Navigate Life Texas: Resources for kids with disabilities and special needs

Navigate Life Texas: Resources for kids with disabilities and special needs

Finding Activities That Work for Your Child

08/10/2016 | Published by: Gloria KreinLinda Litzinger

As parents of children with disabilities and special health-care needs, we think that taking part in group activities is a great way for children to get exercise and learn what it’s like to be part of a team. It’s also a great way for parents like us to get out of the house. But sometimes it can be hard to find the right activity for our children.

Between us, we have 4 children who have a combination of intellectual, physical, and learning disabilities. Linda’s daughter has cerebral palsy. Gloria has a child with an intellectual disability, and all 3 of her children have complex mental health issues.  

We’ve helped our children take part in many different activities, some inclusive, some just for children with disabilities, and some we’ve done on our own. And we wanted to share some of the things we’ve learned along the way.

Inclusive Programs

Some programs or activities are called inclusive because they include children with and without disabilities together. When Linda’s daughter was younger, she took a dance class at a local studio. Linda would be in the classroom to hold her daughter by the waist while she did some of the dance moves. Her daughter also went to a sleepaway Girl Scout camp when she was in 2nd grade. Linda drove out to help after swimming and before bedtime each day. Later, her daughter went to other camps where Linda didn’t need to be there at all.

Gloria’s daughter started gymnastics when she was 4 years old. The gymnastics place had a rule that all children had to be potty trained before they could start. Gloria talked to them about her daughter’s needs and they agreed to try. At first, her daughter had lots of accidents because she was so nervous; they let her wear diapers to get through it. And as her daughter got used to gymnastics, she liked using the bathroom there. The bathroom became an important place to get a break if she was overwhelmed.

Gloria’s son took part in a local baseball league and found that the coach was amazing. He spent extra time every single practice working with Gloria’s son to build his basic skills, like throwing and catching. Toward the end of the season, Gloria’s son caught a fly ball that had been hit to him in the outfield. All of the parents cheered and cheered. He felt like a baseball champion.

There are a few things that we’ve learned are important for making inclusive activities work:

  • Before your child joins a class, team, or camp, talk openly with the coaches and organizers about your child’s abilities and the accommodations or extra help they need. See if the league is going to be able to do what your child needs and if the coach or leader is likely to connect with your child.
  • Think about volunteering with the team or activity.
  • If it makes sense, see if you or the program can get an extra attendant or helper for your child to be trained as part of the program’s staff. If the helper blends in, the other children may not know that your child has a dedicated assistant. We’ve had success finding helpers through college volunteer programs or by asking for help from our local high school’s special education director and honor society coordinator.
  • These activities are good places to help your child learn to be more independent one step at a time. As they get older, you might help them ask coaches, teachers, and teammates for the support they need. You can also sit back to be there for them, but give them room to do as much as they can on their own.
  • Connect with other parents to find out about programs that have worked for other children with disabilities or special health-care needs in your area.
  • Look for organizations like the YMCA, Girl Scouts, Campfire or smaller local gyms, leagues, and studios, and ask if they will accommodate your child. Our page on after school activities has more ideas and information about your rights.

Adaptive Programs

Sometimes, your child might want the comfort of being in a sports league or doing activities where other people also have disabilities or special health-care needs. These are called adaptive programs and there are many around Texas. Not all children will be able to get into every adaptive program. Special Olympics athletes, for example, must have an intellectual disability or cognitive delay.

If your child meets the program guidelines, adaptive programs can be a great experience. Gloria says that doing Special Olympics was the first time her daughter felt completely in her element. She felt very comfortable with her peers there. The coaches met each participant at their level and cheered them on.

Here are a few places to find adaptive programs:

Other Ideas

Sometimes, your child might not want to join a sports program, but it’s still important to get exercise. We’ve found that just having time outside can calm an upset or bored child. Here are some ideas to help your child get outside or be active:

  • Think about visiting your local, county, or state parks. Many have trails accessible to people with disabilities; you can call ahead to ask. Sometimes, you might find a ranger or volunteer to talk to about different plants or animals along the trails. This is great social contact to break up a walk.
  • Go to a school track or playground after hours just to be outside and help your family get a mental or physical reset.
  • Get in touch with a wildlife refuge or animal breeder. Your child might get overwhelmed going to the zoo, but many private refuges or breeders will let you schedule a one-on-one visit if you call ahead.
  • You and your child can keep a notebook or log of ideas of things you like to do out of the house. That way, if you’re tired, but know you want to get out, you might grab the notebook for ideas.
  • Always have an exit plan. If your child gets tired, has a meltdown, or the activity just isn’t fun anymore, know how to leave and have a plan for getting everyone safely back to the car.
  • Remember to plan for the ride home. You’ll all be tired, maybe thirsty and hungry, and probably ready for some “alone” time. Some kids might want the excitement to continue, so it might be a good idea for you (or them) to bring easy car activities.  Gloria lets her kids bring their music and headphones in the car and always has a snack and cold water ready. 

With a little planning, there are many activities that your child can enjoy. We’ve had a lot of successes. And we’ve had some failures. But we’ve always recovered, learned something, and tried again. It’s made our children’s lives – and our own lives – much richer. Without a doubt, doing the work to make activities successful and create lifelong memories of fun together has been worth it.

After School Activities

If you are looking for more ideas about where to find activities for your child, you can see our After School Activities page. It has tips for getting started with activities and how to choose one that works for your child.