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Iowa City gym offers program for children with autism

Sunday afternoons set aside for kids to play without hearing 'no'

Anna Daviedsdottir, 5, of Coralville, leaps over obstacles along a running trampoline Aug. 25 with the help and encouragement of instructor Ryan Stoneman at Iowa Gym-Nest in Iowa City. The gym offers an obstacle course program on Sunday afternoons for children with autism. The business recently was designated as an “autism-friendly business.” (Ben Roberts/Freelance)
Anna Daviedsdottir, 5, of Coralville, leaps over obstacles along a running trampoline Aug. 25 with the help and encouragement of instructor Ryan Stoneman at Iowa Gym-Nest in Iowa City. The gym offers an obstacle course program on Sunday afternoons for children with autism. The business recently was designated as an “autism-friendly business.” (Ben Roberts/Freelance)
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IOWA CITY — When Dina Bishara of Iowa City visited Pink Alpaca Farms in Wellman, the seed was planted that led to an Iowa City gym’s celebrated obstacle course for youths with autism.

Ryan Pearson, co-owner of the farm, also coaches classes at Iowa Gym-Nest, where Bishara’s son, Benjamin, now 11, had taken classes.

Bishara, a co-founder of the Iowa City Autism Community, told Pearson she had an idea for a new, more accessible gym program for children with autism.

She said children like Benjamin, who is on the autism spectrum, were welcome to enroll in Iowa Gym-Nest’s programs, but the gym usually “is full of raucous kids, and it can be a very busy atmosphere. It can be more difficult for (children with autism) to have fun under those circumstances.”

She was interested in a class specifically geared toward children with autism.

Pearson said he’d tried to start such a program but did not know the right people to make it a success. He was ready to try again.

The new CORSE Spectrum program — a spinoff from the gym’s Challenging Obstacles Requiring Strength and Endurance program — began in June 2018.

During two one-hour classes each Sunday afternoon, Iowa Gym-Nest temporarily closes to all but children with autism and coaches.

The children use obstacle course equipment — balance beams, a trampoline and a tumble track — intended to enhance their spatial awareness and motor skills.

Siblings sometimes participate, and parents are invited to stay to watch and assist.

Pearson said the equipment also offers different types of surfaces, which can prove valuable for children with sensory issues accompanying autism, including over- or under-responsiveness to stimuli.

“It’s a good experience for both of those sides of the spectrum,” he said.

A class might have 10 children, with a typical age range between 6 and 14, though Pearson said participants have been as young as 4 and as old as 16.

Bishara said Benjamin was one of the program’s first participants. And though he is taking a break from the classes now, “the obstacles that Ryan set up always are really fun for him and the other children.”

“They get a sense of accomplishment being able to complete the whole obstacle course,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to be free to run around the entire gym without having to worry about getting in trouble or getting in someone else’s way. It’s really valuable for a lot of autistic children to be in an environment where people are working to understand and support them without having to hear ‘no’ a lot.”

The Autism Society of Iowa in 2018 certified Iowa Gym-Nest as an “autism-friendly business,” a designation Pearson said he was “ecstatic” to receive.

“It’s very fulfilling, and I cherish all of the moments with those kids — they’re the highlight of my week,” he said.

Iowa Gym-Nest is accepting new registrations for its CORSE Spectrum classes at (319) 341-2229.

Comments: (319) 398-8366; thomas.friestad@thegazette.com

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