Squeals of glee echoed off the walls as children launched through the air on a zipline.
Kids clamored over the climbing bars and studded walls, rocked on the bolster swing and bounced off the trampoline. They lounged in hammock swings and shuffled through a nylon tunnel.
Though every piece of equipment set up inside the new We Rock the Spectrum gym could be enjoyed by any child, each was designed to help overcome the challenges that young people with autism experience.
Where a traditional playground might be overwhelming, children on the autism spectrum can more fully enjoy playing in the new Greenwood-based space.
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“So many kids of ours have sensory issues, this is someplace new and different for them to try something new and be in a new environment,” said Sheila Benham, a founder of the Johnson County Autism Support Group. “We’re very excited that this is coming.”
We Rock the Spectrum is the first gym of its kind in Indiana. Kids can play in a safe yet engaging atmosphere. Specially designed spaces let kids who suffer from autism and other related disorders run around, jump and climb with ease. If they become over-stimulated, quiet rooms allow a noiseless, calm place to regain control of their senses.
The gym’s equipment is designed to be used by children regardless of if they have autism, and the hope is that We Rock the Spectrum gives all kids a place to have fun.
“This gym is open to all kids. We want all kids to come in and be able to have fun, play, explore together and make friends,” said Amy Phillips, founder of Greenwood’s We Rock the Spectrum.
We Rock the Spectrum is part of a national network of gyms. The idea is to help kids, particularly those on the autism spectrum, with sensory integration, Phillips said.
The company was founded in Tarzana, California, by a mother named Dina Kimmel. Kimmel’s son was diagnosed with autism, and she had a difficult time finding playgrounds and gyms where he fit in.
Kimmel’s first We Rock the Spectrum was in her home. From that initial foray, gyms have been founded in 27 cities and towns across the country, most of them in California.
The Greenwood location will be the first active location between St. Louis and Buffalo, New York.
Phillips has seen throughout her life the importance of having special spaces for those on the autism spectrum. She is an 18-year special education teacher who has spent most of those years at Perry Meridian Middle School and witnessed first-hand how difficult it can be for her students to be on typical playgrounds.
“I love these kids, and I knew there is a need for them. With technology and the way they are, a lot of these kids aren’t getting out and interacting, socializing with their peers,” she said. “If I can open up a facility to help them have a safe, fun place to go to, that’s the ultimate goal.”
After coming up with the idea for the gym in 2015, Phillips started regularly video-conferencing with Kimmel about founding an Indiana branch.
They detailed Phillips’ vision for the space, and went over Kimmel’s mission for the We Rock the Spectrum concept.
Kimmel decided that Phillips’ passion for helping special needs children was an ideal fit, and helped her navigate the aspects of taking the gym from a concept to a physical space.
Though she has the love and passion for helping special needs children, Phillips admits that business isn’t her primary background. The process of opening We Rock the Spectrum has come with its share of learning experiences, from securing a loan to finding a location to remodeling the space.
The gym is located near the busy Greenwood intersection of Emerson Avenue and Main Street. Phillips and a team of family and friends have been working to remodel the interior, adding padding, installing equipment and putting up soundproofing.
We Rock the Spectrum will have a wide variety of equipment to play with. But a focus is on the sensory items that are intended particularly for those with autism.
A crash pit lined with pads give kids aiming for crash-and-burn input a place to jump into. Children can spin, swing and glide on a carpet-covered swing, whose texture adds another dimension of sensory experience.
“These kids have all of these different types of opportunities for sensory input,” Phillips said. “They can sit on a platform, they can straddle a bolster swing, they can cozy up in a hammock. It depends on the different needs of the kids.”
In order to accommodate all of those different pieces of equipment, the gym needed a steel apparatus that will serve as the mounting point.
The piece had to be specially manufactured by a welder and installed.
“We can switch things out from day to day, so that there’s always a little bit of variety. Maybe if they come back in a month from now, they can try something different,” Phillips said.
The attraction for children will be the fun on the gym floor. But with her background working special needs students, Phillips also has built in a contingency to help parents.
The calming room is available for children if they have a sensory meltdown. Once they calm down, they can come back and play again.
“A lot of kids with sensory processing want the stimulation, so they’ll seek that through our trampoline or zipline, or climbing apparatuses,” Phillips said. “But then they’ll get over-stimulated, which happens when they’re out in other facilities.”
In addition to general play, We Rock the Spectrum will offer also classes such as yoga and special-needs cheerleading. Other special sessions are being planned as well.
“We’re trying to get some people in to help kids work on social skills, or have some ‘parent night out’ opportunities where kids can come in and watch a movie while parents go and take a break,” Phillips said.
As We Rock the Spectrum has taken shape, Phillips has been working with local organizations and special needs groups for recommendations, advice and assistance.
Local churches have donated time to help clean up the gym and put together equipment during the past few months. The Johnson County Autism Support Group has helped spread the word about the services that We Rock the Spectrum will offer.
“We are super excited to have this on the southside,” Benham said. “It’s something different for our kids to go to and to engage in.”
We Rock the Spectum opened to the public in early July. In just a few weeks, Phillips has seen the excitement among the community, both among parents of autistic children and families who are simply looking for a unique place to play.
“So many people are affected by autism and special needs now. Most people know somebody or have a family member who is impacted by it,” she said. “I’m excited about what this is going to develop into.”
We Rock the Spectrum
What: A specialized gym catering to the learning, exploration and safe sensory experiences of children on the autism spectrum. The gym is open to all kids, and is intended to a way for all children to connect and have fun together.
Where: 210 S. Emerson Ave., Suite D, Greenwood
Owner: Amy Phillips, a special education teacher at Perry Meridian Middle School.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily
Age range: Children 12 months to 18 years
Costs: Open play is $12 per child, with siblings discounted to $10; an all-day pass, letting you in and out of the facility when you’d like, is $20; open play membership cards are available for five visits for $50 or 12 visits for $100. Monthly memberships are $175.