The Ballad of SenseAbility Gym

Wednesday, September 26, 2012 View Comments Autism Speaks

Alysia lives in Hopedale, MA with her husband and three sons. She is active in the special needs community through her volunteer work, specifically as the managing editor of the SPD Blogger Network, a website designed to connect parents of children with sensory processing disorder and through her own personal blog Try Defying Gravity. She is also a member of her local special education parents advisory council. Her middle child was diagnosed with PDD-NOS at age 3 1/2. Her youngest was diagnosed with PDD-NOS a few months before his third birthday.

This is perhaps the most important thing I’ve done since marrying my husband and starting my incredible family.

My very dear friend and I are opening a parent-led sensory gym.  As a non-profit. For kids just like mine.

We’re calling it “SenseAbility Gym: A Sensory Gym for Sensational Kids.“

But first…the back story.

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This winter, my friend and I took our sons to an open sensory gym in sponsored by the Autism Alliance of Metrowest.  We watched our boys run around and play and smile.  The equipment was familiar to the boys from their OT sessions.  As a bonus, my friend and I got to actually talk to one another.  A few weeks later, we attended another sensory open gym. Again, the boys were in heaven.  Jumping into ball pits, climbing through the squeeze machine, swinging around on the therapeutic swings.  And we got to talk.  Mostly about how we wished there was something like this open near us all year round.

I wrote about our experience there in my blog.  I talked about how welcoming it was.  No one there batted an eye if a kid was upset, or melting down, or jumping up and down, or making noises, or making eye contact or not.  It was pure acceptance and love for our kids.

My husband read it, saw my son’s happy face in the pictures, and casually said “You should open a place like that.”

I’m not sure he actually meant it. But I started to cry.  Because I knew we had to open a place like that.

The more we talked to people: parents of kids with special needs, parents of kids without special needs, therapists, teachers, you name it.   They all said we had to do this.

We met with a business consultant to organize our thoughts.  We relied on people in our community who took their personal time to sit with us and tell us what we needed to do to make this work.  We filed with the state as a nonprofit, with the attorney general’s office as a public charity, and received our 501(c)3 status from the IRS faster than anyone said it would happen.

And so SenseAbility Gym, Incorporated was born.

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SenseAbility Gym’s mission is to provide a parent-led sensory gym, giving children with special needs a safe, fun, indoor area where they can play and accommodate their sensory needs.  This will be the first of its kind in the Metrowest area of Massachusetts.  We’re modeling our gym after an incredibly successful sensory gym in Brooklyn, NY.

We believe in the fact that all children deserve access to the types of therapeutic equipment used in their schools and their private occupational therapy clinics and we believe that parents need to interact with their children to learn what helps their child “feel better” and have fun. There are four important components to our mission.

·     Community: SenseAbility Gym wants its members to feel welcome, and part of the special needs community.

·     Safe Sensory Play: SenseAbility Gym wants parents of children with special needs to feel there is a safe place to bring their children for fun, exercise and sensory support.

·     Acceptance: SenseAbility Gym will have an environment that recognizes that all special needs children are different and that all learning styles, personalities, and abilities are welcome.

·     Support: SenseAbility Gym will be a place where families of special needs children can go to meet other families who share the same struggles.

I’m lucky to be connected with special needs parents all over the country and the world.  The one common statement that most parents say is “I feel so alone.  My child is the only one that has these extra special needs. I have no one to turn to for support.”

We see the gym as a place not only for our kids and kids like ours to accommodate their sensory needs, but also as a place to build their social skills and interact with other children like them.  We see the gym as a place where moms and dads can interact with parents just like them.

We see it as an another piece of the support team helping families know they are not alone.

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We know that as many as one in six children have sensory processing issues. That is from the SPD Foundation.We know that 1 in 88 children – 1 in every 54 boys – are diagnosed as on the autism spectrum.

In our small area we have the potential of connecting with over 400 families who could use the gym.  We’re guessing that people will travel farther and the actual number will be even higher.

That is over four hundred families that could finally connect and say “Me too.”

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We need your help.  As a non-profit public charity, we are completely reliant on donations, grants, and our membership dues to stay open.  None of us are taking a salary.  All the money raised goes right back into keeping the gym open and running: rent, electricity, equipment, furniture, insurance.

Our gym will be located in Hopedale, MA.  There will be one large open space with equipment like therapy swings, a scooter board ramp, a ball pit, tunnels and a squeeze machine.  We’ll have one quiet “sensory” room with crash pads and calming activities.  And one classroom space for us to hold social skills or life skills classes, or to be used as a sensory-friendly homework room for children. Families will be able to purchase memberships to access open gym times with their children. 

We would like to have our grand opening in January 2013.  We are actively pursuing local and national grants to help get us closer to that number.

We need you to tell people about us.  Maybe you know a family who has a child with special needs in our area who could benefit from a membership at the gym.  Maybe it’s your own family.  Maybe you work for a company that is generous with community giving.  Maybe you know children who need to raise money as a community service project and they would like to purchase a piece of equipment.

I need you – my friends and family – to help make this gym a reality.  Not just for my kids or my friend’s kids.

But for mom who told me at our town’s Day In The Park that her daughter needs a place like this.

For the parents sitting in an Early Intervention family group right now wondering where they could find a safe place to meet once their kids turn three.

For the dad who is desperately looking for a way to connect with his autistic son, but can’t afford the play equipment his child needs.

Every dollar donated goes to the gym and those families.

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I cannot wait to see the smiling faces on the kids that come through.

And their parents.

On behalf of my friend and every family that this will help, thank you for reading.