provided. Cost is $5 (scholarship assistance is available). For more information, contact Robin Topol, director of special services, at [email protected] or 718-225-6750 x259.
Monday Magic: Learn & Play
Bay Terrace Center of the Samuel Field Y, 212-00 23rd Ave., Bayside
Gym & Creative Exploration
Samuel Field Y, 58-20 Little Neck Parkway, Little Neck
The Y also offers a monthly Special Teens program that meets on Sunday afternoons and is geared for high-functioning and independent teens with developmental disabilities. Contact Robin Topol for more information.
Brooklyn's Sensory Museum
The Sensory Room at the Brooklyn Children's Museum (open year-round, Tuesday and Thursday 3-4:45pm and Saturday-Sunday 2-4:45pm) allows kids with special needs (especially ASD) to engage and explore their senses using interactive equipment. The museum is located at 145 Brooklyn Ave., Crown Heights. For more info, call 718-735-4400 or visit brooklynkids.org.
The Met for Children with Special Needs
The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Manhattan’s Upper East Side hosts several programs for visitors with disabilities.
Deaf or Hearing Loss
For visitors who are deaf, the museum regularly presents sign language-interpreted gallery talks, and some family programs are presented in ASL. Sign language interpreters can also be requested for specific museum programs. For visitors with hearing loss, a limited number of FM assistive listening devices are available at the Audio Guide Desk in the Great Hall.
Blind or Low Vision
The Met hosts regular programs for visitors who are blind or partially sighted, including the monthly Picture This! series in which children (ages 5-17) and their families can explore works of art using all of their available senses. Upcoming workshops are scheduled for May 4 (Amazing Faces: Exploring Masks) and July 20 (Artistic Clothing). The program is free but registration is required. You can also request a Guided Touch Tour of the Egyptian galleries, a visit to the Touch Collection, or a Verbal Imaging Tour of the museum.
Developmental and Learning Disabilities
The museum offers multisensory workshops for children ages 6-17 and adults that include tactile opportunities and art-making activities. Upcoming workshops are scheduled for April 21, Sounds of Art; May 5 and May 19, Night at the Museum;, and July 21 and Aug. 11, Clay Creations. These workshops are free, but registration is required.
To register for these programs or sign up to receive bimonthly listings of these events via email, call 212-650-2010 or email [email protected]
Family Time at NYSCI
The New York Hall of Science in Queens (47-01 111th St., Corona) now hosts free Family Science Adventures for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Young kids (ages 3-5) with ASD, along with their parents and siblings, can participate in hands-on science experiments and sensory-rich art projects. Workshops are limited to 10 children, who can practice focus and concentration, social cognition, collaboration and teamwork, listening and comprehension skills, and more.
Bounce It Out
Many play facilities offer Sensory Bounce sessions or similar programs for children with sensory integration dysfunction, autism, and other disabilities with a sensory component. NYC residents can check out Space No. 1 in Brooklyn, which offers open play with a ball pit, variety of swings, mountains of “foofs” and “crash pads,” gymnastic mats, and more.
The complete guide to fun for families in the NYC area with kids who have special needs