These Centers Strive to Make Playtime More Fun for Kids With Autism

A child climbs up a ladder on a playground
Raef Richesson, 5, plays at Heritage Harbour Central Park in Bradenton, Fla., on Thursday, April 19, 2018. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Parents on a budget can’t afford to spend money on experiences their kids won’t enjoy.

Dropping dough on amusement-park admission or movie ticket, only to have your child insist on leaving 10 minutes into it, is rough.

Children who have autism or sensory processing disorder may find many popular entertainment options too much to handle. April is National Autism Awareness Month, and fortunately, amusement spots for kids are becoming more inclusive of children with special needs, offering opportunities for play that are sensory-friendly.

“Having these opportunities where the environment is regulated… that’s going to be optimal for a child who is overresponsive to sensory stimuli,” said Mary Kate Yaukey, a first- and second-grade teacher in Palo Alto, California, who works with children on the autism spectrum and those who have sensory-processing difficulties.

“If a child is experiencing sensory overload, that could look different in many children, but a lot of the time, it will manifest in tantrums or explosive outbursts,” she said.

The following is a list of places that provide playtime or entertainment specifically for children with sensory issues. This is not an all-inclusive list. For other options, the organization Autism Speaks manages a calendar of autism-friendly events.

Amusement Parks

Sesame Place, a Sesame Street-themed amusement park in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, recently became designated as a Certified Autism Center, reportedly the first theme park to receive that designation.

Staff at the park, which opens for the season on April 28, have received specialized training on how to assist children with special needs. Sesame Place provides guests with noise-canceling headphones and quiet rooms in addition to other resources for those with sensory-processing problems.

Other amusement parks also provide sensory-friendly opportunities for play.

Splash Lagoon — an indoor water park in Erie, Pennsylvania, — will offer a Sensory Day on May 25. Visitors will experience less noise that day, and a quiet room will be available if families need a break. A limited number of tickets will be sold to control crowd size, and more staff will be on hand for extra assistance.


Chuck E. Cheese’s offers Sensory Sensitive Sundays. Participating locations open two hours early on the first Sunday of every month so children with autism and special needs can enjoy the arcade with dimmed lighting, reduced noise, less crowding and limited appearances from the Chuck E. Cheese mascot.

Dave and Buster’s doesn’t appear to have an organized sensory-friendly program, but some locations block off time for low-sensory play. CBS-46 in Atlanta affiliate reported that Dave and Buster’s Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, location hosted 30 families with autistic children for three hours on April 4. Staff turned off the overhead music and provided private rooms for those who needed a break from the stimulation.

Children’s Museums

Many children’s museums set aside time for kids with sensory-processing issues.

The Children’s Museum of Atlanta hosts Sensory Friendly Saturdays on the first Saturday of the month — and every Saturday during the month of April. The museum opens an hour earlier, there are lighting and sound modifications and the number of guests is limited.

Great Explorations Children’s Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, has a program called Great Connections. On the second Sunday of each month between 10 a.m. and noon, the museum is open to children with special needs. Staff adjusts the lighting and sounds and provides a break room for them and their families.

WOW! Children’s Museum in Lafayette, Colorado, offers low-sensory playtime for autistic children and kids with sensory-processing disorders. Upcoming dates and times are May 6 from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and July 15 from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.


Various movie-theater chains offer sensory-friendly environments for patrons with special needs. Employees turn the lights up and the volume down during these showings, and patrons are welcome to get up and make noise throughout the movie.

AMC Theatres shows sensory-friendly movies every second and fourth Saturday for children and on Tuesday evenings for more mature audiences.

Regal Cinemas’ sensory-friendly movie showings are called “My Way Matinees.” See this list of participating theaters for dates and showtimes.

NCG Cinema’s upcoming sensory-friendly showtimes are May 5 (“Avengers: Infinity War”) and June 22 (“Incredibles 2”).

Playgrounds and Play Centers

Magical Bridge Playgrounds in northern California are free sources of outdoor entertainment that accommodate all children, including those with special needs and disabilities.

Not all children with sensory processing disorder require low-sensory environments. Yaukey said Magical Bridge Playgrounds are a good option for children who need more stimulation.

Other neighborhood playgrounds may also meet the needs of children with autism. Jennifer McCarthy, The Penny Hoarder’s video director, takes her 5-year-old autistic son, Raef, to Heritage Harbour Playground in Bradenton, Florida. She said her son enjoys turning a toy steering wheel and playing with tic-tac-toe blocks there. When they need a break, they can take a walk around the lake.

Some indoor play centers also accommodate children with special sensory needs.

Roo’s World of Discovery in Kirkland, Washington, regularly offers low-sensory hours when parents can reserve time for their children to play in a calmer environment with smaller crowds and less stress. The time slots currently are Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from noon to 2 p.m.

Other centers don’t limit their inclusivity to specific hours. McCarthy said she loves taking her son to Morgan’s Place, a multisensory center in Melbourne, Florida, that’s targeted to special-needs children during all hours of operation.

Nicole Dow is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.