A special solution for special needs

Adaptive gymnastics program can be a game-changer for kids with disabilities
2013-05-26T00:00:00Z 2014-10-10T11:49:25Z A special solution for special needsKristen Cook Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 26, 2013 12:00 am  • 

When you have a child with special needs, sports can be tricky.

Do you tell people about the disability in the hopes of more understanding and sensitivity - even though it means getting stuck with a label? Or do you stay quiet and hope for the best?

Kerri Luschen knows that dilemma all too well.

Her 7-year-old son, Wyatt has Asperger's syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder characterized by difficulty interacting with people. He may look like other kids, but he doesn't act like other kids.

Still, he craves that social interaction and camaraderie you can get only from being part of a team. Luschen and her husband, Doyle, who recently relocated here from Washington, have always supported whatever Wyatt wanted to try.

Soccer was a disaster. When Luschen revealed her son's condition, she was immediately told he wouldn't fit in with the team - no one had even met Wyatt yet.

Flag football wasn't much better. Though the coaches and kids were patient and kind, Wyatt had trouble grasping the rules and spent his one and only practice in tears. He had moderate luck with gymnastics. Still, it was hard.

"He always felt like a failure," Luschen says. "He felt like he couldn't do it."

Not anymore.

That fateful flag football practice was good for one thing - Luschen learned from a coach's wife about a new gymnastics program for kids with special needs.

In January, Old Pueblo Gymnastics Academy added an adaptive program, open to kids who have diagnosed social, emotional or physical disabilities. The program is the brainchild of occupational therapist Libby Bishop, whose two children are Old Pueblo regulars. Bishop had read about the benefits of offering therapy in a gymnastics setting and took the idea to owners Randy and Alacia Sooter. They loved it.

After consultations with facilities in Phoenix and California that have similar programs and about $3,000 worth of specialized equipment, the program was up and running. Adaptive gymnastics is now in its third session. The fee is intentionally low, $40 for an eight-week session, because there are so few recreational offerings for special-needs kids, Randy Sooter says.

"Our goal is not to profit or make money off this class but of giving back and trying to get ... kids in here to provide them the opportunity to exercise," he says. "We see it as a community service."

Classes are small - three or four kids - with two coaches in charge. Bishop starts off with warm-ups then briskly leads the youngsters, whose disabilities include Down syndrome, autism and spina bifida, through 45 minutes of activities. They might bounce on the trampoline or walk across the balance beam or maneuver through an obstacle course. At the end of the class comes everyone's favorite: the foam pit.

"That's their reward. They love that," says Bishop, who often has the kids "swim" through the foam, which is really a strengthening exercise.

The class is basically the sports equivalent of sneaking healthy veggies into a meal - the kids are having fun while building up their muscles and coordination at the same time.

"The focus is for them to have fun in a safe environment," she says. "They don't realize that they're doing really great things for their body."

The kids are making great strides, too, Bishop adds.

"We have children who were very fearful of their feet leaving the ground, whether it was jumping or hanging on the rings," she says. "They're doing that now. It's just simple gains like that that make them so happy."

It's been a game-changer for Wyatt.

At his first class, Luschen says, Wyatt was very nervous and wanted her by his side. Afraid of heights, he refused to try hanging from the rings. But he's gotten over that - and his need to have his mom nearby. Luschen now sits in the waiting area with the other parents and watches him wave and blow kisses from the gym. Luschen says she was blown away to see her son, who has low muscle tone and coordination issues, use the pommel horse.

The class has been "the best fit for him," she says, adding that he's making friends, too. "He's actually learning something and feeling confident and gaining confidence."

Adaptive Gymnastics Program

• What: Adaptive movement classes for special needs kids, 3-17 years old. Children with a diagnosed social, emotional or physical disability can enroll after an initial screening.

• Where: Old Pueblo Gymnastics Academy, 7670 E. Wrightstown Road.

• How much: $50 for June 11 and June 13 summer camp; $40 for 8-week sessions that start in the fall; plus a $31 annual registration fee. Private lessons are also available.

• For more info: 628-4355 and oldpueblogymnastics.com

Contact Kristen Cook at kcook@azstarnet.com or 573-4194.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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