Here, he can be himself. A balanced and more equalized version than the boy he is the other six days of the week.
He runs, he plays, he giggles. You would never know he has autism.
Every Sunday, Sammy Stewart, 5, center, is brought to Gymnastics World Naples by his mom, Jessica, upper right, during an hour and a half open gym for children with special needs. They are among about 25 other families who frequent the gym once a week.
Because of Sammy’s autism, he has problems with his sensory perception.
He needs impact and motion for his system to equalize, Jessica Stewart said.
“When he can get that stimulation, it calms him and baselines him out.”
Sammy runs down a long trampoline, his feet criss-crossing and kicking up behind him, and jumps at the end into a pit full of foam squares.
Bouncing past him on his hands and knees is Anthony Dunford, a 37-year-old kid who lives to play. Dunford started the Sunday sessions about five years ago and said it has grown completely through word of mouth.
“I had parents coming out of the woodwork for private (gymnastics) lessons and there wasn’t enough time in the day,” Dunford said about why he started the class.
Keeping track of Dunford in the 10,000-square-foot gym is a difficult task.
He doesn’t stay in one place long. If he’s not tossing kids playfully into the foam pit, he’s running backward up the 14-foot-tall inflatable slide, only to fall down the other side. He makes sure the spirits are high and the music is up.
On the other side of the gym dancing barefoot to that music is Bradley McCarthy. The 5-year-old also has autism and a genetic disorder called “Fragile X syndrome.” “This is almost like therapy,” said Jenny McCarthy, Bradley’s mom. “How do you get therapy this cheap?” McCarthy just moved her family of four to Fort Myers from Michigan. They are visiting the gym for the second time. She can’t believe how the activity has already helped Bradley who, like Sammy, is non-verbal.
“Last week he said a couple of words,” McCarthy said, adding that Bradley’s words are few and far between. He’s also making good eye contact, another thing he has difficulty with.
Dunford has seen many children progress in their behaviors over the past five years. He said he’s always surprised at how well they do in an environment where they are encouraged to play.
“They can come in here and scream and raise hell,” said Dunford. “They can be themselves and not be kids with autism, but just be kids.”
For more information about Gymnastics World Naples: (239) 592-0608 or www.gwnaples.com
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Connect with Lexey Swall at www.naplesnews.com/staff/lexey-swall