How My Autistic Kid Found Accessible Adventure—and Yours Can, Too

In our new series “Traveling on the Spectrum,” one family learns you don’t have to push pause on outdoor activities, thanks to U.S. adaptive recreation organizations.

Rafting Trip, Moab, Utah

Go rafting in Moab, Utah, with the National Ability Center.

Courtesy of National Ability Center

For more than a decade after I had my son, my outdoorsy family didn’t hit the slopes once to ski or snowboard. How can we, I thought, with an autistic child who was afraid of heights, overwhelmed by loud groups, and unable to keep up with lessons? Then a friend told me about lessons from the U.S. Adaptive Recreation Center at Bear Mountain Resort in the San Bernardino Mountains.

With the help of the right equipment and an USARC instructor, he was able to get the hang of skiing without the pressure. In fact, my kiddo progressed faster than I did when I switched from snowboarding to skiing on that trip. By the second day, he was stopping near the bottom of the run to smile back at me as I caught up with him.

“We hear these stories every single week,” said Brian Essig, a program manager for the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah. “‘I never thought we would be able to do this again after my son was diagnosed.’ A place like NAC changes that mindset.”

Make no mistake, my now six-foot-tall boy still gets white-knuckled riding up ski lifts but tackling this big challenge has given him the confidence over the years to try other sports and activities, from surfing to stand-up paddleboarding to horseback riding, water slides, and zip-lining.

There are hundreds of U.S. adaptive recreation organizations around the country providing specialized instruction for kids and adults with physical and developmental disabilities. Name an activity that’s on your wish list and you can probably find the people and equipment at these centers to make it happen, from sailing and kayaking to skiing, snowboarding—even mountain biking, river rafting, skateboarding, and 50-foot-high ropes courses.

The trick is finding them. Most adaptive recreation organizations lack budgets for advertising, so unless you have an in-the-know mom friend like mine, or live near a ski resort, you might not know they exist. You can, however, find many such organizations on the nonprofit Move United’s online membership directory.

Connecting with one of these organizations is a great start in planning the itinerary for your family’s next outdoor vacation. It’s a win/win for all involved, allowing kids with ASD to escape the hovering gaze of their parents for a few hours while ensuring siblings have an afternoon where they get all the attention for a change. Many have summer camps and scholarship programs to ensure everyone has a chance to learn. Typically, however, lessons at these centers are less expensive than other private lessons, thanks to grants and charitable donations.

Here are some of the appealing options you can find in several states for adaptive outdoor recreation instruction.


The U.S. Adaptive Recreation Center provides ski and snowboard lessons at Bear Mountain Resort 90 minutes southeast of Los Angeles. Using tethers, poles, and ski tip connectors, USARC’s specially trained instructors coach students at their own pace, skiing backward in front of them to help with their stopping and turning. Individuals with autism make up the biggest numbers in this program, according to executive director Sara Rosell. Instructors here have training in the best ways to communicate with these sensitive students and how to ensure students have a successful day on the mountain. Part of this success is having parents who encourage their kids to try new things and step outside of their comfort zone. “The parents’ role is huge in terms of getting them to open and giving them these opportunities,” Rosell said. In the summer, USARC gives lessons in water skiing, fishing, and paddle sports on Big Bear Lake. Farther north, Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra offers similar programs on Mammoth Mountain.


The National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park offers therapeutic horseback riding, water sports such as kayaking, canoeing, rafting, and paddleboarding in the Colorado River, as well as hosted camping in the summer. In the winter, its adaptive ski school offers all types of skiing, plus snowboarding and snowshoeing lessons. Many autistic kids enjoy Nordic skiing, said Diane Eustace, who leads NSCD’s operations, because they can enjoy the beauty of the mountain without all the crowds. (This is on our list to learn this winter.) Horseback riding is also a big draw, and Eustace has seen kids with limited verbal skills begin giving horses commands after some time with the animals. Lessons, family trail rides, and a rodeo day camp are available where kids can enjoy barrel racing at their own pace.

“Often these kids are in therapies for a lot of things; here they get independence, a little freedom, and fun,” Eustace said.


Want to scratch Acadia National Park off your family bucket list? Maine Adaptive Recreation, the largest year-round adaptive recreation program in the state, offers instructions in paddle sports at this popular national park, as well as farther south at Range Pond State Park in Poland Spring. Also on offer during the summer are adaptive mountain biking and on-trail cycling near Portland. January through March, the action shifts to alpine skiing at several local mountains, including Sugarloaf, and Nordic skiing at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester. All general lessons are completely free of charge and equipment and lift tickets are included.


Footloose Sailing Association provides sailing instruction for people of all disabilities, their families, and caregivers. Supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, this nonprofit hosts 10 sailing days a summer on Lake Washington near Seattle—each with two half-day sessions. An annual overnight camping trip to Blake Island off Puget Sound is also available. Another Seattle-area program, the Outdoors for All Foundation runs ski programs in the winter and kayaking, hiking, and cycling programs in the warmer months.


The National Ability Center has locations in both Park City and Moab that give kids and young adults access to mountain biking, camping, and white-water rafting in the summer and skiing and snowboarding in the winter. Its Park City campus has a lodge where families can stay, a building full of 300 bikes, including recumbent cycles and trikes for kids who struggle with balance, and a rock-climbing wall and ropes course with a zip line that will challenge parents and kids without any sensory issues. This fall, after running winter sports out of double-wide trailers at the base of Park City Mountain, it will also open a new 10,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art ski-in, ski-out instruction facility for individual and family lessons. Call ahead for reservations and to plan your visit.

Melinda Fulmer is a lifestyle writer and editor with travel, food, health, and wellness bylines in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, AAA, and other major media channels. You can follow her adventures on Instagram @melindafulmer.
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