New York City is one of the most bustling places in the world, which can make outings with any child tough. But things get particularly tricky for parents of kids on the autism spectrum, who might worry about overstimulation in kid-friendly settings. That’s why some museums and cultural centers have created comfortable, safe spaces for families with special needs to explore, often in tandem with educators and specialists.
We’ve gathered up some of the best of the bunch, from the Met to the Brooklyn Children's Museum to an after-school "Subway Sleuths" program, as well as several FREE options. Peruse our NYC Special Needs Guide for more helpful tips and local programs.
See some of Broadway's hit shows in a comfortable setting designed just for kids. Photo courtesy of the initiative.
Prices, performances and admission policies are as of February 2016, so be sure to call ahead or check the organization's website before heading out. FREE programs are noted. Otherwise click through for the latest prices.
Autism Theatre Initiative – Midtown
Check website for upcoming dates, ticket prices, locations
Since 2011, the Theatre Development Fund’s Autism Theatre Initiative has made Broadway’s best shows, including The Lion King, Matilda and Wicked, accessible to kids with autism and their families. It makes small but critical adjustments to the productions, including lighting, sound and other changes. It also develops, months in advance, social narratives that allow kids to familiarize themselves with the theaters and shows in preparation for their Broadway adventures. The lobby space is quiet and stocked with activities for guests needing a break from the action. Next up: Aladdin. Get your tickets now.
The Discovery Squad – Upper West Side
American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th Street
9-10am on select Saturday mornings
Swing by the Natural History museum early for a 40-minute guided tour specially customized for kids on the spectrum and developed in collaboration with the Seaver Autism Center at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital. Kids accompanied by an adult can explore dioramas of mammals, dive into ocean life and explore the dinosaur wing. Families are welcome to remain after the tour and explore the rest of the museum. Advance registration required.
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An Intrepid Museum teen intern helps a participant finish a sand painting at an early morning session for children with autism and their families. Photo courtesy of the museum.
Early Morning Access Program – Manhattan
Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, Pier 86, 12th Avenue and West 46th Street
Ages 2 and older
All hands on desk—bright and early—to earn your sea legs at the Intrepid Museum, which opens its doors early on select weekend dates for an hour-long interactive session specially crafted for kids on the autism spectrum and their families. Sessions focus on themes such as different ports of call, traditions at sea and ocean life. Programs are free, but reserve your spot early to ensure admission.
The Music for Autism program hosts FREE interactive concerts. Photo courtesy the program.
Music for Autism – Multiple locations
Ages 2 and older
The nonprofit Music for Autism funds kid-friendly concerts throughout the United States, including locally in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx. It offers interactive shows for kids with autism and their families, from Broadway and jazz to classical and more. It even hosts bilingual concerts for Spanish speakers, most often at its Brooklyn Heights location. The best part? Shows are FREE, which means you can expose your little one to a broad range of cultural experiences. FREE but must RSVP.
Sensory Friendly Films – Multiple locations
AMC Theaters in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens
Selected Tuesdays evenings and Saturday mornings
Ages 2 and older
Partnering with the Autism Society, AMC makes the movie theater a comfortable space for kids on the spectrum by turning the sound down and the lights up. Kids and their parents can get up and move around if they need to while watching fun, family-friendly flicks. Upcoming screenings include Kung Fu Panda 3, Zootopia and The Jungle Book. See the website for films, screening calendar and tickets.
The Sensory Room – Brooklyn
Brooklyn Children’s Museum, 145 Brooklyn Avenue, Brooklyn
Regularly scheduled weekday and weekend afternoon hours
A cozy, welcoming space specifically designed to be comfortable for kids on the autism spectrum, with white walls and dim lighting for minimal distraction. It allows guests to focus on interactive exhibits, such as a swing, tunnels, puzzles, blocks and weighted items for sensory play. It also offers a family access program on the second Sunday of each month, giving families with special-needs kids early access to the sensory room, along with specially created programs focused on cognitive and sensory development.
RELATED: Classes Created for Special Needs NYC Kids
Kids team up to work as "Subway Sleuths" at this Transit Museum after-school program. Photo courtesy of the museum.
Subway Sleuths – Downtown Brooklyn
New York City Transit Museum, Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street, Brooklyn
After-school or Saturday 10-class sessions; registering for spring now
Let your little conductor explore in this specially crafted and carefully screened 10-session workshop exploring all things locomotive. Kids work together to solve transit mysteries, play motivating games and learn how the system works. It is set at the Transit Museum in small classes while the museum is closed to the public. Groups bring together second- and third-graders; and fourth- and fifth-graders. Space is limited.
Top image: A sensory snake in The Brooklyn Children's Museum Sensory Room is accessible to all. Photo courtesy of the museum.