Special Needs: In Search of Family Fun

Illustration of a dad and mom watching their happy child playing with a dog, while in the park
Drew Pocza

My daughter Katie flung game pieces across the room as she lost her temper during a board game. Her autism made her more easily frustrated at times, but we were trying to work through it to enjoy a family game night.

Unfortunately, the only “togetherness” experienced that evening was when my husband, Bryan, grabbed Katie’s hands before she could sweep the rest of the game board clean.

Not wanting to give up, we searched for other activities to enjoy as a group. We tried bike riding, but our other daughter didn’t like it. We attempted camping, but the tight quarters bred discord, and Bryan and I were embarrassed when our campground neighbors heard every grumble and gripe.

The tension grew to the point that we anticipated emotional outbursts with almost every endeavor. We felt defective because we couldn’t enjoy the same pursuits as everyone else.

If you have children with social, emotional or behavioral challenges and struggle to have “fun for the whole family,” don’t give up! As we persisted in trying new things, we eventually found activities that allowed us to build positive memories. Here are some guiding principles that helped us in our quest for good times together:

Set aside the therapy

Choose an activity that none of your children is “working on” in a therapeutic way. It’s hard for anyone to relax when a child is intensely learning and parents are coaching. In our case, losing gracefully was something Katie had not yet mastered. So we relabeled board games as “work” until she could handle them better. 

Keep it short

Visits to our neighborhood park were typically more successful when our stay was less than an hour. We deemed it a victory to head back home while everyone was still happy.

Include pets and nature

Consider outside activities and interacting with animals. University researchers in both Britain and the U.S. report that time spent outdoors and with pets can reduce stress and boost a person’s mood, self-esteem and mental health. For our family, throwing balls to our dogs keeps everyone smiling.

Don’t keep score

Rethink competitive activities. We’ve learned that games like Pictionary and Catch Phrase are just as much fun without winners or losers.

We’ve also learned that families with special challenges can enjoy togetherness in the right environment. As we’ve prayed and stayed creative and flexible, God has connected our “not-so-together” family.

Karen Crum is the author of Persevering Parent: Finding strength to raise your child with social, emotional or behavioral challenges


Hope for Families of Children on the Autism Spectrum looks at the family as a whole, making every attempt to include all members in the experience of special needs children. Lynda discusses everything from doctor and dental visits to play times with friends. She explains how to handle crisis, how to recognize signs of frustration and excitement, provides resources including a glossary of terms, and all the while helps parents find calm in the midst of the daily struggle.

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This article first appeared in the June/July 2015 issue of Thriving Family magazine. If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. Get it delivered to your home by subscribing for a gift of any amount.

Copyright © 2015 by Karen Crum. Used by permission.

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