Accessible Chicago: autism-friendly family fun for neurodiverse families

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When people ask me where I’m from, I love sharing that I’m from the city of Chicago, born and raised in the heart of Lincoln Square. Now, as a proud mom and advocate to two boys on the autism spectrum, experiencing all that Chicago has to offer has come full circle, but through a different, neurodivergent lens.

For many autistic children with sensory processing challenges, family outings can be overwhelming and stressful. Neurodiverse families thrive on predictability and routine, so novel experiences in urban environments can be challenging to navigate.

Fortunately, sweet home Chicago doesn’t disappoint when it comes to autism accessibility — from my perspective (backed by years of parental experience), our cultural institutions, stadiums, and businesses truly value inclusion and offer accommodations to ensure families like mine feel welcomed, engaged, and empowered. The following is a list of my carefully vetted “go-to” activities for my fellow autism families for judgment-free, stim-encouraged adventures.

Plan your sensory-friendly and accessible trip to Chicago.

Visit the sensory-friendly Museum of Illusions

Museum of Illusions
Museum of Illusions

The first installation at the immersive Museums of Illusions is a gigantic fidget toy — need I say more? Both my sons, who are visual learners and crave big movement, were provided ample optical and vestibular input from exhibits like the tricky Tilted Room to the spinning Vortex Tunnel.

The neuro-affirming and tech-savvy staff were patient and proactive, modeling best practices to snap selfies, guiding us through the museum at our pace, and even offering to charge up my son’s iPad, without flinching.

Try adaptive climbing at Brooklyn Boulders

My kids like to climb trees, so we took them to the perfect place to scale walls and get some exercise. We are big fans of Brooklyn Boulders, a vibrant, inviting climbing gym in the West Loop, which aims to build a community of people from all walks of life. Diversity and inclusion are core to its mission, which includes hosting Adaptive Climbing Youth sessions once a month on Saturdays for children with disabilities. The next session is coming up April 20. Belay on!

Catch a game at the sensory-inclusive United Center

My husband is a huge sports fan and enjoys bringing our boys for a Bulls game at the United Center, which is now certified as a sensory-inclusive venue — a win-win for my family. The stadium is equipped with a sensory room at Gate 2 ½, a therapeutic quiet space designed for guests with disabilities. There are also sensory bags available to check out with noise-cancelling headphones, fidget tools, verbal cue cards, and weighted lap pads.

Enjoy accessible programming at the Chicago Children’s Theatre

Theatre is woven throughout the fabric of my family (my mom is a Second City alum) and of Chicago. Chicago Children’s Theatre makes patronage accessible through The Red Kite Project, a series of programs for youth on the autism spectrum that enable “everyone to enjoy the show in their own unique way.” During Access Weekends, including the upcoming A Year with Frog & Toad, when families can enjoy performances with modifications to lighting, sound, and volume.

Attend sensory events at the Shedd Aquarium

A family at the Shedd Aquarium
Shedd Aquarium; photo by Abel Arciniega :: @tequilagraphics

To round out the list, I couldn’t forget my childhood favorite, the Shedd Aquarium, which continues to remove barriers through innovation. Visitors can download the museum’s free accessibility app, built with sensory maps and social stories about what to expect upon arrival. Families can also register for Calm Waters, a limited-capacity event for guests with disabilities to explore exhibits and complimentary 4D experiences in a comfortable and accepting environment. The next event takes place on April 14.

Ingrid Payne

About Ingrid Payne

Ingrid Payne is a neurodivergent person, advocate, and senior communications specialist. She has held roles in business development at InfiniTeach, an inclusive tech organization, and at Golin, a global public relations agency. She has diverse experience in public relations, project management, event planning, customer service, and school and community involvement. Her true passion is to normalize and de-stigmatize autism, forward the #neurodiversity movement, illuminate the voices of neurodivergent/autistic people and advocate for inclusivity and accessibility within schools, the community, and the workplace.

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