Special Needs Access


This summer was a whirlwind of activity for our family. To keep my 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter from getting too bored, we joined a pool, scheduled lots of playdates and visited as many local attractions as possible. 

That last piece isn’t as simple as it seems. Because my son has autism and a speech disorder, he easily becomes overwhelmed in crowded places or where he has trouble expressing his wants and needs. We love going to local museums, but always have to weigh the risk with the possible outcomes. For example, a trip to the Please Touch Museum would normally cost my family $68 in admission, and my son could have a sensory-fueled meltdown 10 minutes after we walk through the doors. 

I want our son to have all the same experiences as any other kid, so I was happy to find the Art-Reach ACCESS card. This passport — available to Pennsylvania residents who receive Medicaid, typically low-income families and individuals with disabilities — allows cardholders and up to four fellow guests to visit nearly 20 local must-visit venues for just $2 per person. The low price point alleviates parental stress as kids with special needs move through as much of the attraction as they can handle at their own pace, on their own terms.

We’re taking full advantage of our son’s ACCESS card to visit as many local attractions as we can. Click to the next page for a glimpse into our visit to three of the 19 ACCESS sites. And though non-PA residents can’t take advantage of the ACCESS discount, they can get a sense of how a child with special needs may respond to exhibits and activities at these venues. 


Academy of Natural Sciences

My kids saw previews for Jurassic World and asked to see some dinosaurs, so my husband took a Friday afternoon off and we visited the Academy of Natural Sciences. The Big Dig exhibit allowed for some fun sand play, a fantastic sensory experience. The special Animal Grossology exhibit (finished on Aug. 30) was a big hit that got my son repeating all the fun and icky bug names. The Academy is incredibly special needs–friendly and devotes an entire section of its website to accessibility. Print out picture schedules and social stories about exhibits to prepare for your visit. 

Please Touch Museum

The Please Touch Museum is a favorite of our family’s, and Art-Reach gives us the opportunity to check it out in shorter chunks of time rather than trying to fit it all into one day. We visited it on a late-morning summer weekday, when it was a little crowded with visiting camps. However, the museum reserves Mondays year-round as a day free of school and camp visitors, so that would be a great time for a special needs family to visit. My son loves splashing in the duck river and the therapeutic “heavy work” that comes with exhibits like the brick loader and the Imagination Playground. Lifting, carrying and stacking the foam blocks are all great forms of proprioceptive input that gives his muscles and joints the resistance they need to stabilize his sensory needs.

Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens

Local artist Isaiah Zagar built this mosaic wonderland in the heart of South Street. The kids loved the interactive scavenger hunt, which got them looking at all the details in the art. At first, my son was overwhelmed with some of the optical illusions the mosaics created, especially when navigating up and down the many steps. But Magic Gardens is a quieter attraction with a lot of outdoor elements, so he was able to quickly acclimate to his surroundings. We were even able to eat our packed lunches in the gardens surrounded by beautiful tiles. 

Jeanne McCullough is a Montgomery County mom of two and an MK MomSpeak contributor via her blog, MomHeartsPinot.com.


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