Monday, October 25, 2010

Oklahoma gymnastics center gives autistic kids free fun and learning

From The Norman Transcript in Okla.:

NORMAN, Okla. — Within the last few months, Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy has developed a growing fanpage among a network of 10 at Lincoln Elementary School.

Here, the countdown isn’t to lunch, recess or the final bell.

It’s a weekly wait to 1 p.m. Tuesday, unofficially dubbed “Bart Conner Day.”

“They’ll look at me and say, ‘Guess what day today is? Bart Conner Day,’ and give me a high-five,” said Kathy Gilman, resource teacher at Lincoln, who shuttles the group — all classified on the autism spectrum — to Bart Conner Gymnastics, 3206 Bart Conner Drive, each week for a tumbling session to refine their gross motor skills, such as walking and kicking.

The classes — offered for free by the gym to Lincoln, along with Monroe, Roosevelt and Truman elementary schools (all of which offer classes for students on the autism spectrum) — are a one-hour-per-week session for each school at the gym. The classes began in January with Lincoln, with the other schools following.

“The gross motor development skills, that’s what we do,” said Ben Fox of Bart Conner, who, along with Ann Goff, gym teacher at Lincoln, originated the idea to offer these free classes to Norman Public Schools’ students who are identified on the autism spectrum.

“It’s great for motor and language skills, and they’re having fun while learning. That’s what kids like to do ... run ... jump,” Fox said, motioning toward one of the students, Isaac, as he jumped in circles on the trampoline, his black hair flapping in his self-made breeze.

His jumps beat on tempo with his classmates’ countdown from 10.

“Three ... two ... one,” they said in unison, signaling to Isaac on the final note that his turn had past.

Gilman said she remembers nine months prior, when Isaac steered away from this playground of beams, mats, trampolines and foam mash pit.

And Teresa Rhame, coach at Bart Conner, hasn’t forgotten the tears that built in the corners of her eyes when Isaac made his first jump, measuring in at one-inch.

“It was only this much,” Rhame said, barely spreading apart her hands. “But he jumped.”

In fact, Gilman credits the trampoline, balance beam and forward roll to Isaac’s improved handwriting.

“You put a pencil in his hand and it would just drop. He wasn’t even writing his name yet,” she said.

Gilman said the classes are a supplement to finer motor skills occupational therapists at the school work on daily with the students.

“A lot of school is auditory learning. For autistic kids, that can be very frustrating. This is physical. This is movement,” Gilman said. “They’re connecting the movements with their brains and understanding how their bodies work — skills they need first to develop those finer motor skills.”

The classes are taught by the gym’s coaches and supervised by Gilman and her teaching aids.

Fox said the gym routinely receives calls from parents with special needs children who want to enroll their kids in a class to stimulate development of their motor skills.

“We’ve always wanted to, but when you come in here at 5 p.m., there’s 200 kids in here. It’s a sensory overload and would be a disaster,” said Fox, explaining that the classes for the schools are during the gym’s “quiet hours” when few classes — minus a pre-school class — are in-session.

Fox, whose wife and sister-in-law teach special education in Midwest City, said the gym used to offer these classes to special needs students in Midwest City, until tight budgets forced the school district to conserve its spending for bus rides from Midwest City to the gym in Norman.

Fox said he plans to connect with other gyms and school districts in the area to extend the program throughout the metro.

“Kids with special needs already have so many financial obligations. If we can find something that helps them, then let’s do it,” Fox said.