06/03/2014 05:03 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Great Zucchini's Secrets to Entertaining Children With Special Needs

The Great Zucchini is well known in the DC-area as the premier children's entertainer. He books months in advance, regularly gets recognized at Starbucks by the under-eight set, almost never says no to performing at a charity event, and FX is set to release a pilot based on his life of making kids laugh by day and betting on his favorite sports teams by night.


What is less well known is that the Great Zucchini, also known as Eric Knaus, has a special way with kids with special needs. He is the go-to guy when parents with children with special needs need an entertainer for the child's birthday party. At least one child with Autism is a regular at his shows because it's the only show he will sit through. Every Valentine's Day Eric performs at a show specifically for children with special needs in Kensingon, MD but he also regularly performs at birthday parties for children with special needs and adapts seamlessly on the many occasions there are children with special needs in the audience at his shows.

Here, Eric shares his secrets for making children with special needs laugh at home. There are several ways to add laughter into your home that are so easy and don't take long. Also, when a child is sad, or is having a temper tantrum, humor can make him smile.

When Eric is performing for children with special needs he concentrates more on physical comedy and exaggerated movements and does his tricks quickly.


Many children understand when something isn't right and they love telling you about it, and can even feel empowered by being able to communicate that they know something isn't quite the way it should be. There are many ways to do this. When Eric stands in front of a child at his show and pretends not to be able to find them children often crack up and say "I'm right here!" Pretend to lose kids again and again and they love it. This can be done in various ways at home. For example, at the kitchen table wait for John to sit down then say, "We can't start until John sits down" and walk around kitchen looking for him. Another way to empower children to let you know something is wrong is to do a running gag of pretending to pour different juices into cereal instead of milk. Children will laugh and correct you at the same time. Another take on this idea is that when the phone rings, pick up a random object (shoe, spoon, etc.) and say hello. Children will laugh, and tell you "That's not the phone!"

Another trick to getting children with special needs to laugh is a take on hide-and-seek. Pretend to do a magic trick to get an object to disappear, hide the object somewhere easily discoverable such as behind your back or under your shirt, and let your child discover it. After your child finds the object, pretend to be flustered, and try it again. When playing hide and go seek, lift up ridiculous object to hide behind, like chair or a piece of paper. Your child will love finding you and think you're not a very good hider.

Pretending you do not know where common items go or where they can be found will get kids laughing as well. Put milk back in cabinet and let kids tell you where it goes. Pretend that you can't find a fork to use to eat, and pick up different items to use instead such as your phone or the remote. You can also pretend to fall asleep randomly in the house.

My daughter with special needs loves the Great Zucchini and laughs easily at home when I use his secret tips with her. If you are lucky enough to live in the DC area be sure to catch one of the Great Zucchini's shows with your child with special needs (and bring along any typically developing siblings). If not, trying out his secrets at home is the next best thing! All of these tricks will make typically developing children laugh as well so don't hold back on using them with all of the kids in your life.