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Boats For Special Needs Families (8 Options)

Families with special needs children often have to ask if activities popular with other families are safe or practical for them to participate. Fortunately, the answer is usually “yes,” although it does depend on their child’s specific needs. Boating is one of those activities that families with special needs children can enjoy, although there are some types of boats that may be better for families with special needs than others.

8 Types of Boats for Families with Special Needs Children

Children with special needs do face challenges that other children don’t, but this doesn’t mean that they can’t enjoy a day out on the lake with their family. The challenges faced by your child will be unique to their needs, and often surprising.

  • Hearing impaired children, you would think, wouldn’t face many special boating-related challenges, but you’d be wrong. In fact, since it can be very difficult to find swim classes that will accept deaf children, they’re often weak swimmers, which of course adds a certain amount of danger to a boating trip.
  • Epileptic children are at higher risk of drowning than other children since, if they suffer a seizure while on the board (or, God forbid, while in a tube or swimming) it’s much more difficult to keep them safe.
  • Autistic children can be difficult to calm if they go into a full-on meltdown while on the water, which is every parent’s worst nightmare. Having a small cabin to take them into while they calm down would certainly be nice.

The list goes on; some children with physical disabilities may struggle getting on and off the boat, others may have visual impairments. Whatever your child’s needs are, the good news is that there really aren’t any boats that are completely off-limits for you, only some that are better options than others.

Provided you understand how to meet their needs and understand the specific risks they face, boating is a fun and safe activity for special needs children. If you want to enjoy boating with your special needs child, here are the best types of boats for you to buy.

1. Pontoon Boats

Pontoon are popular family boats. They have large decks and are typically more spacious than other boats of similar size, with comfortable seating too. That alone makes them attractive as a family boat, but what really sets them apart is the incredible stability they have.

Pontoon boats consist of a wide, flat deck on top of two, or sometimes three, aluminum or fiberglass pontoons. Essentially, they have two or three hulls joined together by the deck on top. This gives them their remarkable stability, and it’s what makes them so safe.

These are especially great if you need to worry about your child potentially falling off the boat in rough water or if they just need extra space. You can even do a little fishing from a pontoon boat, especially if you have a good trolling motor.

2. Bowriders

Bowriders are simply boats that have seating up in the bow, in front of the helm (which is typically offset to allow easy passage from bow to stern. These are commonly used for water skiing or tubing, as they offer the power, maneuverability and speed that these activities need, but with extra space for a larger crowd on board.

The extra seating area means they tend to be on the larger side. If you family really wants to go tubing on the lake, or even water skiing, this might be the boat you want. It can handle those activities well, and it offers lots of space and seating. Since the deck space is smaller than a pontoon boat, it may be easier to keep a close eye on your special needs child in a bowrider.

3. Deck Boats

At first glance, deck boats look a lot like a bowrider. The biggest difference is that deck boats have much more deck space and a open “floor plan,” so to speak. This gives them more room than a bowrider. I look at deck boats as a perfect mixture of a pontoon boat and a bowrider.

In terms of deck space, they occupy the middle ground between a pontoon boat and a bowrider. More space is great if you have a large crowd, but it might also become a literal life saver if your children is prone to violent seizures. On a deck boat it would be much easier to clear the space around them than in a bowrider.

4. Cuddy Cabins

Cuddy Cabins replace the bow seating or deck space of the bowrider or deck boat with an actual cabin, featuring sleeping space and often a small bathroom. They’re designed to allow short overnight cruises, extra storage, or simply a place to get out of the sun.

For families with special needs children, the cabin may come in very handy. If your child is prone to over stimulation, the cabin can be a great place for them to go and find some peace and quiet.

5. Power Cruisers

Also called motor yachts, these are big boats. They’re about as big as you can get on the lake, and they’re built with comfort in mind. They have large, comfortable interior spaces and are designed for cruising, rather than water sports.

If your family wants to cruise in luxury, a power cruiser might be for you. For families with special needs children, the biggest advantage of the power cruiser is flexibility. If they don’t want to get in the water, your cruiser probably has televisions on board, or comfortable furniture for them to read on.

If they get tired, they can go take a nap in one of the cabins. If they have special dietary needs, there’s plenty of space on board to store their food.

6. Sailboats

Sailboats have a lot to offer as family boats. Sailing requires special skills that many people enjoy passing on to their children, and learning to tie knots and manage the sails can be an excellent exercise in improving dexterity and coordination.

Sailing boats are slow, in a good way. Going sailing is much more peaceful than going out in a power boat, so for children that are easily overstimulated, especially by noise and speed, sail boats can be great.

7. Jet boats

Jet boats are built for speed, and are ideal for water sports. Water sports like tubing and skiing can be great ways for children with special needs to be active outside. They don’t require as much coordination or strength as other sports but they’re just as much fun.

8. Houseboats

Houseboats are just like what they sound like, houses that are also boats. They are big, hard to maneuver, and oh my are they expensive. Some of these boats are well over $200k and beyond, however they are very nice. They have full living quarters complete with bedrooms, bathrooms, living areas, and a even kitchens. If you can afford such a boat then it would certainly keep children with special needs as safe as possible while still being able to enjoy the beauty of the lake.

7 things to keep in mind while boating with special needs kids

1. Always have life jackets

This applies to all children, but a child with special needs may need a special life jacket. There life jackets made with all kinds of special needs in mind, so be sure to find one will work for your child.

2. Pay Close Attention

This is true with any child, but more so with a child that has special needs. They may not be as aware of potential dangers or as responsive to threats, and of course their reactions to any given situation may be different from other children.

3. Don’t go during peak times

The fewer people that are out on the water with you, the better. This means that maybe you don’t go out on Labor Day Weekend, or if you do you go earlier in the morning or later in the evening to avoid the biggest crowds.

4. Include them

There’s always a way to safely include special needs children in any activity, so don’t exclude them. Find ways to give them every opportunity to participate in whatever you’re doing.

5. Be prepared

Children all have a way of disrupting our plans. Special needs children are no different, except that their disruptions may be more severe. They may get overstimulated more easily, they may have seizures, they may be more difficult to calm down, etc. You know your child, and you know the difficulties they are likely to face and to present, so be prepared.

6. Space is good

No matter what your child’s specific needs are, space is probably a good thing. Space creates versatility, and safety. A spacious boat is a comfortable boat, too, and that makes everyone happier.

7. Stability is also good

Safety is always a chief concern with children on the boat, and so stability is a big plus. Stable boats are safe boats, another reason why pontoon boats make a great choice for any family with special needs or handicapped children.


There’s no reason for a family with special needs children to miss out on the joys of boating. As with almost any other activity, you can safely engage in boating as long as you understand your child’s needs, can anticipate and prepare for potential problems, and know how to minimize the risks.

While you can safely go boating with special needs children in almost any type of boat, pontoon boats may be the best type of boat for you to use. They safety and stability of pontoon boats, combined with their spacious decks, make them an ideal choice for families in general, but especially for families with special needs children.

Written by OutdoorMotives

At outdoormotives.com we talk about all types of outdoor activities. We answer common questions and recommend the best products to help you enjoy the outdoors as much as possible.


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