By SUE SUCHYTA
Sunday Times Newspapers
SOUTHGATE – Special needs children can have fun and experience a sense of accomplishment while increasing their physical activity level and building muscle tone at Downriver Gymnastics’ weekend Friends Like Me class.
The class, held from 1 to 1:45 p.m. on Saturdays at the gym, 13777 Eureka Road, combines physical play with gross motor skill development, and is adapted to meet each child’s individual needs, with coaches and teen gymnast volunteers offering plenty of one-on-one attention.
Parents have the option of participating, as well, but are not required to take part.
Gymnastics coach Lisa Adkins, 42, of Wyandotte, said Downriver Gymnastics has always accommodated special needs students during its more than 28 years in business. It has been a special passion of hers to work with special needs students, and her husband is a special needs educator.
She said they have students as young as 5 and as old as 21 in the Friends Like Me program. Some of the participants have Down syndrome, while some are autistic. Another is legally blind.
“(They) are able to have fun in our own zone,” Adkins said. “I love kids, and I am a child naturally at heart.”
She said the class helps some students develop social skills, while it helps others learn to overcome aversion to types of stimuli.
Adkins said teen gymnast volunteers help with the program to provide more individualized attention for the program participants.
Assistant coach Justin Stewart, 15, of Wyandotte, said it is a nice experience to let the special needs children just be kids and have fun, without any worries.
“I have to change up how I communicate with each student,” he said. “Sometimes it’s rough, but it’s worth getting there.”
Stewart said it is fulfilling to see the participants enjoying themselves.
“Just seeing these kids be so happy in a space that I love is amazing, and seeing them not care about anything else and having fun is really rewarding,” he said.
Sarah, 21, of Rockwood, who has Down syndrome, has attended for more than five years. Her father, Sam Plaza, said they wanted to get her off the couch, active and away from her iPad.
“She likes to socialize with kids,” Plaza said. “She’s not an active leader type, but she just likes to be there.”
He said sometimes she will sit on the trampoline, watching the other participants, instead of jumping on it, but being in the class makes her happy.
Plaza said the activities help Down syndrome youth with their muscle development.
“Their muscle development is not quite the same as most kids, so they need a lot of activity, and this is the place to do it,” he said.
Andre Baker of River Rouge, whose daughter Adelyn, 5, attends the class, said it provides her with exercise, helps her to make new friends, boosts her confidence and provides her with something to look forward to attending each week.
“When it’s time to go, she doesn’t want to go,” he said. “She wants to run everywhere and I have to go chase her.”
Baker said his daughter looks forward to the Saturday class each week.
“It’s good to come here,” he said. “You meet new people, you feel good after you leave and it’s good for the exercise, too.”
Adelyn’s mother, Kelly Newman, said the class is one of the few activities in the Downriver area that specifically accommodates special needs children.
“We searched a long time, and this gives her physical and occupational therapy without her knowing she’s getting therapy,” she said. “So, she’s grown a lot physically and she is a lot stronger, and that’s very important because she has a condition called hypotonia, which is low muscle tone, which can be common in autistic children.”
Newman said it is important for her daughter to improve her muscle tone so she doesn’t injure herself when she falls.
She said her daughter also has ligament laxity, which means they are too loose and do not hold the joints in proper alignment, so building up her muscle tone can help protect her from inadvertently hurting herself.
“This is a great way to do it, because it’s fun,” Newman said.
She said the loud noise level in the gym doesn’t bother her daughter as much as it might otherwise because she is distracted by having fun.
“It is very important for our children to be around children like them, and the structure of normal gymnastics classes really doesn’t fit for my daughter and a lot of other special needs children,” Newman said. “So, this is where she can come and be around her friends and she isn’t expected to follow the other kids. She can do her own thing and that’s really important, because the structure doesn’t really work.”
She said her daughter eagerly anticipates the class each Saturday, and the coaches are great at meeting with each child on their own level and knowing how much to challenge them.
Assistant coach Lizzie Lashbrook, 20, of Wyandotte said she enjoys adapting activities to accommodate the special needs participants’ abilities.
“I grew up and was always in the gym, and I like being able to help them get their chance to do the same,” she said. “It’s very rewarding to see them get so excited to be able to do the bars or the beam or whatever, and giving them a safe place to do these things.”
Lashbrook said the class provides a great opportunity to encourage special needs children to get up and moving.
“It gives them freedom in a safe place to have fun and do what they want to do,” she said. “Honestly, you can’t get much safer than jumping into a giant pit of foam!”
The class is available for a $70 monthly fee, plus an annual registration fee. For more information, call Downriver Gymnastics at 734-282-1947 or go to downrivergymnastic.com.