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All Ages

10 Museums with Special Programs for Special Needs Children

See recent posts by Barbara & Jim Twardowski

Whether on vacation or near home, children’s museums are a wonderful place for families to bond. Kids love the carefully crafted playgrounds, where they are free to imagine, explore, create and learn.

For children with special needs, however, outings can be difficult if they are limited by mobility challenges, struggle to communicate, or become easily overwhelmed with stimuli. Luckily, more and more museums are reaching out to children with special needs. From designing wheelchair accessible exhibits to offering sensory-sensitive visiting hours for children on the Autism Spectrum, museums are evolving to advance inclusion.

We’ve highlighted 10 children’s museums across the country and some of the ways they are accommodating families who have children with special needs. These are the best museums for special needs children.

Written by Barbara & Jim Twardowski, RN


DuPage Children's Museum

Families with special needs children can participate in DuPage Children's Museum's Third Thursday event for special needs children, when the facility remains open an extra two hours. During this inclusive and typically quieter time, parents will find a resource table with information on local organizations serving the disability community. Kids can also interact with Alex, the therapy dog. The sheltie and his owner are official DuPage Children"s Museum (DCM) volunteers.

Once a month, DCM's art studio introduces a different sensory-based activity. Its S.M.A.R.T. Cafe -- which offers vegetarian and gluten-free entrees -- also allows children to select a meal by pointing to the pictures on the menu.

The museum offers a long list of adaptive equipment and resources, including children's books in Braille, noise-reducing headphones, adult-size wheelchairs, adaptive rods for Glow Art and a visual communication system.


Children's Museum of Pittsburgh

The entire Children's Museum of Pittsburgh is accessible by ramp and elevator, except for the Gravity Room in the Attic. Trained staff members can assist guests with special requests, and items available for borrowing during a visit include wheelchairs, sound-blocking headphones, sensory blankets and vests, wrist assistance cuffs and Versatile Velcro lap tables, which adjust to fit most wheelchairs.

The museum's exhibits are described from a child's perspective in the booklet, "Museum Stories." Written especially for children with developmental disabilities, the booklet incorporates visual messages about what to expect at each exhibit. Parents can download the guide before visiting and plan what is most appropriate for their child.


Please Touch Museum

Popular in Philadelphia, the Please Touch Museum's "Play Without Boundaries" event for special needs children strives to make visiting the museum comfortable and fun for families -- even before they arrive. Parents can download "Museum Stories," a 16-page booklet with photographs that depict everything from waiting in line at the entrance to dressing up as an astronaut in Space Station. Accessibility and inclusion trained staff members can direct families needing a sensory break to the "Quiet Space of the Day," too.

Also, the popular Please Touch Playhouse Theater presents 25-minute performances every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at select times, and offers wheelchair accessibility.

Puppets stroll the museum talking to children and creating opportunities for improvisational dramatic interactions. Some of the playful characters include Dr. Penny, who encourages children to wash their hands; Benny Bear and his teddy, inseparable best friends; Gus the Bus Driver, who is a jokester; and Melita, who enjoys making new friends and showing her wheelchair flair.


Seattle Children's Museum

Throughout the year on select Saturdays, the Seattle Children's Museum dims the lights and adjusts the sound in an event for special needs children. "Sensory Sensitivity Hours" is a partnership with Autism Speaks. Admission rates are reduced, but must be purchased online, which allows the museum to adjust their staffing. Every Friday morning at 11:30 a.m., families can "hear" stories during the Visually Speaking program. The organization, Visually Speaking, specializes in teaching children from birth through age 12 how to communicate with sign language.


Boston Children's Museum

At Boston Children's Museum, children with special needs and their families will find the museum is accessible, welcomes service animals, and offers regularly scheduled ASL (American Sign Language) interpreted programs. A limited number of wheelchairs (child and adult size), strollers, sound-reducing ear muffs, and amplified listening devices for KidStage Theater performance are available at no charge.

The Morningstar Access Program opens the museum doors to children with special/medical needs at scheduled times throughout the year. Attendance is limited to 100 guests -- enabling children and their families to enjoy the museum with less concern regarding crowds (pre-registration is required).

Parents will find a range of helpful tools on the museum's website from a downloadable large print map of the facility to details on where to find quiet spaces throughout the museum. Typically, guests will enjoy a quieter museum experience during afternoons on school weekdays.

Chicago Children's Museum

The Chicago Children's Museum (CCM) is a standout when it comes to events for special needs children. The museum's "Play for All" events, held the second Saturday of each month, invite families and children with disabilities to the museum an hour prior to the usual opening. Pre-registration is required and the first 250 visitors receive free admission. Staff members participate in ongoing professional development to better assist those with special needs.

One of the few museums to design its exhibits in-house -- from conception through construction -- the CCM frequently partners with local organizations to add handicap-accessible features to special programs, too.

Children's Museum of Indianapolis

The Children's Museum of Indianapolis -- the largest of its kind -- strives to make its nearly 475,000 square feet of space accessible, and incorporates universal design elements into its building, as well as exhibits. The National Geographic Treasures of the Earth includes adjustable exhibits, accessible dig pits and an exciting elevator "transport" entry. Along the walls of the exhibit, dig spaces are positioned at varying heights, so children who are unable to enter the pit area can hunt for a fossil. Touchable elements are included in all exhibits for those with visual impairments, and the historic carousel is a popular feature that can also accommodate a wheelchair.

Miami Children's Museum

One Saturday each month, the Miami Children's Museum closes to the general public and opens its doors for a special event for special needs children and their families. The "Sensory Saturday" program provides modified lighting and sound adjustments. After engaging in art and music therapy or a yoga class, kids can relax in a cool down room. Without the large crowds, children can participate in creative performances and imaginative play while practicing social interaction, communication skills and self-expression in a non-threatening environment. A color-coded sound level map of the museum, inside an illustrated storybook guide, helps parents plan a visit according to their child's individual needs.

The Golisano Children's Museum

Sensory Nights are designed for children on the Autism Spectrum or with other types of sensory integration disorders. Lighting and sounds are muted throughout the Golisano Children's Museum, and cool down areas are available. Held the fourth Tuesday of every month, the museum encourages siblings and grandparents to attend, too. Guests visiting this museum in Naples, Florida, can borrow a limited number of visual transition timers, child/adult wheelchairs and noise-reducing headphones.

Children's Museum of Manhattan

Parents will find friendly advice on how to help their children get the most from their Childrne's Museum of Manhattan experience in the 16-page booklet, "Playworks TM Guide for Families of Children with Disabilities." Kids won't realize they are learning as they feed letters to a talking dragon in the 4,000-square-foot PlayWorks TM exhibit, designed for children 4 and younger. The whimsical space is filled with stimulating tactile, visual and auditory activities. The museum's entrance is also ramped and has a wheelchair lift, and the entire museum is accessible, except for the lower level of the City Splash! Exhibit, which is located outside. Due to space and safety issues, only children with special needs may use strollers within the museum.


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