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There are plenty of autism-friendly businesses and events in Central Texas for families in the special needs community. Action Behavior Centers’ team has compiled a list of the top 25 organizations and events to enjoy this holiday season, all of which accommodate children of all developmental levels and provide fun for the entire family.

Organizations

As awareness for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) continues to increase, more and more businesses are accommodating the special needs community with sensory-friendly events and environments. For longtime residents of the Central Texas area, new residents, or visitors, below are a list of companies that go above and beyond to welcome children of all abilities.

Movie Outings

Some children on the Autism Spectrum may find traditional movie theater environments to be challenging due to the loud noises, lighting, and crowds. These theaters offer a flexible viewing environment so that children with special needs are as comfortable as possible. Families can head out to enjoy the holiday classics and new movie releases in a fun, safe space. 

AMC offers a family-friendly sensory film program every second and fourth Saturday of each month. Enjoy a movie the whole family will love with the lights turned up and the volume turned down, as well as the freedom to move around and sing along.

The Alamo Drafthouse always encourages guests to avoid showing up late and using personal devices during a film. However, the theater designated special times for movie goers in need of a sensory-friendly environment. “Alamo for All” events are offered at all Austin locations, where the lights are turned up and the sound is lowered. Children are free to talk and move around as much as they need and are able to use all necessary adaptive technology. Alamo for All is offered every Tuesday before 2pm.

Museums & Exhibits

Museums and exhibits are a great way for children with autism to interact with peers, experience new things, and learn.

The Thinkery Children’s Museum hosts sensory-friendly hours with an interactive experience catered to those with ASD. The Thinkery understands that large crowds and an abundance of stimuli can be overwhelming, so there are limited ticket sales for the sensory-friendly events to reduce crowds and overstimulation. The Thinkery Children’s Museum works hard to ensure every child feels at home when they enter their doors. In fact, the museum has even created its very own Sensory Friendly Pre-Visit Guide.

For children that learn best with hands-on experiences and limited crowds, the Austin Aquarium is a great place to encounter wildlife up close.  The staff at the Austin Aquarium strives to make every visit worthwhile, which is why they encourage those of all abilities to interact with and ask questions about the animals. The aquarium not only houses aquatic life, but also other animals like birds and snakes.

Places to Play

Mt. Playmore gives children and families of all abilities the opportunity to experience the largest indoor playscape in Central Texas! With less stimuli and music from the arcade area turned completely off, children with sensory sensitivities can enjoy the playscape without getting overstimulated. Quiet hours are offered on the third Saturday of every month from 9 am – 10 am.

On the first Saturday of each month, Jump Street opens its doors an hour and a half early for children and families with special needs. This sensory-friendly time is open to all ages, and parents are welcome to participate as well. The fun doesn’t have to stop there – families are welcome to stay after special hours when the doors officially open to the public at 10am. Cost ranges from $4 – $8 depending on the child’s age.

We Rock the Spectrum’s indoor playground caters specifically to individuals with autism but is inclusive to children of all abilities. The playground includes a fine motor arts and crafts area, as well as sensory-based toys and a variety of suspended swings. We Rock the Spectrum is committed to providing a safe, enjoyable environment for all kids.

Music and Visual Arts

Zach Theatre hosts certain shows that cater specifically to those with autism. The theatre accommodates a special needs audience by adjusting the lighting and sound, as well as providing spaced seating to ensure families have enough personal space to enjoy the show.  During the shows, Zach Theatre allows guests to move around freely, take breaks, and talk if needed. Prior to the show, Zach Theatre provides families with detailed information outlining what to expect upon arrival.

Joshua’s Stage, a performance center, supports children with a wide range of special needs, ages 3 to 18 years old. Joshua’s Stage works hard to foster creativity by providing a variety of classes, workshops, camps, performances, and theater arts exhibits. The center also teaches dance, digital photography, and even film making.

Buda Library has partnered with My Munchkin Music to offer free music classes for families who have children with autism, ages 5 and under. The class is designed to develop communication skills between children and their families, as well as spontaneous peer interaction. My Munchkin Music class also works on developing fine and gross motor skills through play with music. Classes are held on the first Saturday of each month.

Places to Stay

At the Wyndham Garden Hotel in Austin, there are special hotel rooms designed specifically for families who have children with autism. Families can feel extra safe knowing that the hotel’s ‘Thoughtful Rooms’ are free of toxins and chemical cleaners. Each room is also stocked full of games, special snacks, and safety features, like door alarms that will sound if the door is being opened. When making arrangements through the hotel, families will be sent a story book of what the hotel looks like and what to expect upon arrival.

Top 14 Fun Holiday Events in 2018 in Central Texas 

Little Maker Workshop

When: Every Wednesday and Saturday, starting November 21, from 11:00am-11:30am

Where: The DoSeum

2800 Broadway

San Antonio, Texas 78209

Drop in at the DoSeum and enjoy the museum’s Little Maker Workshop. The workshop includes tinkering with stimuli as well as giving children the space they need to be as creative or process oriented as they need. This is a time for kids of all abilities to explore their creative sides.

Santa’s Ranch

When: November 2nd – December 30th

Where: New Braunfels, TX

Just south of Austin on I-35 in New Braunfels, experience over 1 million lights and 100 animations at Santa’s Ranch, a drive-through light show. This event is perfect for kids on the Spectrum who enjoy viewing colorful lights from the familiarity of their family’s own car.

Turkey Camp

When: November 19-21 (Monday-Wednesday), 9:00am-12:00pm

Where: We Rock the Spectrum

Turkey Camp is a fun, sensory-friendly, event with Thanksgiving themed crafts. We Rock the Spectrum will provide snacks, games, and social skills activities for children ages 3-12. Pre-registration is required and has sold out in the past, so sign up quickly!

Ice Skating

When: November 24th – January 15th

Where: Whole Foods on South Lamar

Enjoy ice-skating on top of the original Whole Foods near downtown Austin. The rink is small and easy to manage with little ones. Soft lights line the rink with holiday music provided by a local radio station. This easy-to-navigate space is ideal for families looking for an outing without the risk of overly large crowds or overwhelming environments. The rink will be open daily this winter season, beginning November 24th through January 15th.

Christmas at the Mayborn Museum Complex

When: Thursday November 29, 4:30pm -7:30pm

Where: Mayborn Museum Complex Center – Waco, TX

Come enjoy holiday festivities at the Mayborn on Baylor University Campus. Kids will be able to view a fun train display presented by the Central Texas Area Model Railroaders. Children will also have the opportunity to participate in tinkering with a Makey Makey Christmas tree and holiday themed circuit blocks.

Santa in the Garden

When: Saturday December 1st, 10:00am – 2:00pm

Where: Zilker Botanical Garden

Skip the long, loud lines at the mall and come meet Santa and Mrs. Claus at the Zilker Botanical Gardens. Kids and families can enjoy the relaxed atmosphere while also taking in the beauty of the gardens at Zilker.

Sensitive Santa

When: December 2, 9:00am-11:00am

Where: Rolling Oaks Mall

6909 N Loop 1604 East, San Antonio, TX, 78247

Rolling Oaks Mall in San Antonio offers an annual sensitive Santa experience for children with Autism. It’s a great opportunity for children and families to experience a Santa meet and greet without the added chaos of crowds. There will also be sensory activities provided for extra entertainment.

Caring Santa

When: Sunday December 2nd

Where: Barton Creek Square & Lakeline Mall

A typical ‘meet and greet’ with Santa at the mall might be overwhelming or overstimulating for children with ASD. Instead, families in the special needs community can enjoy The Caring Santa on December 2nd. This event is free with a private photo experience secluded from the main crowds, so the experience remains relatively quiet and lowkey.

Magik Theatre

When: December 8, 10:30am

Where: 420 South Alamo, San Antonio, TX, 78205

The Magik Theatre will offer a sensory friendly performance of Mr. Popper’s Penguins for guests with ASD and other cognitive disabilities. The theater lights will turn the lights up and the sound volume down so children with sensory sensitivities can enjoy the show.  Families are free to walk around during the performance as well. Admission is $10.

Special Needs Christmas Party

When: Saturday December 8th, 3:00pm-5:00pm

Where: YMCA 6800 Harvey Dr. – Waco, TX

Hosted by Mothers of Autistic Children, the YMCA will be providing a free Christmas party for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other special needs. There will be peer play and games to work on social interactions, as well as food, drinks, and crafts. Santa will also be there there for a meet and greet opportunity!

Casey’s Christmas: Special Needs Holiday Party

When: Saturday December 8th, 2:00pm – 4:00pm

Where: Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas

4900 Mueller Boulevard Austin, TX 78723

Come to Casey’s Christmas holiday party on December 8th and enjoy a fun afternoon with a sensory story time, santa meet and greet, crafts, and much more. Casey’s Circle organization is looking to improve the quality of life for medically complex children by providing social events for children of all abilities that is fun for the entire family.

A Special Starry Night

When: Saturday December 8, 6:00pm-9:00pm

Where: South Waco Recreation Center

The Waco Mayor’s Committee for People with Disabilities and the Heart of Texas Autism Network will be hosting an event for children of all abilities. Families can expect dancing, music, and social groups. This event is free, but it’s encouraged to bring a canned good as a donation.

Austin Trail of Lights

When: December 10th – 23rd

Where: Zilker Park – Austin, TX

Visit the Trail of Lights and take a spin under the Zilker Tree! The Austin Trail of Lights offers an interactive area for kids, photo opportunities, a visit with Santa, delicious food, and more. With long and wide trails that spread out the people and noise, it is an ideal seasonal event for children on the spectrum who enjoy colorful lights and holiday music.

Little Texans at the Bullock Texas State History Museum

When: December 13, 2018 10:00am-11:00am

Where: Bullock Texas State History Museum – Austin, TX

Enjoy an interactive experience for young children ages two to five at the Bullock Texas State History Museum. Children are invited to enjoy the museum’s hands-on program that incorporates play and tactile learning. The program is free for members and standard exhibit admission for non-members.

Autism-Friendly Holiday Event Calendars for 2018: 

 

For the Top 18 Autism-Friendly Organizations in Houston, view our article here.

When a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) reaches preschool age, many parents ask themselves whether a full-time ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) program or PPCD (Preschool Program for Children with Disabilities) is the best option for their child.

Both programs have value but take a fundamentally different approach.

ABA

After a child receives a diagnosis of ASD, the pediatrician or neurologist will often refer the child to a center for intensive ABA therapy. Based on decades of scientific research, ABA has proven itself as an effective and reliable treatment method for autism. Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) create individualized treatment plans to cater to the specific needs of each child.

ABA consists of two major treatment methods: Discrete Trial Training (DTT) and Natural Environment Training (NET).

DTT teaches target behaviors or goals through simplified and structured steps.  For instance, teaching a child to write his name could be broken down into a five to 10 step process. First, he might work on properly holding a pencil. Then, he might learn how to individually trace an “A,” and so forth. A typical DTT session is similar to how lessons are run in a typical classroom setting – oftentimes taught across a table or with workbooks.

NET sessions are more about learning through play and social interactions in a natural setting. Multiple children will play together in the room at the same time to provide a social setting similar to that of a typical school. This also helps children generalize their learned behaviors with multiple people.

The combination of DTT and NET helps children with autism gain improvements in a variety of areas of developmental delay, including communication, cognition, social skills, play skills, and day-to-day living skills.

PPCD

Under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), children with disabilities are entitled to receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE).

In order to start PPCD in Texas, children must first be evaluated and approved by the school district, and then if accepted into the program, Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals are set for the child. PPCD services typically happen in a classroom in a public school under supervision of a special education teacher.

PPCD classrooms typically contain around 12 or less students with special needs, supervised by one certified special education teacher and 2 educational associates. Each classroom will include children with a variety of special needs, ranging from moderate to severe disabilities. Based on the level of developmental delay, children will work on appropriate activities to improve language, social skills, pre-reading skills, cognitive skills, and self-help skills.

Breaking Down the Main Differences

  • ABA therapy centers focus specifically on children with autism, while PPCD classrooms focus on children with a variety of special needs.
  • BCBAs and therapists are trained in ABA for children with autism, while PPCD teachers have a background in special education.
  • ABA therapy is conducted in a 1:1 child-to-therapist ratio, while PPCD classrooms typically have about 3 adults to 12 children.
  • ABA programs (typically 40 hours a week) are more intensive than PPCD programs.
  • ABA is backed by decades of research

As many families in the special needs community know, it can be challenging to find public places and activities that cater to the needs of a child with autism.

Fortunately, Austin and its surrounding areas have a number of autism-friendly places for family outings.

  1. Thinkery Children’s Museum

The Thinkery Museum for children in Austin offers a number of stimulating and educational exhibits, including the Kitchen Lab, the Lights Lab, the Space 8 technology lab, and a custom-designed outdoors climber for kids to adventure though. The Thinkery hosts special ‘Sensory Friendly’ hours at the museum in which children with autism are invited to enjoy modified museum exhibits with less stimuli than usual. Therapists and siblings are also welcome to join.

  1. Morgan’s Wonderland

Morgan’s Wonderland, just south of Austin in San Antonio, is an amusement park designed to include individuals with special needs. The park is completely wheelchair-accessible and all individuals with special needs are admitted free of charge, no questions asked. “We want Morgan’s Wonderland to be a place where the common element of play creates an atmosphere of inclusion for those with and without disabilities, encouraging everyone to gain a greater understanding of one another,” the website states.

  1. Morgan’s Inspiration Island 

Building a new addition to the theme park, Morgan’s Wonderland had its grand opening in the spring of 2017 for Morgan’s Inspiration Island – the world’s first disability-friendly water park. The park features five play areas with pools, jets, and water cannons, as well as a jungle-themed riverboat ride. One area is equipped with technology to condition the water to warmer temperatures for guests who are sensitive to cold, and the park also has specially-designed waterproof wheelchairs available.

  1. Wyndham Garden Hotel

The Wyndham Garden Hotel in Austin is one of the few hotels in the world with autism-friendly accommodations for guests with autism. The hotel installed autism-friendly rooms with heightened safety features like door alarms, covers on all power outlets, drawers with safety locks, and cushions on the corners of all tables. Each room has a set of soft toys and books for children to enjoy as well. Staff members partake in autism-aware sensitivity training to make sure that families with autistic children receive the highest quality of service possible.

  1. JumpStreet

JumpStreet, an indoor trampoline park located in Cedar Park, hosts a special needs hour on the first Saturday of every month. The park features a large foam pit, maze, bounce houses, tube slide, trampoline areas, and bull riding.

  1. Sensory Friendly Movies

Various movie theaters in Austin, including the Alamo Drafthouse, the Regal Lakeline Cinema, and AMC Theaters, offer sensory-sensitive movie showings. In these movie screenings, the sound is turned down lower than usual and lights left on a bit brighter to accommodate individuals with sensory sensitivities. The screenings are more relaxed than usual movie showings, with guests being allowed to talk and move around the theater as needed.

  1. Chuck E. Cheese’s

On the first Sunday of every month, Chuck E. Cheese’s now hosts a sensory-friendly experience for children with autism and other related disorders. In venues across the nation, including multiple ones in Austin and surrounding areas, Chuck E. Cheese’s ensures the play areas have dimmed lighting, lower music, less crowding and noise, and limited appearances by Chuck E.

  1. YMCA Swimming Lessons, Gymnastics, and Dance

The YMCA in Austin offers swimming lessons, gymnastics lessons, and dance lessons for children with special needs – SNAP Aquatics, SNAP Gymnastics, and SNAP Dance. SNAP Aquatics fosters a fun, non-competitive environment for children with special needs to learn swimming and water safety skills. The SNAP Gymnastics program teaches basic movement skills to children with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome, and other disorders. SNAP Dance helps children with special needs build confidence through expressive movements.