Written by Jamie Granatino, M.S., BCBA
There are so many skills that a child with special needs must work on, and many of those life and academic skills are addressed at home and at school. But our children need to also learn to play and interact with other children, and develop their own hobbies. Part of our responsibility as parents is to help our children gain the tools they need to lead happy, productive, fulfilling lives as adults, and an important part of anyone’s happiness is their hobbies. These activities also can teach important social skills, help increase muscle tone and physical fitness, and target learning in fun ways. Here are some tips to help you choose the right extracurricular activities for your child with special needs.
- Know where to go: There are lots of different community agencies and companies that can help you identify all of the options available to your child. Your child’s school may offer on-site programs in a setting that is familiar and comfortable to your child. Your local YMCA or other gyms may offer classes and less-competitive sports leagues that are more inclusive of children with special needs. Local churches, libraries, community centers, Boys & Girls Club, and 4-H are also other great places to inquire about local clubs and teams. Check in with parents in your neighborhood and school to ask about other local companies, like karate and dance studios, and find out how their experiences have been – that would also allow your child to attend an activity where he already knows some of his peers.
- Use your child’s strengths: If your child is still working on his cooperative team skills, consider starting out with activities that offer “parallel” opportunities – swimming, track, golf, bowling, hiking, dance, photography, music lessons, art classes, and martial arts are all great opportunities, and many of them offer later opportunities for more cooperative activities like relay races, group art projects, music groups, and karate sparring. Is your child highly active? Does he light up when he hears music? Does he start dancing as soon as he hears a beat? Focus on activities that will allow him to feel happy, capable and confident, and fully participate with his peers.
- Meet the adults: It is important as a parent that you be comfortable with the adults caring for your child. Find out who would be the teacher and assistants working with your child, and don’t be afraid to ask if the organization has references or background checks. Talk to families who are currently working with that adult.
- Be a spectator: Ask if you can watch a lesson or a game before your child begins to participate. If your child enjoys watching activities, bring him with you and try to get some feedback from him on what he thinks about what you see. Watch his reactions to the activity – nonverbal reactions can sometimes be more telling than what they say.
- Try before you buy: Many companies that offer lessons will let you try a free or discounted lesson before buying a package, so ask if this is an option. If you are considering enrolling your child in a sports league, try the sport with them, your family, or some friends to see if they enjoy it or have any challenges that you may want to address first. Look to see not only if they have some of the prerequisite skills they may need, but also if they seem to enjoy the activity. Keep in mind that your child may need to learn more about the activity before he really enjoys it, but hobbies should be pleasant experiences!
- Practice makes perfect: If your child’s new hobby involves a lot of new skills, consider letting him practice parts of it at home with familiar people (i.e. hitting a baseball or catching the ball) before you introduce him to a team where he must not only perform these component skills, but also put them together with many others. Give your child opportunities to practice his/her new skill in between scheduled activity sessions. Ask if you can take a video of a part of your child’s lesson, as this may help with practice when you don’t have the coach or instructor there with you.
- Utilize all of your resources: While your child is learning the activity, they may need extra attention or instruction to keep up with the other kids. If he has a sibling or cousin who is skilled in the activity, see if they can join your child as a junior coach or assistant. Is your child receiving OT? See if there are skills they can work on in therapy that will help them gain competence in their new hobby. Does your child have an ABA therapist? ABA therapy often incorporates generalization of skills, so talk with your ABA therapist about whether they might be able to shadow your child during some sessions or incorporate similar activities into their therapy.
What activities have you found your child enjoys the most? Add your comments below to share your experiences with other parents!