Arts for All of Brooklyn's Special Kids

February 3, 2012

"Special Day for Special Kids" at the New York Transit Museum
(Credit: Kate Milford, Extreme Kids and Crew)

Helping Kids Be...Kids!

Two years ago, the New York Transit Museum—the city’s institute for all things public transportation, in Downtown Brooklyn—came to us with an exciting new idea: an afterschool program using the museum’s collection to teach social skills to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) youth.

Investing in the Subway Sleuths program would be a way to marry the Community Foundation’s support for special needs communities with our dedication to expanding arts and cultural opportunities to all Brooklynites.

It was an irresistible opportunity for us as funders to take the lead in fostering the program’s development, and to see what seemed like a natural fit—the structure and predictability of the subway system and autism’s characteristic attention to detail and focus—come to life here in Brooklyn, the home for great ideas. 

In 2010, through our Arts for All Fund, we gave NYTM a $5,000 startup grant for Subway Sleuths, and last year, we upped our support through a $10,000 challenge grant.

The program now runs as a 10-week session twice a year, with structured lessons about trains and subways, guided exploration of the Museum, group projects, and a final “Subway Sleuths Super Party” for students to present their work and celebrate with family and friends.  By interviewing participants in advance of the program, teachers are able to individualize their lesson plans to match the cognitive and developmental levels of the group and individual participants.

Participants take a guided tour of the New York Transit Museum at the “Special Day for Special Kids” event

Lessons use the language of the subway to teach social skills, like “getting off track” in a social situation, a common issue among individuals with spectrum disorders. Instructors also discuss how sometimes people get distracted or take “a detour,” and what it means to be “on board.”

As the program takes off, it’s been celebrated in The New York Times (achieving illustrious status as “most emailed article”) and received additional funds, including a prestigious national grant from Autism Speaks—confirming the ASD community’s hunger for cultural, recreational, and educational opportunities where kids can be comfortable and parents can share their experiences with other families. 
“Jack had an amazing experience...He made many new friends…and learned many new facts (which he still shares with everyone on a regular basis) but it was the social skills and bonding that made the program so worthwhile.  His favorite part was working with a partner and making a movie.  Seeing his confidence as he shared his project was wonderful.”
– Subway Sleuths Parent

Last December, following our meeting with the new Bed-Stuy-based, parent-run nonprofit Extreme Kids & Crew, which provides enrichment programs for children with disabilities, we too had a great idea: connect the two groups doing complementary work, and see if they could work together.

The result: A “Special Day for Special Kids” at the New York Transit Museum on January 22nd. More than 230 children and adults attended the event and enjoyed free and reduced admissions, art projects, live music, and a scavenger hunt—in an environment where kids could be themselves and parents could relax knowing their special kids would be fully appreciated and understood.
“Without the Community Foundation’s support, Subway Sleuths would never have been in a position to receive a coveted Autism Speaks Grant or front-page attention in The New York Times last summer. The Transit Museum has now doubled the number of students served by Subway Sleuths and is using our Subway Sleuths experts to train the entire Museum education staff to better serve school groups with special needs. The Community Foundation’s initial faith has resulted in many wonderful ripples, within the Transit Museum and beyond our walls!”

- New York Transit Museum Assistant Director Marcia Ely

Across Brooklyn, another Arts for All Fund grantee partner is taking similar steps to connect ASD youth with the vibrant resources of the Brooklyn Museum. Behavior specialists at ActionPlay have collaborated with the education staff at the Museum to create pilot tours and arts activities expressly for children with autism.

As ActionPlay’s first funder, it’s another example of the emphasis we place on creating new resources and funding new ideas here in Brooklyn.


Students from the Rebecca School at the Brooklyn Museum with ActionPlay

In mid-January, ActionPlay led its first group of students from the Rebecca School on a field trip, highlighted by a hands-on sculpture making project.

“Brooklyn Community Foundation values children that see the world in a unique way. The Brooklyn Museum partnership with Actionplay, supported by an ‘Arts for All’ grant, is creating a museum experience that respects children with autism and developmental disabilities’ unique sensitivities,” said ActionPlay Founder and Director Aaron Feinstein. “I love the title ‘Arts for All,’ it really says just what we are striving to create in our partnership with the Brooklyn Museumarts for children with autism and developmental disabilities, and respect for ALL children as unique, creative, and awesome!”


What's Happening Across Brooklyn 

Here are a few highlights of news and events we’ve shared with our followers this week. Don’t miss a thing! Like us at and follow us at

Brownsville Youth Court Featured in the Daily News
The paper visits our grantee partner the Center for Court Innovation's Brownsville Community Justice Center (which we supported with a $25,000 grant in 2011) for a profile on their Teen Court. Read it here.

New E-Waste Recycling Center for Brooklyn!
This week, the Lower East Side Ecology Center opened a permanent e-waste collection center at 469 President Street in Gowanus. The center is open Tuesday - Saturday to accept your unwanted electronics. More info, including a list of accepted materials here.

Brooklyn Greens: "Greening from the Ground Up" - Note the New Date and Location!

Build a Better Brooklyn
Please take a moment to cast your vote for Brooklyn Community Foundation in Bay Ridge Toyota's Build a Better Brooklyn Facebook contest. The dealership will give the winning charity a percentage of the proceeds from every car sold during the first quarter of this year. Vote here!