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Teaching a Special Needs Child to Ski

Teaching a special needs child to ski is something near and dear to our family’s heart. While every kid (and family) is different, I am a fierce proponent in giving each child a chance to learn.

Special needs can range from people with autism, cerebral palsy, down syndrome, dyslexia, blindness, ADHD, and cystic fibrosis. They can also include cleft lips and/or palates, port-wine stains, and missing limbs.

Teaching a child, any child, to take calculated risks is a gift. Teaching a special needs child to gently push their boundaries is priceless and necessary for them to survive.

Life is hard, learning to push through the hard to find the reward or growth is essential. 

We are a family with a special needs child. And, just like with all children, our struggles and successes are unique.

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Teaching a Special Needs Child to Ski
I’m not teaching my kid to ski, I’m teaching her resilience, patience and bravery.

Why special needs kids benefit from learning to ski

I’m not going to sugar coat it: Teaching a special needs kid to ski or snowboard can seem impossible or even irresponsible.

The term “special needs” is an incredibly broad term, but your kid just might surprise you and be able to do the seemingly impossible.

As a kid who grew up on the slopes, I couldn’t fathom raising my girls any other way. Early on I realized our walk was going to be at a different pace then I imagined.

Having a child that struggled taught our family to move to a different rhythm, adapt on a dime and let it all go.

I’m not an expert, I’m just a mom of an awesome special needs kid.

Teaching a special needs child to gently push their boundaries is priceless and necessary for them to survive. Life is hard, learning to push through the hard to find the reward or growth is essential. 

– Jen Gardner, TMM Team

Preparation is Key

Start young, start slow. Introduce your child to winter environments early and often. Go outside every day in all kinds of weather.

My littlest hates windy days but knows if she puts three hoods on, she will be fine. Keep it short and light. 

We went sledding a lot in the beginning. When we transitioned to the ski hill later, I brought the sled. We made tiny snowman and slid down a little side hill.

We still use the sled to carry around gear or lay a kid down for a rest. 

Slow and steady is the name of the game 

Go up to the ski area in the summer and just walk around. Big resorts can be overwhelming and scary. Baby steps are crucial.

These little trips eased anxiety and increased confidence. Then we went up in the winter without gear and just had hot chocolate.

I brought their gear to the sledding hill (where she was already comfortable) before the ski hill. 

Pro Mom Tip: If your kid can smile in the snow then you’re ready to move to the ski hill.

Trust your internal compass. You know your kid and what the two of you can handle.

Teaching a Special Needs Child to Ski

Find Your Tribe

Family and friends don’t need to ski or board to be able to help. Having my dad hang with one kid while I give the other my full attention is so helpful.

Both my kids appreciate alone time with mama on the mountain.

Grandpa hauling all the gear, just like he did for me in the 80’s!

Check with your home mountain to see if there are specific programs for special needs children and adults.

Many resorts have programs with special instructors and equipment that can be incredibly supportive. There are many adaptive programs that offer scholarships, so don’t let financial fear prevent you from using an additional resource.

Keeping Kids Fueled is Key

Bring healthy meals and bars so that your kid isn’t all spun out on sugar and additives. I’ve made that mistake too many times.

Need snack ideas? Check out this post on the best adventure snacks.

Teaching a Special Needs Child to Ski

With that said, Little Dudette got a Snicker’s bar recently on a really cold day. Go with the flow and have fun.

Hydration is also easy to forget, yet crucial. I’ve found a Camelback under a jacket does wonders. There’s something about drinking out of the tube that my kid just loves.

If I’m worried about hydration, I allow juice. Altitude sickness is no joke.

Have a Plan

Have a spot if you get lost. Make it easy. Teach kids about ski patrol and the rules of the mountain.

Don’t be afraid to label the caboose out of your kid’s gear, including contact info. 

Walkie-talkies and other kid tracking devices can also ease anxiety for parent and child.  

Jen, TTM Team
Teaching a Special Needs Child to Ski
I thought the wind would be a game ender but my kid shocked me and refused to go home until the lift closed.

Keep Them Comfortable

Don’t forget sun protection.

Pro Mom Tip: Stick sunscreen is easier to put on dodging faces. 

Comfort items (stuffies, blankets, etc.) in a backpack that clips at the chest or waist can be a game changer.

Feet warmers are smaller than traditional hand warmers and therefore fit into tiny gloves.

Wearing pads encourages kids to take risks and step out of their comfort zone. They don’t need to hit the half pipe to benefit from padding after a hard fall. We really like Burton’s G-Form Total Impact Shorts.

Additionally, spine protector vests like The POC POCito VPD Spine Vest are a great idea, especially if your kid has a hard time following commands and might get hit.

An Eddie Wedgie is a small piece of gear that holds the ski tips together and makes a huge difference.

First powder day smiles. Worth all the tears.

Gear We Recommend when Teaching a Special Needs Child to Ski

We’ve found the MDXONE harness to be great for learning to ski (as well as snowboard). An extra pair of gloves, a snack and chapstick fit perfectly in the little backpack.

With that said, we’ve tried all sorts of trainers and just found what worked for us.

Patience is essential, both on and off the hill. My girl has a hard time with pressure and texture. We’ve gone through several gloves, helmets, base layers, and socks because they were too tight, too itchy, too long, too short, too hot, too cold, etc.

Fortunately, her sister is less picky so often rejected hand-me-downs work just fine for her.

Gear that is light weight, waterproof, warm and easy to get on is essential, it doesn’t have to be brand new or top brand either.

There are many times we went to the ski hill and I didn’t even strap in or buy a lift ticket. Low investment can help keep expectations low.

Learn more about gear we recommend in our Outdoor Family Winter Gear Guide here.

Let Go of Expectations and Breathe Mama

When we took this pic, my girl struck a pose and said, “we’re just relaxin mama, right?’ Obviously, I followed suite.

The amount of time we are spending outside in and of itself makes a trip to the ski hill worth it. Even when meltdowns ensue (and I promise you they will), at least they are outside.

It’s not about how fast you both can get on the lift and head down the mountain. It’s about teaching your kid to relax and have fun outside.

Processing all the news sounds, brightness of the snow and moving pieces is overwhelming to any syste, let alone to a kid that already struggles. 

Let go of a timeline and expectations. Sneak off and get a few turns alone if you can so you can come back with renewed energy.

Let Your Kid Set The Pace

When I watch video of our ski adventures, it pains me how much I coach my kid. I do it without thinking.

Occasionally I have to promise silence the whole run. This means I ski defensively behind her and try to let go. 

Pro Mom Tip: Always end with a reward, make it a ritual.

Whether it’s the carousel in Nederland on the way home or jumping into a hot tub at the end of the day. My kids thrive on the little rituals we have after skiing.

Good old fashion bribery never hurt anyone. 

$2 worth of sheer joy. Worth every penny.

Trust Your Internal Compass 

Other winter activities like ice skating, hiking, and cross-country skiing are great ways to take on a challenge and build up confidence.

Our original Mountain Mama, Amelia, wrote a great piece about XC skiing here.

Down-hill skiing is lots of fun, but it’s not for everyone. The point is to have fun outside, find a rhythm that works for your crew.

You know your kid better than anyone. You got this!! 

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Teaching a Special Needs Child to Ski

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Sunday 26th of March 2023

What ski resort do you find best?....I have a granddaughter with SMA, she walks with walking sticks...we are wanting to take all our kids and grandkids skiing this winter, just not sure best place to go....ANY help her would be appreciated... Thank you in advance and thank you for this blog..