Tuesday 20 February 2018

'Open Spectrum' activity session: Dillon is in the zone!

'Open Spectrum' activity sessions were started by two mums of children with autism to give families the opportunity to enjoy sports and play stress-free. They are a blessing for the children, and an invaluable social outlet for the parents

Dillon Twomey (5) is just one of the children with autism who enjoys the Open Spectrum sessions at JumpZone
Dillon Twomey (5) is just one of the children with autism who enjoys the Open Spectrum sessions at JumpZone
Dillon is jumping for joy during his trampoline session
Laura Noonan

Laura Noonan

In March, nine-year-old James Lush hosted a birthday party at JumpZone, a sprawling trampoline park to the south of Dublin city. It was the kind of boisterous occasion that invokes a "grin and bear it" grimace for most parents, but for James' mother Jane, it was an occasion of unadulterated joy. James has autism, and the special "autism only" sessions that JumpZone regularly holds "gave him the confidence to have a birthday party for the first time in six years", she says.

The JumpZone sessions, run every second Saturday during term time, and are part of a growing network of mainly parent-led groups that go beyond the traditional therapies and support groups offered to families affected by autism. The squeals of ecstasy as they bounce around the trampoline park are proof enough of how much the groups are enjoyed by their participants. But the benefit of the activities goes far deeper than childish pleasure.

Autism is a complex developmental condition that heaps different challenges on affected families every day. Some struggle with ten-year-olds who can't talk and understand basic instructions, others are constantly trying to avoid bright lights and loud noises because their children suffer from sensory issues. Many live in dread of the unexpected or changes to their routine that can trigger 'meltdowns', when children can't cope with an environment and begin crying and acting out.

"When you go to a JumpZone session everybody is in the same boat, you don't feel any pressure or that you're going to be judged if he did something or acts out or has a meltdown," says Jane, who also has a four-year-old daughter with special needs. "Nobody bats an eyelid. Everybody is so used to it." Tara Noonan, mother to five-year-old Dillon Twomey, says the JumpZone sessions are "one of the only places where I can bring him in public where I don't feel stressed".

Dillon is jumping for joy during his trampoline session
Dillon is jumping for joy during his trampoline session

Creating a safe and relaxed space means children like James and Dillon can get a taste of the world of extracurricular activities their peers take for granted. Indeed, creating a wider social life for their children was one of the major drivers that prompted Dublin mothers Victoria White and Helen Norris to launch the JumpZone sessions.

The duo met at a one-off wall climbing event for children with autism in North Dublin four years ago. "We both said, isn't it awful that our kids literally go to school and come back and are with their families all the time, when all the other kids go to things," recalls Helen.

"I'm an occupational therapist myself and I feel really strongly that it (sports and social clubs for children with autism) is not just a nice thing to do, it's a necessary thing to do," continues Helen, adding that if the children don't get the opportunity to exercise and take part in groups "they just become isolated and they become unfit".

Helen and Victoria created Open Spectrum and picked JumpZone as its first activity because lots of children with autism enjoy the sensation of bouncing and "no one needs to explain what to do at a trampoline park, it is what it is". Tara says it's a particular good choice because it parents and children can share the activity. "Dillon likes me to pull me onto the trampoline court and I jump on the next trampoline to him, it's a great way to get interaction with him that's not so easy to get other places," she says.

Paul Quinn, director of JumpZone, says he had no experience of autism before Helen approached him about the Saturday morning sessions. "It's been a learning curve, especially for the staff," he says, adding his team are now better able to cope when children with autism come to regular sessions. He donates the takings from the session to 'Open Spectrum' once a month.

From its JumpZone roots, 'Open Spectrum' has blossomed to also include athletics in Irishtown, karate, bowling for teens, and wall climbing at UCD. Colin Donnelly, who runs the 'Rainbow Warriors' athletics sessions, says running is a perfect sport for the children because it doesn't require the kind of fine motor and communication skills demanded by sports like soccer, GAA and rugby. "I also noticed the benefits running has had on my life from a mental health and fitness perspective," says Colin, who's an avid marathon runner and has an elder brother with autism. "I thought 'could you imagine the benefits kids would get especially those with traits such as hand flapping, making constant noises, stress, anxiety and all the disorders that fall under the spectrum'." He has around 20 children, and some of them have competed in 5k runs.

The wall-climbing sessions hold a special place in Helen's heart for drawing children with autism into the wider community - "I love seeing the kids in UCD, some of them may never go to university but they're there in the middle of the UCD community," she says, adding that the children would not be able to cope with the large groups at a normal wall climbing session.

There are other parent-led groups like 'Open Spectrum' dotted across Dublin, including 'Snowflakes Autism Support' in Swords, which organises cinema trips, special sessions at Liffey Valley's bouncing play centre Pirate's Cove and messy play and 'Kildare Autism Network', which runs social outings for members every month including bowling, play centres, art club and lego. Groups like the scouts are investing in training their leaders to deal with autism and making their sessions more accessible to children with autism.

It's not just parents and those with connections to autism who are fueling the sports and social boom. Mainstream groups like the Scouts are also trying to make their sessions more accessible for children with autism and special needs. In Donegal, Tom Losey founded the 'Liquid Therapy' surf school in 2011 to introduce children with autism and autistic tendencies to the ocean, after working at a similar facility in California.

Every summer, his team run camps for children with varying levels of needs, starting off in the pool and bringing them out into the ocean, with one on one support if they need it. They also do private lessons.

Losey says his volunteers often describe a complete transformation in the children once they hit the water. "The children are captivated by the ocean, it's very sensory stimulating and sensory engaging," he says. "They're able to relax…They would catch hypothermia before they would get out."

As well as helping the children, the social and sports activities help parents. Losey says parents often tell him they get a rare good night's sleep on surfing days. The regular groups are a big help to parents as well. "I've made friends there," says Jane. "I don't think other parents get the autism thing unless they have a child with autism...It's a social outlet for me too. It's not just that James is happy and burns out a lot of energy, I get to talk to families."

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