Posts Tagged ‘autism’

Behavior Modification and Special Needs: The Gym Family

Thursday, May 1st, 2008

My heart goes out to parents with special needs children.  I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to raise a child who requires around the clock care for possibly their entire lives.  I can’t imagine what it must be like to fear that nobody will be there to care for my child if something should happen to me. 

My heart has broken for parents as they have described how their children are rejected by society at large.  I have listened to parents explain the stares in public, or the fact that people will not allow their child to participate in swimming lessons because they do not want to touch their child.  It really bothers me to think that we as a society can be so hardened to other human beings simply because they don’t “fit the mold.”

When I opened my gym, my learning curve increased significantly as I stepped into the role of owner rather than coach or preschool director.  I had my hands full just learning how to run a business.  So, I had not taken the time to start a special needs program in my new gym.  

One day, a mom came into my gym to sign her daughter up for gymnastics.  As she stood at the front counter filling out the registration forms, she commented that she wished her son could participate in something like gymnastics.  I asked her why he couldn’t participate.  Her response was, “He has autism.” 

I said, “Yeah? So, why can’t he do gymnastics?”  She stared at me for a moment with this stunned look on her face and I told her that I had worked with special needs kids before and that kids with autism could gain a great deal from gymnastics.   I explained that gymnastics was actually a GREAT sport for any kid, especially kids with sensory integration disorders including autism.

She seemed abit confused for a moment and asked me, “So, you would let my son come to your gym?”  It almost seemed as if she had difficulty asking the question.

“ABSOLUTELY.  Without hesitation.”

She burst into tears.  I mean..BURST into tears. 

Then she went on to tell me that there were no programs in our area for special needs.

That’s the day I knew I needed to make the time to start a special needs program in my new gym.  As I continued to find out, there truly was NO program for special needs children in our area.  There was a huge need.  I could not live with myself if I didn’t do something to fulfill that need.

So, I contacted the local hospital system and visited with the head of their Pediatric Occupational Therapy department.  She and I sat and talked for about an hour as she asked me about the sorts of things I wanted to do with the kids.  By the end of the interview, she and I had a really good understanding of how we could work together.  That relationship has blossomed to include the Child Psychology department within that hospital system as well. 

Then, I contacted the local school districts and put a flyer out to their special needs teachers to let them know that our gym would welcome their students.

That’s how our program started. 

I knew that my established clientele would have an adjustment as they got used to our new program.  I knew that it would be a learning experience for the children as they learned to accept other children who weren’t exactly like them.  I knew the parents would have questions.  People are simply not comfortable with things they don’t understand.  I knew I was going to have to educate my gymnastics family as they learned to adjust their perception of gymnastics and the pursuit of medals.

Still, I felt that it was the correct direction for our gym, and the incredible life lessons that could be gained by everyone involved were too invaluable to pass up.  Every child is someone’s baby.  Every child deserves dignity and respect.  Every child deserves the chance to succeed to the best of their ability.  The lessons in acceptance were just as important for my established clientele as the participation was for the special needs children and their parents.

I was able to mainstream several of the children who came to me, but my first severely affected student was Melanie.  She was 13 at the time she started gymnastics.  Melanie has Autism and Fragile X, so she not only has autism, but she also has mental retardation.  The first few times she came to the gym, she could only be in the facility for about 15 minutes before she overstimulated and lost control.  It was very overwhelming for her.  She would fly into uncontrollable rages and her mom and I would have to restrain her from running across the gym.  Melanie is quite the drama queen, and her tantrums are grand performances.  So, as she started, we had to gradually add time to her class.

Melanie also had an obsessive behavior she called “woofing.”  She would walk up to people and “woof” their hair, rubbing their heads rather briskly and messing up their hair.  That was Melanie’s way of saying “hi.”  Woofing their hair.  So, the parents in the observation area were fair game for Melanie when she walked into the gym..many heads were woofed before we were able to teach her to limit her woofing to my head or her mother’s head.

This behavior bothered some of the parents.  Her tantrums also bothered some of the parents.

One day, after Melanie had been in the gym for about 3 weeks, a dad walked up to me right before her class and said, “I am really uncomfortable with ‘those’ children being in the gym at the same time as the ‘normal’ children.”  I felt my blood start to rise.  He continued by telling me that if I was going to have “those” children in my gym that he felt that he was going to have to take his daughter out of my program.

There were many things I wanted to say to the man at that moment.  I SOOO wanted to point out that his daughter was likely to become just as intolerant, condescending and arrogant as he already was if his example was the only attitude she ever experienced in life.  Yep..there were alot of things I wanted to say at that moment, many of which would qualify as “unlady-like” not to mention “unprofessional.”

I bit my tongue the best I could as I tried to respond calmly.”I’m sorry you feel that way, sir, but ‘those children’ ARE normal children.  They simply have to deal with disorders that you and I are lucky enough not to have to deal with.  Any child will be welcome in my gym if I can serve them.  If that is uncomfortable to you, then this is probably not the gym for you.”  Sure enough..he pulled his daughter out of the program.  I have to say, I didn’t mind watching the door swat him in the backside as he left. 

Another parent also approached me with concerns.  A mom.  I told her as I have told many people over the years that as a mother, I simply could not turn my back on other mothers and their children who needed me the most.  I could not face myself if I turned my back and added to the rejection they felt directed at their child daily.  I couldn’t do it.  She could relate to what I was saying, and so she stepped back and watched. 

Over the next few months, I had the opportunity to watch an amazing transformation as I watched the entire gym learn acceptance.  The children in the gym opened their arms to our new members and learned to cheer for them when they achieved the smallest things.  They realized that something so mundane for them like walking up stairs was a huge step for Melanie because it meant she was overcoming her fear of heights.  I watched as the children themselves stepped up to the plate and began helping their new friends with special needs.  I saw the parents begin cheering for the special needs kids as much as they did for their own.  Our special needs program became a fixture and simply a part of the culture in our gym.

About a year later that same mother came to me and said, “Ya know, I would have never believed how much Melanie could progress if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.  It is amazing that the same kid who couldn’t last for 15 minutes in the gym can now participate in a three hour game night.  She has come so far.”

I felt a small victory…because that mom had grown as much as Melanie had progressed.

Behavior modification had to start with the community and the gym family. 

It had to start with letting the community at large know that there IS a program for special needs children in our area through the schools and through the medical community. 

It began with the gymnastics family already established in my gym.  It had to start with teaching people not only to accept others as they are, but also to celebrate the victories for each individual. 

It had to start with me setting aside my fears as a new gym owner worried about losing the business of those parents who might not “be comfortable” with children who didn’t fit their perception of “normal” and it meant changing the definition of “normal” for those willing to listen and hear.

Structuring Tips for Working with Autistic Children

Thursday, May 1st, 2008

As I started learning about working with special needs children, I studied up on Autism and ways to handle children with Autism.  There are a few things that I learned that have helped me alot.

 1.  Keep things very structured.  ASD kids do not like surprises.  So, keeping the class very structured is really important. 

2.  Alot of my moms take pictures of me in the gym to show their children before they come to class so that they are prepared for what they are going to be doing next in their daily schedule. This prepares them mentally before they ever enter the gym.

3.  My kiddos do really well with highly structured classes following the same routine each week.  They know what to expect and what is coming next.  I introduce any new drills or activities into their regularly patterned activities one at a time. 

4.  Before we move from one event to another, I give them warnings like, “In 5 minutes we will be going to bars,” “In 3 minutes, we will be going to bars,” “In one minute we will be going to bars.”    OR “after you do three more swings, we are going to jump on the trampoline.”  This gives them fair warning that the activity is going to be changing.

5.  When I first get a child with special needs, I ask the parent to bring them into they gym for about 30 minutes so I can get to know them and watch them.  During this time, I stand back and simply watch the kids move.  Just watching the kids tells me alot about what they want and need in their movements.  I look for things like core body stability, if they over-use their arms as cheats for balance, if they can jump with two feet, use oppositional movement and things like that.   Those things define the drills I need to set up for them.

6.  If I have a child with whom I need to work one-on-one, I try to find a quiet hour in the gym when there are no other or very few classes running concurrently.  If at all possible, I try to work with them during the dead time in the afternoons.  That way, I can develop our relationship without the distractions and overstimulation caused by too much activity in the gym.  Then, I gradually move them into pairings or small class groups during lighter hours and introduce them to class groups as they adjust.  The goal is ALWAYS to introduce them into groups and teach them to socialize and integrate, but I do it gradually so they can get used to me, our class structures and rules, and the gym atmosphere.  A gym can be intimidating to any child when they first start classes.

7.  When I am working with a child or a pair of children individually during the quiet hours, I start with lower lighting to keep the atmosphere calm.  As they get used to me and the gym, I increase the lighting and sound.

8.  One of the interesting things that I find works for me is using their behaviors to my advantage.  Children with Autism often have obsessive behaviors sometimes including “flight patterns.”  This is an area where I like to “choose my battles wisely.”  If they like flight patterns, they will set up a route they like to take at a given event, and I allow them that freedom.  Then, I use that route to place activities into their path. 

For example, Micheal, a three year old, loved to jump down the tumble track, then he would immediately spend about 10 – 15 seconds standing in a nook next to a mat at the end of the tumble track, slide down the pit, run back to the beginning of the track, stick his big toe into a divet in the floor foam, and go back up the steps to the tumble track.  That was his ritual.  So, I used his ritual to my advantage by setting up his activities along his chosen path.  I used his running route back to the beginning of the tumble track to place his activities.  I’d let him have one free run without any impediments, then each time he made his flight back to the beginning, I added one station into his path.  By the end of his rotation at tumble track, he was doing a full obstacle course between jumps.  He was happy because he had his ritual, and I was happy because I was able to use that ritual to get him to do what I wanted him to accomplish for the day.


Monday, April 28th, 2008

April is an important month for families who live with Autism.  This is the month that there is added attention given to the Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD).  There are alot of articles and studies released during April., for example, has been carrying a number of articles of interest regarding Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. 

Why is this particularly important to those of us in the gymnastics industry?  With the rise of the ASD’s, we are seeing more and more children who are diagnosed with sensory integration disorders such as ADD & ADHD, Autism and Asperger’s.  That means if you have not yet coached a kid with one of those disorders; you will.  It behooves all of us to educate ourselves on the movement needs for these special needs kiddos so that we are prepared to work with a broad spectrum of children.  Understanding the disorders and how to work with a child who lives with one of these disorders will help each of us feel more comfortable and more competent in working with them.

I’m a coach.  Just a coach.  I’m not an OT nor a PT.  I don’t have any sort of formal medical training.  I’m just a plain old gymnastics coach.  So, when I first started venturing into the world of special needs, I had alot of questions and I was hesitant because I worried that I might hurt a child or I might not know how to handle a child.  I felt almost overwhelmed by the amount of information I needed to learn.

 Still, there is such a need for people willing to open their gyms to children who otherwise might not have the opportunity to participate in “normal” childhood activities, and while we might not be medical personnel, we are in the unique position to offer an activity that benefits all children.  Competency in movement enhances lives.  Confidence in self gained through better movement also enhances lives.  How, then, could I turn my back on children who need us so much?

So, as I began learning about working with special needs, I started small.  I focused on learning about one disorder at a time.  As I had children join my program with different special needs, I studied, I talked to their doctors, teachers, occupational and physical therapists and most of all their parents.  I have done a great deal of reading.  With the internet, there are volumes and volumes of informatoin available online.  Magazine articles, support groups with informational handouts, and books covering various disorders are all available.  Seeking and studying as much information as possible helped me to feel more confident as a coach working with special needs.  As you begin working with special needs, study study study.

Through conversations with various medical and therapeutic professionals, and studying available literature regarding the challenges faced by children with special needs, I have found that we do many of the exact same things in gymnastics when we deconstruct skills and work in elemental segments that Occupational and Physical Therapists do with their clients.  I have also found that working in conjuction with the OT’s and PT’s, I can create lesson plans that suit the needs of the children whom they send to me.  Working in unison with the doctors, I have seen wonderful progress for each child, individually.  It has truly been an oddessy and an adventure, and I have to say, I have truly come to love working with my special needs children.

If we open our minds, we can expand the definition of our sport.  Our sport is an incredible sport.  Even children not destined for high level competitive gymnastics can gain from our beautiful sport. 

Further, if we open our minds and expand our curriculums to include movement fundamentals from which all children can benefit, then every child becomes a gymnast.  As we realize that gymnastics is not simply a gold medal quest, we can see a much broader picture and our abilities expand to meet a much broader need.

Once we do these things, we do not need to fear working with special needs children.  They are remarkable people and really awesome little kids.  I have gained so much joy in watching my special needs kiddos progress.  It has been a joy watching as they experience participation in the same activities as any other child in a sport I love. 

As I have traveled to speak around the nation, it has warmed my heart to hear of more and more gyms opening their doors to special needs children.  We are in the very unique position of being able to offer special needs children “normality” and acceptance doing an activity in a “normal” environment instead of condemning them to a clinical environment for any outside activities…and the benefits they can derive from participation in gymnastics are emmense

The best advice I can give anyone who works with special needs children is to remember..they are normal children.  They simply have to deal with a disorder.

I encourage everyone to seek articles on any of the ASD’s and open the dialogue with each other.  We can learn from each other as we all learn to help the special people in our gym.  The more knowledge we bring to the table, the stronger we will all be.  We may not fully understand some of the disorders with which our children are faced, but we can learn.