My son is seven years old. He’s beautiful, funny, charming and bright. He also has autism. And here’s the thing: being the mother of a child with autism is pretty much a non-stop thrill-ride. One minute you’re begging a school administrator to at least try to see your child as a full-fledged student, worthy of an education, the next you’re learning about autism-related seizure disorders. First, you allow yourself to smile when your son sings “Waltzing Matilda” all the way through or says “Hello, how are you?” to his grandma, then you wince as you’re told “He’ll never really speak” by strangers in the market — or worse — well-meaning but misguided “experts.”You try to make the best of things – congratulating your darling boy for his artistic abilities as you grit your teeth and scrub the Sharpie spirals off the dining room table. You rationalize each night that it’s for the best when you allow your kid not one, not two, but three Starburst candies in exchange for him gagging down his unfortunately necessary medicine. Yep. It’s a roller-coaster all right. Sometimes it feels like there are more downs than ups, and chills and spills abound.But there’s a time and place – for our family it’s Tuesdays in Culver City – where those chills and spills are not only appropriate, they’re just great. Each week, my son Dashiell goes to a place that allows him to be himself, and to play in a way that, as a special needs child, he’s very rarely allowed to do. And as healing and fun as it is for him, I’m guessing that it’s about 10 times more for me.“Big Fun.” It’s a perfect name for the recreational and therapeutic gymnastics program of which I write. Simply put, it’s fun. And in our family, we really need fun. Each Tuesday, my son jumps on the trampoline (his favorite apparatus), walks the balance beam, climbs up the walls and practices vaulting. He’s strapped into a disc swing that he has to hold onto for dear life, as his coach pulls the rope back, back, back, then pushes – setting him free to swing wildly across and around that corner of the room as he laughs and squeals with delight. Yes, it’s “therapeutic,” since the holding on means he’s working his low-tone abdominal and arm muscles, but it’s mostly just fun.Sometimes the little guy gets to “bungee” – an activity that makes the moms watching from the bleachers jealous – it just looks so cool. Dash is strapped into a harness that appears strikingly similar to something Cathy Rigby would use when flying around as Peter Pan – then his coach pulls him slowly up and up until his skinny body is hanging about four feet in the air. With two bungee cords coming out at equal angles over his head, and another cord (wielded by the coach) determining his height in the air, my son is guided through front flips, back flips, and wild jumping loop-de-loops as he leaps – literally – through the air. It reminds me of the video you always see of astronauts checking out what weightlessness feels like. The astronauts and the boy share the same amazed and giddy grin.Gene Hurwin began working with one special needs child right after receiving his degree in occupational therapy. Within six months, he had 35 clients, and by the end of the year, had 150 kids in his care, a small staff, and a business called Big Fun. These numbers speak to Hurwin’s gift as a loving but firm coach – a motivator of the rarest kind. His constant stream of enthusiastic cheers – Great Job, Buddy! Give Me Five! You Got It! What’re Gonna Do? That’s It! – throw me back to Bela Karoli’s famous shouts of “You can do eet!” as Kerri Strugg overcame that impossible ankle injury and made Olympic history. His expert staff may lack his particular je ne sais quoi, but they’re no less attentive and encouraging with the young athletes. These days, the program that began with an occupational therapist working with a single child now provides its services to disabled children in gyms all over Southern California and Arizona.One of the best things about Big Fun is that it shares space with already existing gyms that serve the general public, so that while my son goes from apparatus to apparatus, he sometimes has to wait until a girl from the elite gym team is finished on the beam, or an adult gymnast completes his ring routine. Tiny girls in colorful leotards and tights almost always seem to be running around, as a coach from the main gym attempts to wrangle them. Our family’s strange and uneasy ride has meant an awful lot of segregation: from school yards to music classes, and even the self-segregation that comes from thinking: let’s not bother going there. They won’t ‘get’ our son. All of the athletes at Big Fun are athletes. Nothing more, less or different. They train right along with everyone else, and that’s the way it should be.They may know how to show the kids a good time, but Big Fun staff members are more than the “glorified babysitters” that parents of special needs children dread. Hurwin, along with Gymnastics Program Manager Eric Amundson, has created a six-week employee classroom training that all potential Big Fun coaches must graduate from before ever seeing a child. Then the true training begins, as the new coaches are put through their paces by the real experts – boys and girls from toddlers to teens, living with disabilities as diverse as cerebral palsy, birth defects, brain damage, autism and developmental disabilities.In 2004, coach Mike Galvan took the reins of the “Gene Pool,” Big Fun’s aquatics program. Just like in the gym, well-trained and certificated instructors work one-on-one with special needs children of all ages to help them gain comfort in the water, learn pool safety, and eventually, to become confident swimmers. Also just like the gym – fun is the name of the game. (My son’s all-time favorite person? Not mommy. Mike.)On Saturday, March 25, at its Culver City branch, Big Fun — housed in the Santa Monica Gymnastics Center — is hosting a “Family Fun Day” open to all Westside families with special needs children. “We want to create a great day for the family as a whole – we encourage parents to bring all siblings so everyone can play in the gym,” says Amundson. Professionals who work with special needs children are also invited to attend.The gym will be set up for active play, with Big Fun coaches spotting kids on the trampoline, swings and other apparatus’ as well as performing a gymnastics exposition. Refreshments will be served.Hurwin will be on hand to speak to the grown-ups about his work with movement, sensory processing and sensory integration in gymnastics, and to discuss the difference between Big Fun’s occupational therapy sessions, in which the coaches come from a clinical background, and the recreational sessions, in which coaches come from recreational and sports backgrounds.Big Fun’s Family Fun Day runs from 3 to 4:30 p.m. on Saturday March 25. Santa Monica Gymnastics Center is located at 8476 Warner Drive in Culver City. For information about the Fun Day, call (310) 837-7849 or (877) BIGFUN8. To learn more about Big Fun’s programs, visit www.bigfungymnastics.com.Clara Sturak can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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