One of the biggest challenges in raising a child with special needs is finding activities that they a) enjoy and b) will try more than once. When my son was younger we tried every sport imaginable including basketball, soccer, baseball, karate, swimming, horseback riding, and bowling. He hated most of them, either had a meltdown on the field or was completely disruptive and we left after one session. It was very frustrating.

Now, there are so many more programs to choose from especially in New Jersey. Here are 5 unique programs and providers that you might consider when looking for behavioral therapy, a social skills group, an after school activity or therapist for your child.

1. Step Right Up Studio in Madison, NJ. 

Jaime Conroy (formerly of Communikids) always felt that social skills training for children should be fun and natural. “Our classes allow children to succeed at their own pace, in their own way, with proper support," says Conroy. It was this philosphy that formed the basis of her creative arts studio, Step Right Up Studio, in Madison, NJ. Step Right Up Studio offers classes in Improv, Musical Theater, Yoga, Creative Writing, Voiceovers, Stand Up Comedy and more for kids of all strengths and abilities.

If you child likes to perform, dance, write or create, Step Right Up studio provides a safe, nurturing place for kids with special needs to find what makes them "tick." With today's busy lives, and academic overload, it can be difficult for kids to find a way to express themselves. Step Right Up Studio gives kids the tools to be the best versions of themselves and find their voice.

Children with ADD, ADHD, High-functioning Autism, Asperger’s, Sensory Processing Disorder, Executive Functioning Disorder, as well as other social disorders can feel right at home at Step Right Up.


2. Dr. Steve Sussman - Child Success Center in Mountainside, NJ.

Dr. Sussman has been a practicing psychologist since 1979. He has taught numerous courses to other professionals on how to work with difficult children and adolescents. But it is his unique approach to tweens and adolescents that puts him on our list for unique programs. Dr. Sussman has developed fun “teen-friendly” techniques including a unique "game show" setting with kids that utilizes humor and entertainment to reach even the most apathetic client. Getting kids to participate in their own treatment can be incredibly challenging and Dr. Sussman utilizes, among other therapies, group therapy for children. Group Therapy is an effective tool because, he says, "Children are most familiar and comfortable learning in groups such as school, sports, scouts, etc. Group therapy provides support and the opportunity to learn from others’ experiences. It also helps the child to not feel alone and to no longer feel different from others."

3. CulinaryAcademy360 in Livingston, NJ.

Cooking is a great and often beloved activity for kids with special needs. However, there aren't a lot of programs that understand the unique challenges of teaching children with disabilities how to cook until now.

CulinaryAcademy360 is taught by professional chefs under the direction of a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who is also an NJ state certified teacher. The day I visited the program, students were learning one of the four "mother sauces." Kids were decked out in professional aprons and the kitchen smelled amazing.

Participants engage in hands-on culinary education in the areas of menu planning, shopping for nutritionally balanced food, food prep, serving, food/kitchen safety, cooking and clean up, as well as collaboration in the kitchen. Culinary related math skills and culinary history are imbedded as part of the class curriculum. All culinary creations are made from scratch with a focus on health eating habits and broadening participants palates. 

CulinaryAcademy360 is open to the community and accepts individuals ages 14 and older with autism spectrum disorder, behavioral and related disabilities.

4. Lisa Ciarrocca, Child Life Specialist in Fanwood, NJ.

If you've never heard of a Child Life Specialist, it may be because most of them typically work closely with children and families in medical settings, serving as emotional support and helping develop family coping strategies. 

“Our main goal is to help decrease the stress and anxiety experienced in the hospital setting, and we're doing that first and foremost by helping them understand what’s happening,” says Shawna Grissom, the director of child life at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

 A certified child life specialist must have at least a bachelor’s or master’s degree, generally in a related field of study, such as psychology, human growth and development, education or counseling. They must also complete a minimum of 480 hours in a clinical internship under a certified child life specialist. 

After working as a CCLS for 20 years in a hospital, Lisa felt that children with developmental, behavioral and other disabilities could benefit from the same emotional support and coping strategies outside of a hospital setting so she opened her private practice, The Next Step, in Fanwood, New Jersey. She sees children with autism, ADHD, anxiety and other chronic illnesses to help increase understanding of their situations and identifying needs. She also treats siblings and the whole family by finding their own strengths, increasing their ability to cope, and helping to bring a sense of normalcy and consistency back to their everyday lives.

5. FilmAcademy360 in Livingston, NJ.

If your child is interested in filmmaking, video editing, game creation or graphic arts, FilmAcademy360 is a professional film school with after-hours, weekend and summer programs open to all individuals in the community with autism spectrum disorder and related behavioral disabilities. Their motto is “unique minds welcome,” and it shows in everything they produce.

Student productions include those made for individual self-expression, acting to teach social communication skills, preparation for higher education, employment, and providing professional services to commercial clients. With a role for every participant, their teaching and production environment is dynamic, social and team-oriented.

A continuum of coursework builds technical production skills as well as social skills. They offer 5 levels of learning, including a career path for older students, each with a range of course options. The program sequence is carefully designed so students can enjoy a successful experience. Courses are sequential so that students across the spectrum can participate in the program. The FilmAcademy360 curriculum allows students to have a basic introduction focusing on building social skills, or move through the technical aspects of video production, as skills and interests dictate. Students must be ages 14 and up.

Do you know of another unique program you'd like to see featured? Drop us a line at and let us know!