Kristin Aas got a phone call, not unusual for a receptionist, in June of this year. The woman on the other end of the phone, Laurie Plante, asked if she could rent the Durango Gymnastics gym for her nephew, Beau Gabaldon. Beau has an autism spectrum disorder and needs special accommodations: low light, soft music, not a lot of noise.
The more Aas thought about it, she said, the more she empathized with Plante about the hardship of finding a safe space for children with autism spectrum disorder to just be kids. It seemed bizarre to her that someone would be willing to rent an entire gym so a child would have a safe place to play, Aas said.
Later that evening, she had an idea. Why not host an open gym once or twice a week for children with autism spectrum disorders – a sensory-friendly space for them to play and for parents to connect. So she brought the idea to her boss, who approved.
“I was just ecstatic. I had this vision in my head that these kids were going to get this time during the week to come to this gym that’s padded and catered to what they need. I was so excited to do that for their kids,” Aas said.
Now, twice each weekend, Aas welcomes children with autism spectrum disorders into the city-owned, padded gymnastics gym on Bodo Drive, south of downtown Durango.
Oliver Johnston, 9, makes obstacle courses. Beau, 7, bounces on a long trampoline. Hannah Johnston, 10, comes with Oliver, her brother, because the gym has “pretty much all the fun things.”
“It’s just super fun,” Hannah said.
Six children played earlier this month in a calm yet vibrant energy that filled the dimly lit gymnastics room.
Durango doesn’t have much in the way of sensory-friendly spaces for children with autism spectrum disorders, so for Colleen Gabaldon, Beau’s mother, this is a nice respite for her and her son. The world expects children to have adept social skills, Gabaldon said – something people with autism spectrum disorders struggle with.
“It’s just nice to have somewhere they can go and be free,” Gabaldon said of the open gym. “No apologies are necessary.”
This space also gives Gabaldon an opportunity to connect with other parents of children with autism spectrum disorders.
Three adults, Plante; Rosemary Johnston, who is Hannah’s and Oliver’s mother; and Gabaldon chatted, shoeless, in the middle of the gym.
“It gives us time to talk,” Gabaldon said. “It gives us a nice break and we can network with other parents and talk about what’s working and what’s not.”
For Aas, organizing the open gym and connecting with the children who come has been “the most rewarding experience of my life,” she said. She has built a strong connection with Beau, something that’s “not usual for him,” Gabaldon said.
It took three weeks for the two to make eye contact, Aas said. But Beau has come almost every weekend since the open gym started in July – he was often the only child with autism spectrum disorder who came – and now the two of them hug, play and laugh together.
It took some time for more children to come, but now the open gym provides a safe space for about six children to play.
The library hosts a sensory-friendly reading time and the recreation center offers special sports and spaces for kids with special needs, but finding a time and a place that doesn’t overwhelm children with autism spectrum disorders is no easy task, Gabaldon said.
While there are some places that just won’t work for kids with sensory sensitivity, like ice rinks or public pools, there are things that community members can do to make their spaces more accommodating for children with autism spectrum disorder, said Martha Mason, executive director of Southwest Center for Independence. That could include installing lights that don’t hum at a frequency that irritates people with sensory sensitivity.
“If a community is going to be welcoming to all people, it means being willing to accommodate the different issues people have,” Mason said.
The sensory-friendly gym is open from 12:45 to 1:45 p.m. Saturdays and 5 to 6 p.m. Sundays for $10 per child.