Brandi Boyd had a simple goal: to bring her three sons, 11, 5 and 2, to activities they could all enjoy. But it wasn't easy. Her eldest, Xavier, diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, often feels uncomfortable in noisy crowds and bright venues.
So in September, after more than a year of planning, Boyd and her husband opened a franchise of “We Rock The Spectrum” — a playroom that’s custom-built for children who have trouble processing certain sensations but welcoming to all.
The gym is in Esplanade Mall and features a zip-line, crawl-through tunnels, a trampoline, swings and climbing structures, along with arts and crafts stations, aerobics classes and sturdy toys for tots.
“This place is designed with certain colors and a certain layout, so that it can be useful and fun,” said Boyd, explaining that the soft, neutral colors have a calming effect. Red is used in areas that are off-limits.
The layout allows parents to see their children from any angle of the room. Gentle games, like dressing up in costumes, are on one side of the venue, while climbing stations and trampolines are on the other, so everyone is safe.
The mobile version of Boyd’s gym — We Rock on Wheels — brings that sensory entertainment to festivals, birthday parties and other private events.
With more than two dozen locations nationally, Kenner's We Rock the Spectrum is one of several local programs for children and adults with developmental disabilities. Most incorporate elements of physical activity and socialization, along with arts-based exercises that facilitate creative expression.
The programs provide health benefits to people with special needs and enable them to live a fulfilling life, said Dr. Stephen L. Nelson, the section chief of pediatric neurology and associate professor of pediatrics, neurology, neurosurgery and psychiatry at Tulane University School of Medicine. Nelson is also the medical director for the Tulane Center for Autism and Related Disorders.
“A lot of kids with autism tend to be either underweight because they eat poorly or overweight because they have restricted diets that are high in carbohydrates and calories,” said Nelson. Making matters worse, many people with special needs are sedentary. “Also, the gym can help them have some social interactions. They can improve their self-esteem and feel a sense of accomplishment.”
Exercise and art
The Triumph Krav Maga studio in Metairie offers self-defense classes and power yoga, along with boxing, for people with Parkinson’s disease. In September, employee Sandy Ray — with the help of her colleagues — launched a fitness class for autistic children.
Ray was inspired by her 12-year-old son, Joshua, who is autistic and suffered from “low muscle tone.” He felt discouraged during traditional gym classes, so Ray helped him build his muscle mass and improve his balance through home-based activities.
Suddenly, Joshua could do jumping jacks and jab punching bags.
At a recent class, older participants performed mild strength and cardio exercises, along with drills that required balance and coordination. Across the room, a young boy tugged on thick, pendulous ropes.
“They need to feel that pulling sensation on their joints; sometimes it calms them,” Ray explained.
During a standard session, students learn how to listen, follow instructions and identify a bully — a skill that fits the gym’s self-defense theme.
For now, scheduled classes for special needs students at Krav Maga are on hiatus while the studio gauges interest.
NOLArts Learning Center offers creative arts activities geared to those with special needs, especially to young people on the autism spectrum.
“Families and schools are so focused on remediating children's deficits, social skills, and academics, which are very important, but we found that the arts — and just fun — are getting left out,” said Kate Lacour, an art therapist and co-founder of NOLArts Learning Center. “We want to teach them recreational skills and self-expression, like music and painting.”
The center’s programs allow kids with special needs to connect with one another — and with New Orleans culture. One of those programs is the STOMP Troopers, a marching group for youth with autism.
The subkrewe members, ages 9 and up, parade with the Krewe of Chewbacchus. They wear costumes that they’ve created, toss doubloons, and beat on drums made from small trash cans.
“So many people think those with autism can't tolerate noise, crowds and chaos. And a parade is all of those things,” said Lacour.
She introduced the kids to the elements of a parade, over time, until they were ready for their big night.
“They were really excited to get this huge outpouring of positive attention from the crowd,” she said, adding that she’s noticed “a big bump” in the members’ tolerance for noise and crowds, along with an improvement in their social skills.
“The biggest thing has just been the STOMP Troopers themselves saying that they're enjoying it,” said Lacour. “People in the community come up to them and say: ‘Hey, I saw you in the parade. You rocked, dude!’”
Students have also helped decorate shoes tossed in the Muses parade, and the center plans to launch a New Orleans music workshop at Tipitina's.
People on the autism spectrum are often creative, said Nelson, the pediatric neurologist.
“They often can be very artistic; they're just not given the opportunities to express that artistic interest,” he said. “You have to sort of encourage them.”
Friends, and a little freedom
Brandi Boyd’s gym is a mecca for energetic kids who want to move around and make noise — and maybe a new friend.
“We have a few components that I purposely selected, because it would make the kids play together, so they don't have to be isolated,” said Boyd.
Although parents can play with their kids, Boyd said that she hopes to offer drop-off services soon, so that moms and dads who spend many hours a day as caretakers can “catch a movie next door, have some dinner across the street, or maybe go Christmas shopping.”
Drop-off services also encourage the person with special needs to become more independent — something Nelson believes is significant.
“It's great that parents stay home with the child or adult to care for them, but we don't want to go to the extreme that they never get the ability to do things away from the parents,” said Nelson. “They can develop friendships with people that are not their parents.”
We Rock the Spectrum Kid’s Gym caters to all children, but especially those on the autism spectrum. (werockthespectrumkidsgym.com; 504-353-1585)
NOLArts Learning Center hosts creative arts programs; organizes the STOMP Troopers Mardi Gras parade sub-krewe. (www.nolartslearningcenter.com; 914-844-5053)
Autism Society of Greater New Orleans offers a painting program and family game nights. (asgno.org; 504-464-5733)
Arc of Greater New Orleans (arcgno.org; 504-837-5105) and Magnolia Community Services (mcs-nola.org; 504-733-2874) helps with personal care, employment, day-habilitation and supported living assistance.