LIVING WITH AUTISM
Families of autistic kids find support at Ocoee gym
But despite his obsession — and fears of thunderstorms — Dominic is always ready to head to an Ocoee gym on Tuesday nights. There, he can play basketball, chase other kids, play tag and scoot around on the gym floor.
And no matter how loud he gets, or if he has a meltdown, this is one place where no one will stare at him. Or point at him. Or ask his parents what's wrong with him.
And that, says his mom, Lauri, is the beauty of the program that Jo-Anne Houwers built.
Called the "Autism and Related Disabilities Gym Program," the once-weekly get-together is part gym night, part swim night, and primarily a chance for autistic kids, and other kids with disabilities, to play and shout without feeling self-conscious.
Houwers started the program 10 years ago, when her son, Joey, was 15. Frustrated that Joey, who has autism, had outgrown most of the organized programs for kids with disabilities, she was desperate to find a place for the kids, many of whom live in west Orange County, to exercise and socialize.
"Where are all the 12-year-old boys with autism?" said Houwers, who lives in Winter Garden. "Unfortunately, most of them are at home, watching TV or playing video games."
She came up with an idea — a gym night — and Ocoee Mayor Scott Vandergrift made room for Houwer's group of kids at the city's Beech Recreation Center. Though the center is busy with after-school programs and sports leagues, city staffers give them one hour every Tuesday night. On summer nights, the recreation center lets them have exclusive use of the pool after it closes to the public.
The Tuesday night event has become sacred for dozens of families. And for families touched by autism, whose lives revolve around rituals, this is one ritual they all embrace.
Inside the gym, kids pull out hula hoops, gymnastic mats and zip around the gym floor on scooters. On one end of the gym, a few play basketball, and others are happy to just play tag. One boy laid down on the floor and stared at the ceiling.
About 50 children attend each week, and there are 300 families on Houwers' mailing list. For every kid, it's a safe haven where no one will laugh, no one will point fingers and no one will judge them.
A few weeks ago, Michael Jones, who's 15 and has Asperger's syndrome, played basketball for the first time. For his mom, who was watching from the sidelines, it was a positive step.
"It's wonderful to just be yourself," said Beth Jones, Michael's mom, "even if you're just spinning in a circle for two minutes."
While Houwers started out with one goal — to give the kids some gym time — the program has expanded to include swim lessons. She's currently trying to raise money for another round of swim lessons this summer, plus field trips to the theme parks and music therapy.
And while exercise is great for autistic kids — research shows that exercise improves their sleep and reduces habitual behaviors like slapping and rocking — swim lessons are critical, said Teresa Daly, director of the University of Central Florida's Center for Autism and Related Disabilities.
"Swimming lessons are incredibly important because drowning is the No. 1 cause of death for children with autism," Daly said.
Almost as important is the chance for parents to sit and share their experiences with other parents.
"This is a great place for networking," said Theresa Nachtsheim, of Ocoee, whose 18-year-old son, Alec, has Down syndrome. While the kids play, the parents sit in folding chairs at the gym's edge, talking about school, doctors, even their kids' odd food preferences — the child who will eat only white foods, or the one who takes apart a hot dog and licks the ketchup off the bun before eating it.
"When you try to talk to parents who have typical children, they look at you like you're a Martian," said Beth Jones.
"This is my family," said Lauri Roumeliotis, looking around at the group of parents. So when Dominic misbehaves, she doesn't make him skip the Tuesday night outing. "I cannot take this away because I'm hurting myself, too."
The Autism & Related Disabilities Gym Program, Inc., is held at Jim Beech Recreation Center, 1820 A. D. Mims Road, Ocoee, on Tuesdays from 6:15 to 7:15 p.m. For more information, call 407-234-7456.
Linda Shrieves can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5433.