Extracurricular Activities for Disabled Kids

Boys holding basketballs while looking up at court
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Between ensuring they get an appropriate education, going to medical appointments, and the challenges of "play dates," it can be hard to imagine your disabled child taking part in after-school activities. The reality, though, is that the right after-school programs may be terrific opportunities for your child to show their strengths, build confidence, make friends, and discover new interests.

Why After-School Activities Are Important

Often, parents and guardians undervalue after-school activities for their disabled children. They may be more focused on their child's academics, therapies, or medical procedures or feel that there just isn't time or money to bother with extracurriculars. Some parents might be scared their children won't have a positive experience. While these attitudes are understandable, there's a good chance you'll be robbing your child of opportunities that could make a major positive difference in their life. Here's why:

  • After-school successes build confidence and respect. When your child hits a home run, plays piano at a recital, or earns a higher level belt in martial arts, both you and them get to see that they can succeed and excel.
  • Extracurricular activities can increase your child's opportunities to make friends and find a social niche. Many disabled kids have social challenges due to being neurodivergent or frequently missing class because of their disabilities. And let's face it: it's hard to make friends while you're in class, on the bus, or navigating the cafeteria, especially as a marginalized person. After-school activities are an opportunity to connect with other kids in a completely different way. Choose the right organization, and your child will suddenly have a built-in set of social connections.
  • Like their non-disabled peers, kids with disabilities have talents that need to be nurtured. They may run like the wind, do great with building toy sets, or have the potential to be a successful Scout. It's important to recognize and build these talents, especially when your child's challenges are so often the focus of discussion.
  • Some after-school activities can become lifelong interests. If your child gets interested in music, art, sports, dance, chess, or any other cultural activity while in school, that interest can provide an outlet throughout their life.
  • The skills your child learns after school can be as important (or more important) than the skills they learn in school. In school, your child may be working on grammar, standing in line, geometry, and appropriate classroom behavior. After school, your child may be learning to be part of a team, to support and encourage others, or to try new things. They may also be learning the rules of well-known games, earning respect, and building friendships. These are skills that will last a lifetime.

How to Choose Activities

Many guardians tend to push their kids into doing either what they loved when they were kids or what their friends' kids are doing. However, it's important to choose carefully with several factors in mind:

  • Be realistic: Your child may be able to kick a ball back and forth with you, but they might not be ready for the responsibility, pressure, or physical activity that comes with being on a competitive soccer team. They may, however, be ready for something a little less challenging or strenuous like a casual, intramural team. Think carefully about what your child understands, has the capacity for, and can focus on for a prolonged period. Both you and your child will suffer if you start something they can't finish.
  • Choose an activity in which your child is already interested: Disabled children may already be coping with chronic pain, challenging school expectations, flare-ups,bullies, and worse. After-school activities should be something they actively enjoy.
  • Choose a program with an intensity your child can handle: Complex team sports (for example) demand high levels of physical, social, motor, and cognitive skills. Perhaps your athletic, nonverbal child with social anxiety would have a more enjoyable time in individual track and field events than in group sports. For a child who has concentration issues and struggles with talking over people, policy debate with its long sessions might not be ideal, but perhaps they could thrive at impromptu (IMP) speaking on their school's speech and debate team.
  • Consider becoming your child's shadow or aide for a while: In many cases, children need help as they get started in an activity, but once they know the ropes they're just fine. If you have the time and ability, consider offering to be on the spot for the first few weeks. Alternatively, hire a helpful "shadow" who can support your child and step in if a problem arises. Make sure to ask your child if they'd be comfortable with your or another adult's presence. It's possible that they may say no for fear of being singled out. If so, make sure to check in often about how the activity is going, how they feel about it, how their social interactions are, etc. This will lower everyone's anxiety and may make it easier for your child to become a full-fledged part of the organization.
  • Consider after-school programs designed for kids with disabilities: Some disabled children thrive in programs curated for kids with disabilities such as Challenger Club, while others would find such programs babyish or frustrating. It might be easier for your child, as a mobility aid user, to join a dance group modified for various physical abilities rather struggle through asking for accommodations in a group for able-bodied children. If you're not sure what type of organization would be the best fit, check out both the typical and the modified versions of activities your child is likely to find interesting. Then have them try out the versions at home or in an outdoor space and see how they perform and feel about the activity.
  • Consider structured programs as opposed to open-ended programs: Many neurodivergent children do much better in highly structured programs like Boy or Girl Scouts than in open-ended "exploration" experiences. Though the lack of structure appears more accepting, it can actually be extremely challenging to any child whose social, emotional, and organizational skills vary from their peers.
  • Don't limit your child's options based on gender: No activity is "for" any particular gender, and children of all genders can thrive in sports, robotics, and dance teams. If you raised your child only exposing them to certain activities, this is an opportunity to try other things and see if they like them. What matters most is that your child feels safe (they might not feel quite comfortable to start), is having fun, and is growing as a person.
  • Include your child in the decision and be realistic: Your kid may want to take a dance class, but they may not have the mobility or discipline necessary for the full-scale ballet program they know about. Consider finding a lower key, more accepting dance program where they can be fully included even if their grande jete needs work.
  • Keep sensory concerns in mind: Some disabled children are especially sensitive to loud noise, heat, strong smells, and bright lights. If that describes your child, steer clear of activities that involve sensory "assaults." Sports involving cold weather might not be the safest for a child with Raynaud's Syndrome, while being in the spotlight on a stage might be unsuitable for a child with light sensitivity. If your child would still like to participate in these activities, work with them to get them the proper equipment necessary for their participation (ie. noise cancelling earmuffs, thermal gloves and socks, etc).
  • Remember that "after-school" can mean "in school" or community-based: Sometimes the options available in the community (rec sports versus school sports, for example) are a better match for some kids.
  • Select an activity your child is good at: Once your child leaves school, they deserve the chance to shine. Is she great at swimming? Is xe terrific at drawing? Find your child an opportunity to show off what they can do well.
  • Talk to the person or people running the program: Explain your child's strengths and challenges. How would the coach or instructor handle it if your child needed further accommodations or had a meltdown? You'll probably walk away knowing if it's a good match.
  • Ensure that both you and your child know what they are getting into: What is really expected of a child who joins the Boy Scouts or the recreational soccer league? If your child needs support or accommodations, are they available? If your child runs into problems, how will the instructor or coach respond? Be sure your child is capable of doing what's expected with the necessary support and is aware of those expectations.

Extracurricular Activity Options

Bearing in mind the tips above, consider options that are most likely to meet your child's needs. These activities are all mainstream options. As you'll see, some of these activities may require guardian involvement at the start or throughout:


If your child enjoys sports, consider group activities as well as teams in which your child is performing on their own and competing with their own best outcomes. Options for the former include soccer, football, basketball, tennis, rugby, hockey, lacrosse, etc while options for the latter include swimming, martial arts, bowling, track and field, golf, archery, and many more.

Structured Adult-led Clubs and Programs

Many neurodivergent children shine in programs such as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and 4H. That's because the programs are highly organized, children progress at their own rate, activities are hands-on, and the organizations themselves are dedicated to including children regardless of ability or background.

Singing and Instrumental Programs

Instead of or in addition to music therapy, consider enrolling your child in a singing or instrumental program that teaches and celebrates skills. If your child can learn to sing, they will be welcome in a chorus. If they can learn to play an instrument, they can join band or orchestra. These are not only entries into school-based programs, but also hobbies to enjoy throughout life.

Volunteer Activities

Most communities are loaded with opportunities for children (sometimes with parents or guardians) to volunteer their time. Kids can help clean up trash at the park, help foster kittens, visit nursing homes, or help raise money for school events by washing cars or selling treats. With parental involvement, they can become valued members of the community or school organizations.


Many kids who have a tough time picking the right words and actions do very well when acting from a script, especially autistic children who might use casual scripts daily. Acting clubs and camps require no audition and can be a great way to get started. Some kids discover they have a real talent for acting.

Visual Arts

Visual arts are a place where creativity and passion matter most. Your child does not have to be a skilled artist to express themself through art and enjoy making it. Schools and community art centers often offer after-school programs in drawing, painting, clay, photography, and even multi-media art.

Video and A/V

Quite a number of tweens and teens have great interest and skills in video and a/v. Many middle and high schools have video and A/V clubs, and many towns have local TV stations where kids can get involved. Even if your child isn't a creative videographer, they can find opportunities to be confident and valued behind the camera or managing microphones. A child interested in such behind the scenes work can also become involved with their school theater's tech crew.

Cosplay and Fantasy Games

Cosplay is short for "costume play," and it's becoming more and more popular. Both kids and adults make and wear elaborate costumes based on comic book or fantasy characters from TV or movies and attend "cons" (conventions) where they show off what they've created, get signatures from their favorite actors, compete in costume parades, and generally enjoy being geeks together.

Fantasy games such as Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) are also great ways for "geeky" kids to find like-minded friends who are eager to build and engage in fantasy world-building. As a team-based, problem-solving and roleplaying game, D&D is also a good arena to help your child develop social skills.

Special Interest Clubs

Many autistic children are often fascinated by a particular area of interest and have a hard time getting interested in anything else. If this describes your child, consider helping them get involved with special interest clubs in areas ranging from mathematics and video gaming to animal welfare, Quidditch, or chess. If they can find a teacher sponsor and a few other children interested in the same topic, you can even encourage your child to start a new club.

Horseback Riding

Horseback riding can be expensive, but it combines a number of wonderful elements that may be perfect for your child. Equestrians learn to communicate effectively, build strength and balance, and gain skills in an exciting sport that can be individual, team-based, competitive or non-competitive. Ask about scholarships or special programs, especially those meant for kids with disabilities.

A Word From Verywell

If you're the guardian of a disabled child, you may feel nervous about adding more to your child's metaphorical plate and changing their routine, but getting them involved with an extracurricular is a wonderful decision you can help them make. Remember that outside interests can change the course of your child's life—and, by extension, your life as well.

The child who has an area of real strength, a group of friends, and a sense of belonging can do great things. Now is your chance to get your child started on an interest that can last a lifetime.

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Brooks BA, Floyd F, Robins DL, Chan WY. Extracurricular activities and the development of social skills in children with intellectual and specific learning disabilitiesJ Intellect Disabil Res. 2015;59(7):678‐687. doi:10.1111/jir.12171

  3. Critz C, Blake K, Nogueira E. Sensory processing challenges in children. J Nurse Prac. 2015;11(7):710-716. doi:10.1016/j.nurpra.2015.04.016

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.