Monday, November 30, 2009

NJ hockey program includes kids with autism

From the Asbury Park Press in N.J.:

Every morning, 5-year-old Owen Thigpen (pictured) races into his mom's bedroom and asks, "Is today a hockey day?"

On Sunday mornings, when her towheaded son appears at her bedside — usually at 4:30 a.m. — she can give him the answer he wants to hear.

"Yes," she tells him, groggily, "today is your hockey day."

Owen is like a thousand other hockey-crazed kids here in Brick, which has a proud hockey tradition, except in one regard: He has autism.

Because of his condition, Owen has trouble walking, staying focused and interacting socially, but you'd hardly know that to see him tearing around the rink in his green hockey uniform at the Ocean Ice Palace.

"He's going to be the first autistic kid in the NHL," predicts his mom, Eileen Thigpen of Brick.

Owen is one of about two dozen players in a new hockey program for children with developmental delays. Ranging in age from 5 to 17, most have autism, Down syndrome or a traumatic brain injury.

The Brick Hockey Club started the program this fall when a slot opened up on its Sunday morning schedule. Former club president Alex DePalma, a coaching director with USA Hockey, had heard about similar programs around the country and thought it was worth trying in Brick, which has a large number of children with autism.

DePalma, 47, of Brick concedes he wasn't sure how it would work. Neither did the handful of parents and children who were the first to sign up. But the program so far has surpassed everyone's expectations.

Corporate sponsors and more than a dozen volunteers, including several youth hockey players, signed on to help. A used-equipment drive netted a truckload of uniforms, pads, helmets and skates. "We could probably dress 50 to 60 kids completely," said Justin Ambrosio, 25, of Brick, a club coach who led the effort.

And the kids, some of whom were terrified when they stepped out on the ice that first Sunday morning in October, are skating better each week.

"The first time he was on skates they took away the support bar," said Owen's mom, who calls DePalma "a godsend."

Jim Walsh of Toms River confessed that he thought there was "no way" his son Brian, 7, who has autism and severe sensory issues, would want to play hockey. He was wrong.

"The morning after that first practice, he jumped into bed with us and said, "Want to play hockey?' " Walsh said.

Walsh said that unlike a sport such as baseball, which didn't work for Brian at all, hockey is fast-moving and requires constant concentration just to stay upright. That's excellent therapy for someone like his son.

"I can't tell you how wonderful it is," said Brian's mother, Kerry Walsh, a physical therapist. "He's so much calmer and more focused and organized on Sunday after hockey, and that lasts most of the day."

DePalma says he's overwhelmed by the players' enthusiasm and by how appreciative their parents are to have such an outlet.

"I've coached hockey for 23 years at every level," DePalma said. "This is probably the most rewarding program I've ever been involved with."

Thanks to additional sponsorship, the hockey club has extended the program through Jan. 24 and lowered the price from $160 to $100 per child.

That's great news for Owen Thigpen, who is so pumped up about hockey his mother has to hide his stick during the week because she's afraid he might whack something valuable with it.

She says the program has done wonders for her son's self-esteem. Owen will tell you the same thing himself.

"I think it's my favorite sport," he said, before heading back out onto the ice. "I'm the best skater in the whole world!"