Five Ways to Make the Most of Summertime

Boy on Porch Swing Reading a Book

For many children and parents, summertime provides a welcome respite from the stressors of the school year. With freedom from homework, bedtime battles, and morning meltdowns, families have time to slow down, kick back, and enjoy some much-needed R&R. But summertime also offers opportunities to practice social-emotional, physical and recreational skills that can make the coming school year less stressful and more successful. Here are some tips for helping your child make the most of the summer months.

Avoid summer slide
A literature review conducted by David M. Quinn and Morgan Polikoff of the Brookings Institution in 2017 concluded that “on average, students’ achievement scores declined over summer vacation by one month’s worth of school-year learning…” Fortunately, it doesn’t take a great deal of effort to ensure that your student doesn’t regress. According to Scholastic.com, “Research shows that reading just six books during the summer may keep a struggling reader from regressing.” You can also encourage a love of reading by reading aloud to children of all ages.

Discover new hobbies
Exploring interests and trying new things is worthwhile for all people, but for children with disabilities, who may face limitations of one sort or another, finding their unique talents and passions may be even more vital. Summer is a great time to try activities such as adaptive sports, music, art, drama, science or coding. Camps and community-based classes offer an ever-expanding smorgasbord of offerings.

Make friends
The summer season offers children a variety of social situations that aren’t always available during the school year. Camps, whether for children with special needs or for children of differing abilities, can be wonderful settings for making new friends and practicing social skills in a safe and nurturing environment. Likewise, the unstructured play that happens outdoors in the neighborhood, at the pool or in the playground can all be good places to forge friendships.

For example, says Shonna Tuck, writing for the Friendship Circle: “Parks provide primarily sensory (sand, water, etc.) and physical play that developmentally tends to be easier for young children struggling to connect and play with other kids.” You can help your child get started by initiating a game that will attract other children, says Tuck.

If your child has difficulty in social situations, summer is the perfect time to help her improve her interpersonal skills. A fun way for your child to practice these skills is by engaging a “peer mentor,” says Tuck. “…Older children tend to be able to fill in the social gaps of younger kids and provide additional social practice for your child.”

Learn vocational skills
For teens and young adults with special needs, summertime offers a range of vocational training opportunities. For example, “The Workforce Recruitment Program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor connects federal and private sector employers across the country with college students and recent graduates with disabilities seeking summer and/or permanent jobs. Teens and young adults with special needs in Los Angeles can benefit from programs such as The Help Group’s Summer Vocational Training Program. The program offers individual and group activities that expose them to “real world work experience.” There’s a good chance that a program such as this one exists in your neck of the woods.

Enjoy family activities
During the school year, it can be hard to find time for family bonding. Summer vacations, day trips, and recreational activities offer precious opportunities for fun, learning, and strengthening relationships between parents, children and siblings. As Tuck points out, “Children build the strength and resilience they need knowing that they have a place at home and people at home who just ‘get them’ and love them for themselves.”

 

Water Play for Kids with Special Needs Offers Swimmingly Good Times

Boy Playing in Baby Pool

When the weather’s hot and humid, there’s nothing like a dip in the pool. And while swimming in a pool is one of the best ways to cool off, it certainly isn’t the only option. Whether it’s a day at the beach, a physical therapy session at the gym, a hosing off in the driveway or just splashing around in a plastic kiddy pool in the backyard, getting wet is one of the joys of summertime. For people with special needs, waterplay also has additional benefits you may not have considered.  Here are some of the ways in which water can be wonderfully therapeutic.

Increases sensory integration
According to Ilana Danneman, a physical therapist writing for Friendship Circle, “water activities are a tremendous asset to a starved or overactive sensory system. Water can energize, and yet it can also calm.” In the water, people with sensory integration challenges learn to acclimate to water temperature and texture, and may become more comfortable getting water on their faces and in their eyes. These skills can translate into important activities of daily living such as bathing and showering.

Builds strength and flexibility
Wonderbaby.org stresses the value of aquatic therapy for children who are blind or have developmental delays: “Water provides a natural resistance that can increase muscle strength, but this resistance is proportional to the effort exerted against it, so the harder you push or kick, the more of a workout you get. If you can’t push as hard, you get a small work out. The water automatically adjusts to your child’s needs.” Whether your child struggles with high muscle tone or low muscle tone, aquatic therapy is a terrific way to stretch and strengthen muscles.

Improves motor planning skills
Being in the water helps people who face challenges with proprioceptive input, such as those who are blind. “The constant light pressure that surrounds the body in the water is the perfect antidote to this problem,” since that pressure increases body awareness, says Wonderbaby.

Develops balancing skills
Water is a safe place to exercise and to practice balancing since the lack of gravity removes fears of falling on hard surfaces. As Danneman points out, “a baby pool can afford an emergent walker an opportunity to work on gait training and balance skills using a ring or float, much like a floor walker. Kids who are more advanced can walk and play around without the ring.”

Increases socialization and communication opportunities
Water is a great equalizer making it easier for children with mobility challenges to keep up with friends and family members. According to the folks at Kids Craft Room.com, “Water play can be an avenue for children to take their first steps from “playing alongside someone” to actually “playing with someone” as they follow other children’s ideas and join in with them.

Encourages water safety
Swimming lessons are a must for children with disabilities, particularly, children with autism who are prone to wandering. “Tragically, the leading cause of death among individuals with autism after wandering is drowning,” says Autism Speaks. The organization stresses the importance of starting to teach children about water safety and providing swimming lessons as early as possible.

Five Reasons to Institute Family Game Nights in Your Home

It’s the holiday season, and for most of us that means time off from school and work, plenty of social gatherings, and lots more family time. Family game nights are a terrific way for families to spend time together during the holidays and in the upcoming winter months. In fact, write Amber and Andy Ankowski for PBS.org: “Numerous studies have shown that children from families who maintain strong lines of communication through frequent get-togethers like game nights and family dinners enjoy benefits to nearly every aspect of their lives…”

For families with differently abled members, it can be challenging to find games that everyone can enjoy together. But no worries! Enabling Devices’ adapted games make family game nights accessible to people of all abilities including Adapted Pie Face, High Roller, Game Spinner, Hi Ho Cherry O, Tic Tac Toe, and Matching Picture Lotto Bingo.

Wondering why family game nights are so important? Read on to learn more!

Social skills practice
Nowadays, almost any game can be played on our smartphones and iPads. That’s all well and good, but taking a break from our devices forces us to interact with each other face-to-face, something extremely valuable, particularly for children with social skills deficits. Games provide opportunities to practice turn-taking, following rules and directions and to win and lose gracefully. “Many developmental studies show that children that are normally withdrawn for whatever reasons, have shown a lot of improvement in their ability to cooperate with playmates, and have even increased their popularity among their playmates because of skills brought about by playing games,” says Families.com.

Improved motor, dexterity and hand-eye coordination skills
Depending upon their disability, game activities such as rolling dice, shuffling cards and even activating a switch provide opportunities to practice fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination while having fun.

Enhanced academic skills
Most games require players to recognize letters, colors, shapes and numbers strengthening math and reading skills. A 2007 study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that preschoolers who played “linear number board games” showed better “numerical knowledge” than peers who did not.

Increased confidence
Learning skills, having successful interactions with others and improving one’s game-playing abilities naturally result in the development of higher self-esteem.

Fun!
With all the benefits we’ve listed, it’s easy to overlook what’s perhaps the most important benefit of game-playing —having fun with the people we love!  Enjoy the games and enjoy the holidays!

 

Three Cheers for Inclusion

“Step,” a new documentary that won accolades at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and opened earlier this month in theaters across the nation tells the inspiring story of an inner city high school’s girls Step team that overcomes significant obstacles to win their state’s step dance championship. The skills they learn through their team membership help to prepare them for their school’s ultimate goal: To ensure that every member of the team is accepted to college. The film got us thinking: What’s available to girls (and boys) with disabilities in the realm of competitive dance and cheerleading? As it turns out, there’s a lot out there!

In fact, about a week ago, U.S.A. Today reported on a special needs cheerleading squad in Salisbury, Maryland that’s become one of the state’s most successful teams. The “Shooting Stars” is made up of athletes with disabilities ages 7-53. And its team leaders say, all it takes to join the team “is a positive attitude.”

Then there’s this: In partnership with the International Cheer Union, ParaCheer International is currently developing a “new division” of cheerleading for athletes with and without disabilities who cheer together. According to Paracheer’s website, the division “will involve mixed teams of disabled and non-disabled athletes, working together to create a routine that incorporates most of the elements of a current cheerleading routine – jumps, dance, stunts and tumbling ….”

Recently, a hip hop dance team from Fort Myers that includes members who are blind, and have Down’s syndrome was invited to participate in an international dance competition. Team leader, Trish Colecki’s motto? “We may be disabled but we aren’t unable.”

And dance and cheerleading teams aren’t just for kids. Take the L.A.-based Rollettes. Founded by Chelsie Hill, a competitive dancer who lost use of her lower body due to a car accident, the group of six women who all use wheelchairs, dance at festivals for people with varied abilities across the country. Recently, Hill told Today.com, “Of course there are things I miss being able to feel — leaps and kicks and backflips. But when I’m performing, I still feel the same rush that I used to. And when I go on stage, I don’t feel my chair. I don’t feel different. I’m just dancing, and that’s where my heart is.”

But you don’t have to live in Maryland, Florida or California to learn to cheerlead. A nonprofit called The Sparkle Effect teaches communities all over the country how to create cheerleading squads for people with disabilities. The Sparkle Effect began when Sarah Cronk, a 15-year-old high school cheerleader with a brother who is developmentally disabled, was inspired to create an inclusive cheerleading squad—The Sparkles— at her school in Bettendorf, Iowa. Cronk had seen how her brother suffered when he was excluded by classmates, and she was determined to create a vehicle that would bring differently abled students together.

What started as one team in 2008, has grown into an organization that has helped launch 200 cheerleading teams in 30 states and has impacted the lives of more than 10,000 students with and without disabilities.

In 2016, Cronk told People Magazine, “Ultimately, I want to run The Sparkle Effect out of business. I know that sounds crazy, but I want us as a nation to get to a point where inclusion is the norm and not the exception,” says Cronk. “I want us to arrive at a place where we don’t need organizations like The Sparkle Effect because inclusion is just the natural set point for schools nationwide.”

Cheers!

How the Arts Build Skills and Bring Joy

As the summer vacation season comes to an end, many parents have begun making plans for their children’s fall schedules. If your child has special needs, his schedule may be full of therapy appointments, doctor’s visits and tutoring sessions. Though it may be challenging to find time for other extracurricular activities, making space for the creative arts is well worth it. Participation in arts programming can increase children’s self-esteem, improve cognitive, motor and social skills and provides a sense of community that is sometimes hard to find in mainstream school settings. Fortunately, more and more arts education programs across the country are offering classes for children with special needs.

In today’s post, Enabling Devices looks at the benefits of creative arts experiences for children with special needs.

Theater for children with autism spectrum disorders
In recent years, educators and parents across the country have come to recognize that participation in the theater arts are extremely beneficial to children on the autism spectrum.
In a 2016 study, Vanderbilt University professor Blythe Corbett demonstrated how children enrolled in her 10-session, 40-hour program, SENSE Theater were less anxious, more likely to recognize faces, and more capable of understanding different points of view. According to an article by Laura McKenna in The Atlantic, “kids who completed the program had brain-frequency levels that were more similar to children without autism.”

Dance for children with physical disabilities
Mobility challenges needn’t be a deterrent to dancing. Even children who use wheelchairs can enjoy the many benefits of dance classes. According to Strictly Wheels, a UK-based organization that promotes wheelchair dance and runs wheelchair dance classes, these benefits include “Improving fitness and ability through exercise and dance; Boosting self-confidence and self-esteem through participation; Reducing social isolation through inclusion; Increasing personal independence through better ability to use a wheelchair.”

Music for the visually impaired
Research has shown that people who are blind, especially those who have been blind from an early age, are more likely [than those who are sighted] to have absolute or perfect pitch.
“Blind children’s brains undergo radical changes in order to make better use of the sensory inputs they can gather,” says Mic writer Tom Barnes. “Numerous fMRI and lesion studies suggest that individuals blind since childhood repurpose large portions of their visual cortex in order to respond better to auditory stimuli,” writes Barnes. “The younger children are when they lose their sight, the more powerful their auditory cortex can be, thanks to increased neural plasticity in place during infancy/early childhood/young childhood.”

Visual art for children with a variety of special needs
Making art is a wonderful means of creative expression for all children, but for children with disabilities, its benefits can be even greater. Not only does art increase children’s fine motor and cognitive skills, it offers enjoyable and therapeutic multisensory experiences—think finger painting or ceramics. If your child is unable to use her hands to create art, she may be able to hold a paintbrush with her mouth or foot. If that seems far-fetched, just check out the Association of Foot and Mouth Painting Artists website. In fact, writes Nancy Bailey for the online publication, Living in Dialogue, “Even the most severely disabled student can, through their senses, appreciate the joy of the arts.”

Five Tips for Accessible Gardening

Though it happens every year, the arrival of spring is always a source of joy. For many of us, spring is the time for tending lawns, planting flowers, and beautifying decks, patios and window sills. The benefits of being out in nature are well known but bear repeating. According to the Greater Good Science Center at University of California, Berkeley, spending time out of doors in natural spaces reduces stress … makes you happier … relieves attention fatigue, increases creativity … may help you to be kinder and more generous and make you feel more alive.”

Like everyone else, people with disabilities reap tremendous benefits from experiencing nature. Yet, they may face greater challenges when it comes to creating and maintaining their outdoor spaces. Thanks to adaptive gardening tools, and thoughtful landscaping design, the challenges are surmountable. Here are some tips for making gardening accessible to all.

1. Make room for a wheelchair
Make sure paths are flat, hard, and at least three feet wide to accommodate a wheelchair. Paved paths are ideal for wheelchair users but if that’s not possible in your garden, keep grass well-mowed and dirt paths even and well-maintained. If there are stairs in your garden, replace them with a ramp.

 2. Raised Beds
Raised garden beds enable gardeners who use a wheelchair, walker or have difficulty bending over for long periods of time to reach their plants. Jeff Stafford of HGTV.com recommends building beds “to a height of 28 to 30 inches with easy access to the bed center so you can water and tend to the plants from any side.” This will greatly reduce bending over and eliminate gardening on your knees.” Another option for gardeners who need to work while sitting down are table gardens which are simply raised beds that are elevated with room underneath to accommodate a chair.

3. Lighten your load
Minimize the work but keep the garden beautiful by planting more perennials (that come back every year), fewer annuals (that must be replanted every year), and mulching to maintain moisture and decrease the need for weeding.

4. Consider container gardening
Grow plants, vegetables and flowers in pots and other types of containers. You’ll be able to enjoy the beauty of plants and flowers and the nutritional advantages of fresh veggies without putting undue strain on your body.

5. Purchase adapted gardening tools
Adapted tools such as Enabling Devices’ adapted garden spray make a world of difference when it comes to gardening. Other tools to invest in include rolling seats, long handled tools, and support cuffs or add-on handles that make it easier to control and grip gardening tools.

Happy Trails

Well, folks, we’ve made it. We’ve reached the first day of spring. Regardless of what the weather is like in your area, you’re probably looking forward to a time very soon, when you’ll be able to go out and enjoy nature. That’s a good thing! According to the National Wildlife Association’s Be Out There campaign, spending time outdoors has substantial benefits to our physical, psychological and spiritual health and well-being. For children with disabilities, those benefits are even greater says Kathy Ambrosini, director of education at the Mohonk Preserve in New Paltz, N.Y. In addition to her professional credentials, Ambrosini is also the mother of a child with autism.

“For these kids,” says Ambrosini, “time spent in natural settings can offer relief from their symptoms and an environment that helps them to think differently as they begin to craft new strategies for managing their disabilities.”

But, if you or someone you love has a disability, finding safe and accessible places for a hike, bird-watching outing or picnic isn’t necessarily a given. Making the issue more complex is the fact that what’s accessible to one person may not be accessible to another.

Fortunately, a new manual devised by Mass Audubon, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit dedicated to conserving the state’s wildlife, has gone a long way toward setting standards for making trails accessible to nature lovers with a range of disabilities.

Published in November 2016, “All Persons Trails” was designed to offer “guidelines and best practices” for organizations interested in “developing and operating universally designed interpreted trail experiences.” The trails Mass Audubon has designed throughout the state of Massachusetts, and that they hope other states will use as examples, exceed ADA regulations such as accessible restrooms, parking, drop-off zones and access routes and make it possible for adults with disabilities to enjoy the trails independently.

Mass Audubon trails are constructed to safely accommodate wheelchairs, strollers and walkers who require a smooth surface to safely navigate outdoor terrain. Railings, post and rope guiding systems and accessible seating areas are also provided. In addition, trail sites offer audio tours, braille texts and tactile maps, tour booklets and signage designed to be easily legible to the visually impaired, wider boardwalks, interpretive educational content about each site, as well as staff and volunteers trained to support accessible trail experiences. What’s more, all these accommodations are designed to be environmentally responsible and sustainable. For example, special care is taken to use sustainable and recyclable building materials, to avoid undue construction waste and to maintain the ecological balance of each area’s plant and wildlife.

While Mass Audubon is one organization that has taken steps to create accessible trails, they can be found all over the U.S. For a comprehensive list of accessible nature trails, visit AmericanTrails.org.

Winter Fun Made Accessible

iSkate founded by Dorothy Hamill

Few recreational activities can rival the thrill of winter sports. Thanks to a growing number of adaptive winter sports programs, children (and adults) with disabilities can enjoy skiing, skating, ice hockey and sleigh riding.  We’ve compiled this brief guide to adaptive winter sports so you’re prepared to hit the ice or the slopes, just in time for the season’s first big freeze or snowfall.

Ice Skating

Founded by Olympic gold medalist and figure skater, Dorothy Hamill, Kennedy Krieger Institute’s I-Skate program in Baltimore, Md. is an example of a program that gives children with disabilities including cerebral palsy, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, cancer and amputated limbs and paralysis the chance to ice skate. Adaptive ice-skating makes use of equipment such as adaptive ice skates, walkers, ice sleds and helmets to make it possible for skaters to participate safely.

Image of adaptive skating“When I learned to skate,” Hamill told the folks at the KKI, “the motion of gliding on the ice and the fresh air on my face felt like heaven. And learning to handle yourself on the ice, mastering something difficult gives you a sense of pride. I want to give that experience to these children so they will be able to say ‘I can skate.’”

For information about adaptive ice skating programs in your area, visit Gliding Stars.org

Adaptive downhill skiing

There’s nothing new about adaptive skiing. It was first popularized by veterans of World War II, German skier, Franz Wendel and Austrian, Sepp “Peppi” Zwicknagel, who both lost legs during combat. Wendel and Zwicknagel devised ways to adapt their skis so that they could enjoy the physical and psychological advantages of the sport despite their disabilities. According to Disabled World, “For a long time, disability skiing was restricted to amputees, but in 1969, blind skier Jean Eymore, a former ski instructor before he lost his eyesight, began a skiing program in Aspen, Colorado for blind skiers. The first international competition, the World Disabled Alpine Championships, was held in France in 1974.” Today, adaptive ski programs exist all over the world. For information about adaptive skiing in your area, visit Disabled Sports.org.

Adaptive Cross Country (Nordic) Skiing

Nordic skiing doesn’t require a trip to a ski resort, or time spent negotiating long lines and chair lifts. As long as there’s snow, skiers can go outside, get a great cardiovascular workout and enjoy the beauty of nature. Depending upon one’s disability, cross-country skiing can be done standing or sitting and with or without adapted poles. Those with visual impairment will ski with a guide who will give them commands to keep them safe. Skiers who aren’t able to stand can use a “sit ski” that will need to be adjusted for the skier and their particular disability. Note that sit skiing takes a great deal of upper body strength.

Sled Hockey

This fast-growing sport is appropriate for anyone with a disability that prevents them from standing up while playing hockey. One reason that the sport is so popular, says Disabled Sports U.S.A. is its similarity to traditional ice hockey. The only significant difference is that the game is played sitting down. According to the sport’s national governing body, the United States Sled Hockey Association, “Even able-bodied individuals enjoy the sport of sled hockey, but are generally at a disadvantage due to the superior upper body strength of a wheelchair user. Typical athletes have spinal cord injuries, neurological disorders such as CP or spina bifida, loss of one or both legs, or otherwise generically unable to or have difficulty walking.” For information of getting involved in sled hockey in your area, visit the USSHA.

Snow Boarding

One of the newest winter sports, adapted snow boarding is gaining in popularity.  Teaching techniques and equipment for people with a variety of disabilities are quickly evolving and becoming more sophisticated. Updated in 2013, the American Association of Snowboard Instructors’ Adaptive Snowboard Guide provides comprehensive training for instructors interested in working safely and effectively with snowboarders with disabilities. “The sport made its official Winter Paralympic debut in the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia. Classifications exist for deaf competitors, blind competitors, people with physical disabilities and those with intellectual disabilities,” according to Disabled World.

 

Five Extracurricular Activities That Can Benefit Kids With Special Needs

Image of girl with hand covered in fingerpaints

With back to school season on the horizon, many parents are busily scheduling their children’s extracurricular activities. Extracurriculars like sports, performing and fine arts classes, computer clubs and youth groups can do wonders for children’s self-esteem, social lives and skills development. Children with special needs can benefit from activities geared toward their strengths, talents and interests. Increasingly, recreational, arts-based and socialization programs adapted for children with disabilities, are cropping up across the country. Here is a sampling of some of the newest and most innovative extracurricular activities we’ve come across. While the programs mentioned here are not necessarily in your neck of the woods, most likely, you will find similar programs in your own community.

1. Adapted Dance

More and more cities are now offering adaptive dance classes for people with disabilities. Ballet for All Kids, with studios in New York City and Los Angeles offers classical ballet instruction for children with mobility challenges, autism spectrum disorders, blindness, deafness and ADHD using the Schlachte Method, developed by Bonnie Schlachte the program’s founder.

The Music in Motion program, part of the Maryland Youth Ballet in Silver Spring, Maryland offers two classes for children with disabilities, one for children who are able to walk and another for children who use wheelchairs and walkers.

According to Disability World, “the physical benefits of wheelchair dancing include the maintenance of physical balance, flexibility, range of motion, coordination and improved respiratory control. The psychological effects of ballroom dancing are social interaction and the development of relationships.”

2. Skateboarding

In recent years, nonprofit organizations such as SkateMD based in Sacramento, California, The A.skate Foundation in Birmingham, Alabama and Get on Board in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania have raised awareness about the value of skateboarding for children with autism and physical disabilities. Jay Mandarino, founder of the C.J. Skateboard Park and School in Ontario, Canada, first discovered skateboarding’s therapeutic advantages when he was growing up. Mandarino who struggled with depression, anxiety, dyslexia and ADHD found refuge from his troubles in skateboarding. The sport helped him make friends, become physically fit and gave him self-confidence. Now, the park and school he founded offers individualized lessons for children with disabilities including deafness, ADHD, autism spectrum disorders and Down syndrome.

3. Adaptive Painting

Growing up with a foster brother with cerebral palsy who used a wheelchair inspired Dwayne Szot to found Zot Artz, Arts for All, a nonprofit based in Kalamazoo, Michigan that provides “services, programs, art tools and supplies that allow individuals with different levels of abilities to creatively express themselves.” One of Szot’s most amazing creations is the painting wheelchair. Click here, to check it out. Somehow, we think that Szot and Enabling Device’s founder, Steven Kanor would have really hit it off!

Simply ArtAble, a studio in Minneapolis, Minnesota offers classes, parties, special events and drop-in painting classes for people with all types of challenges, including physical disabilities, cognitive and developmental disorders, and mental illness. “The studio is completely wheelchair accessible, including automatic doors, ramps, and adjustable tables that accommodate large, motorized wheelchairs. A quiet area in the back of the studio offers calm for those who get overwhelmed with noise or lots of people.”

4. Musical theater

Musical theater classes and productions are a wonderful way for children with disabilities and interpersonal challenges to blossom. The Los Angeles-based Miracle Project puts children with autism and other special needs together for 22 weeks and culminates in a full-length performance. Similar programming, inspired by the Miracle Project, is offered by Actionplay in New York City.

Beginning next month, the Wolf Performing Arts Center in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania will launch its first-ever Quilt class. Quilt is “a multi-faceted program with both educational and performance opportunities that meets each child where they are.”

Special Gifts Theater in Northbrook, Illinois also offers classes and performance opportunities for children with special needs. According to the program’s website “Theatre arts provides an excellent opportunity for enhancing an individual’s self-esteem and self-confidence; encouraging problem-solving abilities; strengthening listening, focusing, and attention skills; improving communication and fostering cooperation.”

5. Hippotherapy

Horseback riding is both fun and therapeutic. According to the American Hippotherapy Association, “Hippotherapy may have positive effects on a patient’s posture, muscle tone, and balance. The movement of the horse engages muscles used for walking and encourages postural responses which can help to improve trunk control, core strength, motor planning, sensory processing and respiratory function for speech production.”

At Rocking Horse Rehab in Orange, New Jersey, occupational, speech/language and physical therapists use hippotherapy and developmental riding to help children with a variety of disabilities including cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorders, neuro-musculoskeletal disorders, traumatic brain injuries and sensory processing disorders.

To find a hippotherapy facility near you, visit the American Hippotherapy Inc. Association’s website.

Nine Tips to Create a Playgroup

Cartoon of children's playgroup

Being the parent of a special needs child can be isolating.  So many activities are off limits due to accessibility concerns, behavioral problems and communication challenges. It’s hard enough coping with your own loneliness, but knowing your child struggles to make friends is heartbreaking for most parents.  One way to break down barriers and find social opportunities for you and your child is by hosting an inclusive playgroup where children with special needs and typically developing children play together. Children with special needs may benefit from observing typically developing peers, and those without developmental challenges will learn from and come to appreciate their peers with special needs.

We’ve put together some guidelines for making playgroups successful.

1.  Organize playgroups around developmental age

If your child has a disability, she may not be functioning at the same level as typically developing children of her own age. Your child may have more success playing with children who match her developmental, not her chronological age.

2.  Keep it small

Children with special needs can be easily over-stimulated and overwhelmed so it’s wise to limit the number of children in the playgroup to no more than four or five.

3.  Be consistent

Children with special needs often have trouble adapting to change. So keep group norms as consistent as possible. Don’t invite guests without warning your child first, and try keeping the playgroup’s schedule regular. It’s also worthwhile to come up with some ground rules regarding behavior expectations for all group members. Unless rules are clear, conflicts between children and parents can sabotage relationships and the longevity of the group.

4.  Prepare a couple of simple activities

Children with developmental disabilities such as autism may be challenged when it comes to reciprocal, spontaneous and imaginative play. If that’s the case for your child, prepare a few activities that you know your child and the other children in the group are likely to enjoy. Crafts projects play dough, or sing-alongs work well with most children.

5.  Have snacks

Provide healthy but child-friendly snacks. Since some children may have dietary restrictions be sure to discuss options with parents beforehand. Better yet, ask parents to bring their own snacks if they have concerns about what’s being served.

6.  Safety First
Make sure the designated playgroup area is free of breakable objects, sharp edges or uncarpeted surfaces. If children are under 3 years old or have oral sensory processing issues, be careful not to put out toys with small pieces that can be choking hazards. If you have the space, consider creating an indoor gymnasium with soft play products.  Ball pits, soft play blocks, tunnel climbers and patchwork floormats get kids moving, and having fun for hours.

7.  Be patient

If your child’s disability affects his social skills, don’t expect friendships to develop overnight. Focus on making sure that everyone has fun and feels comfortable so that parents and children want to meet again. In time, you may be surprised of the relationships that form.

8.  Keep it short and sweet

A playgroup that lasts more than two hours is flirting with disaster. Regardless of their developmental age, most young children become over-stimulated, tired and irritable after a certain point.

9.  Playgroups in the community

If you aren’t up to creating your own playgroup, don’t give up on the idea. Plenty of community organizations including Lekotek, Where I Can Be Me, and your local YMCA or JCC offer playgroups that are staffed by professionals. Meetups are another great source for connecting with other families with special needs children.