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 many 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.
Access Family Programs – Upper East Side
Jewish Museum, Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street
Join museum educators to examine art then create your own masterpiece in the related workshop. Access Family Workshops are held on Sundays; similar programming is also offered at separate times for adults. Advance reservations are required.
See some of Broadway's hit shows in a comfortable setting designed just for kids. Photo courtesy of the initiative.
Autism Theatre Initiative – Midtown
Check website for upcoming performances and locations
Since 2011, the Theatre Development Fund’s Autism Theatre Initiative has made Broadway’s best shows, including The Lion King, Frozen, and Aladdin, 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 pre-show 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. Note: Shows book well in advance, so plan early!
The Discovery Squad – Upper West Side
American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th Street
Swing by the American Museum of Natural History 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. 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.
Discoveries Program – Upper East Side
The Met, 5th Avenue at 85th Street
The Met's Discoveries program gives children and adults with learning disabilities and ASD the opportunity to enjoy a multi-sensory experience complete with a tactile art project at every session. Each begins with a gallery tour to explore the day's theme, and concludes with an art activity.
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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 – Midtown West
Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, Pier 86, 12th Avenue and West 46th Street
Ages 2 and older
All hands on deck—bright and early—to earn your sea legs at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum, which opens its doors early on select weekends for an hour-long interactive session specially crafted for kids on the autism spectrum and their families. Themed sessions focus different ports of call, traditions at sea, and ocean life. Teens and adults can come after-hours for sensory-friendly programming tailored to their needs. Programs are free, but reserve your spot early to ensure admission.
Family Fun For Families With Kids on the Autism Spectrum – Meatpacking
The Whitney, 99 Gansevoort Street
Venture to The Whitney for a pre-opening, sensory-friendly tour. Hands-on artmaking activities are included. Workshops are held every three months and registration is required. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Inclusive Saturdays – Hudson Square
Children's Museum of the Arts
Ages 2 and older
CMA's teaching artists, trained in facilitating programming for children on the spectrum, facilitate these Saturday morning workshops. With art as the foundation, children are taught social skills, problem solving, and self-expression. Programming is free but registration is required.
The Music for Autism program hosts FREE interactive concerts. Photo courtesy the program.
Music for Autism – Multiple locations
Ages 2 +
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. RSVP is required.
Sensory Friendly Films – Multiple locations
Select AMC Theaters city wide; see website for locations
Ages 2 and older
In partnership 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. Popular new releases are included in the program, and showings are typically held on Saturday mornings and Tuesday evenings. Visit the website for current offerings.
The Sensory Room – Crown Heights, Brooklyn
Brooklyn Children’s Museum, 145 Brooklyn Avenue, Brooklyn
This exhibit at the Brooklyn Children's Museum is designed to be a cozy, welcoming space specifically designed to be comfortable for kids on the autism spectrum, with white walls and dim lighting for minimal distraction, The Sensory Room allows guests to focus on interactive exhibits, such as a swing, tunnels, puzzles, blocks and weighted items for sensory play. It also hosts regular educator-guided play sessions.
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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
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 transit system works. The series is set at the Transit Museum in small classes, broken into age groups, and facilitated by a special education teacher, speech language pathologist, and museum educator. Space is limited and advance registration is required.
A version of this post was published in 2016; it has been updated. Jody Mercier contributed additional reporting.