Monday, October 25, 2010

Disabled kids gain confidence through ice skating

From The Columbia Tribune in Mo.

Bryan Teague (pictured), 10, held Tori Sommerer’s hand as the pair slowly made their way around a rink inside the Washington Park Ice Arena in Jefferson City on Thursday night.

The feat represents a great accomplishment for Bryan, who required the help of two adults when he stepped onto the ice screaming and crying for the first time just a little more than a month ago. “He’s already made a lot of progress,” said Mike Beatty, Bryan’s stepfather.

Bryan, who is autistic, is one of 10 special-needs children who travel to Jeff City once a week for skating lessons led by University of Missouri physical therapy students.

Although Bryan was nervous to hit the ice at first, the lessons have become his favorite time of the week. “As soon as we leave tonight he’ll say ‘seven days until skating,’ ” Beatty said.

But the lessons aren’t just a chance for Bryan to learn to ice skate. They’re an opportunity for social interaction, which is important and can be challenging for autistic children.

“He’s been communicating a lot more,” Bryan’s mother, Marie Beatty, said of his progress.

“Before he’d just sit and look at people a lot of the time, but now he’ll engage in conversation,” Mike Beatty said.

Sommerer, who worked to start the program about five years ago with her mother and her autistic brother’s physical therapist, said the lessons build physical endurance and self-assurance.

“It gives kids confidence and the chance to be good at something,” said Erin Mayhan, a physical therapy graduate student who volunteers with the program.

The volunteers do a number of exercises to help the youngsters. Some blow bubbles in front of the kids while they skate, so they have to release one hand from a volunteer to catch them. Others throw small stuffed animals on the ice for skaters to step over, to teach them to pick up their feet, or line up neon colored bowling pins that skaters have to maneuver around.

“They’re all aimed to get them to be more independent,” Sommerer said of the exercises.

For Elijah Mayfield, a 14-year-old diagnosed with Down syndrome who has been participating in the program since it started, the lessons definitely have changed his life. When Elijah first started lessons, he needed the help of two volunteers to maintain his balance. Now he is not only skating on his own, he’s helping the other kids learn to skate.

“It’s very much built his confidence,” his dad, Todd Mayfield, said of Elijah, who just started high school in the fall. Mayfield said Elijah’s high school doesn’t have a disability program, making him a “trailblazer” at the school. He’s already volunteered to help out the football team.

And Elijah played Elvis last spring in the program’s 1950s-themed ice show. It was an experience he and the audience enjoyed. “He kind of has his own following,” Mayfield said.

For Elijah and the other children, the lessons are just a chance to have fun. “It gives him a chance to learn how to skate and enjoy something just like any other kid,” Clayton Hill said of his son John-Paul, an 11-year-old with autism.

Aside from producing an array of benefits for the kids, the program also creates a hands-on opportunity for the physical therapy students to practice skills they’ve learned in class.

“I don’t know if it helps them more or us,” Sommerer joked after the lessons.