Gym Provides Sensory-Safe Play For Kids On The Spectrum

by Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun/TNS | August 31, 2021

BALTIMORE — Four-year-old Daniel Smith zoomed by, seated on a child-sized zip line, his dark curls bouncing. Daniel flew until he was above the cushiony crash pit. Off Daniel tumbled into the pillows, with a delighted screech.

Daniel’s mom, Jessica Smith of Bel Air, laughed with him.

“Daniel has so much energy,” she said. “I go to the gym every day, and I’ve been thinking, ‘I have to find someplace for my son.’ I love that this gym is completely kid-friendly and that it is for everybody.”

We Rock the Spectrum Gym’s Forest Hill branch opened in June 2020. The national organization includes nearly 100 sites in 25 states and eight countries and aims to provide therapeutic play for kids with disabilities.

“Everybody who comes through this door knows they will be accepted,” said Nikki Wooton, the former elementary school teacher who owns the Forest Hill franchise with her husband, Trey Wooton, a church youth minister. She estimates that about half their young customers are neurotypical, like her 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa. About half are not, including her 16-year-old son, Connor, who has been diagnosed with high-functioning autism.

“We want parents to know that there finally is a place where they never have to say ‘I’m sorry,’” Nikki Wooton said. “This is a judgment-free zone where grace is expected.”

The gym has a blue foam “floor” so kids can take a tumble without getting hurt. It is filled with sensory play equipment designed to stimulate not just kids’ imaginations but their brains and bodies. There are swings shaped like a sailboat and a tractor, a hammock swing that envelopes a child in a cocoon, a trampoline, a climbing wall and crawl-through tunnels.

There’s a calming room if a child becomes overstimulated and a room for occupational therapy sessions.

Three-year-old Leo Contrino was having so much fun he didn’t know what to play with next: the carpet swing or the chalkboard or the miniature stove. Leo has a shock of red hair, a huge smile, and a speech delay that sometimes makes him hesitant to talk — unless he has something important to say.

He reached for his mother, Meghan Contrino’s hand. “I love this place,” Leo said.

© 2021 The Baltimore Sun
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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