Special Needs Families: Creating Summer Fun!



When a family member has challenges in the areas of learning, behavior, or mobility, going into a summer adventure can take more planning, thought, proactivity, and research. But that doesn’t need to be a barrier to creating fun for the whole family to enjoy.

Summertime is synonymous with BBQ’s, swimming, stargazing, and sleeping in right? Well, maybe. For some parents, a lot of parents actually, summertime can mean searching for childcare when school is out, transitions in therapies, attempting to keep a consistent routine, keeping children occupied/safe/engaged/having fun….it’s a lot of legwork!

“How can I create easy fun for my child as well as my whole family?” “How can I integrate learning into having fun so my child continues developing and is ready for when school starts again?” These are questions of many parents raising children with special needs. These are also the kinds of questions that we at Rethink, a healthcare technology company providing support and training to parents of special needs children, are discussing during this time of year with our parents.

When a family member has challenges in the areas of learning, behavior, or mobility, going into a summer adventure can take more planning, thought, proactivity, and research. That, however, doesn’t need to be a barrier to creating fun for the whole family to enjoy. Fortunately, more and more organizations designed to create family fun are jumping on board and being more mindful of how they can better accommodate all guests with all abilities. Parents are also becoming even more savvy at advocating for accessibility and carving ways for their family to have fun while sneaking in learning along the way! Here are a few considerations for creating a fun summer the whole family can enjoy together:


Across the country, more movie theatre organizations have created environments for ALL families to come and enjoy their favorite characters. The sensory-friendly showings of films come with a “lights up, sound down, no previews, run around” concept, making it a more comfortable atmosphere for parents who may otherwise be worried or embarrassed by a tantrum, loud talking, singing, or an energetic child running up and down the aisles. These showings have increased in popularity over the years and theatres now offer them multiple times each month. The Autism Society is a large partner in this concept and parents can learn more about the history behind sensory friendly movies by visiting http://www.autism-society.org/. Some participating theatres that parents can check out are:


Looking back just 20 years, playgrounds were full of hot, metal slides, chipping wood, and absent of ramps. Today, with both the help from advocates in communities across the country as well as guidelines within the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), playgrounds are being built to be accessible and inclusive. This simply means they are built for everyone, regardless of their abilities. These parks have aspects such as wheelchair accessible platforms, specifications for the width of routes leading to the playground, slope specifications, and rules like ground level  upper body equipment must be intended for use by someone using a mobility device. These playgrounds provide safe and engaging environments where the whole family can enjoy fun in the sun together. Families can find playgrounds near their homes at:


Similar to movie theatres and playground builders, many of our theme parks are updating their policies and resources to better support all their guests. From guests accessing the rides and attractions themselves, to providing special services such as sign language interpreters, quiet rooms, and listening devices, this culture has spanned outside the US to several international parks. Disney, in particular, is world-renowned for being mindful of the unique needs of families. They dedicate specific care to a variety of needs and even have unique branches of their website for cognitive, visual, mobility, or hearing disabilities, light sensitivities, service animals, and more. Here are a couple of considerations for families who are interested in a theme park adventure:


Going on a family vacation can certainly make forever memories for kids and parents alike. Family vacations can also get tricky with all the logistics and planning. Luckily, many brave parents have paved the way and have left great tips for special needs families to have a successful trip where everyone has fun:

1. Day trip: If parents are new to vacationing with children, they might try starting small with a day trip. They can write down all the things that worked and didn’t work when they return to make the next trip even more successful.
2. Camping: Not only are there ample learning opportunities with the environment and activities, it’s also inexpensive and there are usually fewer people around. Parents can set up a rotating family “watch” system so each person takes turns being the designated “watcher” if someone in the family requires 24/7 supervision. That ensures the individual is always cared for and gives respite to other family members during the trip.
3. Flying: There is a lot to juggle when flying with children so splitting up and having one person board first with the gear and having another person board last with the children can decrease the in-plane time. Some airlines are now offering trial runs for families to practice steps such as progressing through security before their big trip. Additionally, the Friendship Circle has prepared a great pre-flight checklist for parents to reference:
4. Accommodations: These days, there are travel agents, cruise lines, and family camps dedicated to helping special needs families build a fun family vacation. Some cruise lines even hire specially trained staff to provide respite care as well as private activities to allow guests to use their entertainment venues with accommodations. Families may look into:


Sometimes, summer fun is waiting just outside the front door or literally on the kitchen floor. This is where parents 0001acan create many opportunities not only for fun but also for learning. Many parents worry about regression of skills during those slower, more relaxed summer days, but with a little creative thinking and planning, they can start thinking in such a way where they naturally integrate teachable opportunities into everyday life. It takes some practice but parents can be extremely effective teachers.

It’s important to branch out beyond academics when thinking about preventing skill regression during summer. Parents can sneak in learning opportunities at every turn with a little prep work. Thinking about the child’s goals, challenges, and what is motivating to them can make up a recipe for a fun learning experience. Sometimes it’s helpful for parents to make a list of goals or hopeful skills as a visual reminder for themselves to practice each day or week and hang it on the refrigerator. Thinking about how to integrate those skills into everyday life is a great exercise for parents with the hopes of it becoming more automatic over time. For example, if a child who is working on increasing his verbal communication wants to enjoy a popsicle with his brother on a hot, summer day, a parent can help facilitate that language acquisition by encouraging a request, either with a point, word/sound approximation, or sentence first before giving him the popsicle.

0001Another child may be working on her gross and fine motor skills. A parent may hold back from simply opening the popsicle wrapper for her to encourage a natural learning opportunity and providing prompting only where needed. Both examples integrate motivation and happen very incidentally.

Aside from the everyday integration of learning, parents can plan extra special learning opportunities that are pure fun for the whole family. Children with varying levels of abilities and their whole family can work together to engage in part or all of the below:

Many parents agree that today, organizations and family-friendly locations have made efforts towards more inclusive and accessible accommodations. Families are branching out to explore new adventures during the summertime and enjoying time together where everyone can participate and have a wonderful time. Parents are not afraid to advocate and educate organizations about how to better support all guests, making the experience better for everyone. Parents also know how many children with special needs benefit from consistent opportunities for learning and they strive to facilitate that even in the laziest, hottest days of summer on their own.

0001aaRegardless of whether they’re out and about, or relaxing at home, summer is supposed to be fun, and parents are  making it happen!•

canvasAngela Nelson is a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA) and has a master’s degree in educational psychology and counseling. She is the Executive Director of Family and Clinical Services at Rethink, a healthcare technology company that provides resources, training, and support to parents, special educators, and clinicians. Angela’s  division, Rethink Benefits, provides teleconsultation services and guidance to parents utilizing Rethink as a free health and wellness benefit from their employers. Rethink works with large and small companies worldwide who know the importance of providing support to their employees raising children with disabilities. To learn more about Rethink, visit www.rethinkbenefits.com.