Posts Tagged ‘behavior modification’

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.