Couple’s son spurs first Illinois gym for special needs children
By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
EDWARDSVILLE — A local family’s love for their autistic son is behind the upcoming launch of Illinois’ first gym dedicated to children with special needs.
Jennifer and Mike Range will open “We Rock the Spectrum” in leased space in the University Pointe center in Edwardsville, next to the Los Tres Amigos restaurant. They are shooting for late June, but a lot depends on the pace of renovations.
Their son Scott, now 22, was diagnosed at age 3 while they were living in the Joliet area. For years, the couple has been searching for ways to help their son.
“I was on line and I saw a link for a gym called We Rock the Spectrum, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I wonder what is this all about?’,” Jennifer Range recalled. After reading up, she told her husband that the gym was something they were meant to do.
Autism is considered a spectrum disorder with a wide range of impact on those who have it, from a total lack of verbal communication all the way to high-functioning. Autism is generally described as a mental condition, present from early childhood and characterized by difficulty in forming relationships and in using language and abstract concepts.
We Rock the Spectrum was founded in 2010 in Tarzana, Calif., by Dina Kimmel, who also is mother of an autistic son. The company is today an international franchise opportunity that provides sensory-safe play for children with autism, special needs and neurotypical development.
The Edwardsville location is the first in Illinois, although other franchises are pending and there is also a Spectrum location in Fenton, Mo.
Each gym location features specially designed, occupational-therapy equipment, which aids children in the improvement of sensory functions while they learn and play. The gyms offer a variety of inclusive programs designed specifically so all kids can participate, no matter their neurological development.
“What our kids need is what we call a sensory diet,” Range said. “They need to move, rock and swing. This equipment allows them to get the movement that they need, in an appropriate way. But it’s also fun, and typical kids can join in so you have those organic friendships being built. Like being on a playground, but a specialized playground.”
Equipment will include a zipline, a trampoline, different kinds of swings and climbing structures and a rope climb, she said.
“Our son, even at 22, loves to swing,” she said. “It just centers him and helps him focus.” Scott turns 23 this month.
Many of the Spectrum gyms are located in retail shopping centers, she said. Many of the franchise owners are parents of children with disabilities or health-care professionals who are involved in treating such children.
Parents and siblings are often at a loss as to handle situations involving autistic children and sometimes end up apologizing for the actions of a family member. There is none of that at We Rock the Spectrum, where “Never having to say you’re sorry” is the motto.
“In these gyms everybody gets it, and nobody has to apologize. Everybody is free to be who they are,” she said. “We want all kids, especially siblings, since it’s tough on them to be in a place where their brother or sister stands out. In these gyms they don’t; they just blend in with everybody.”
Scott is the second-born of the Ranges’ four children, and the only one with a disability.
Range recently resigned a job as a special education teacher at Edwardsville High School to spearhead the effort full time. Her husband works in construction-equipment financing for Wells Fargo Finance.
“The whole idea behind what we did and why we did it is so our son has someplace to go, where he can be a productive human being,” Jennifer Range said. The state of Illinois, the shape and state that it is, provides our child with little assistance. Parents in Illinois, when our children graduate out of the school system they have very little to do, and we have no funds to do it with. The state of affairs in Illinois, as far as people with disabilities, is pretty bad. We’re fifth worst in the nation.”
The number of children being diagnosed with autism has skyrocketed in recent years, whether it has been through awareness, environmental factors or other causes.
“One in 42 boys (and one in 68 both boys and girls) are being diagnosed on the spectrum these days,” she said. “When our son was diagnosed, it was one in 500. There are all kinds of doctors studying this stuff, but the reality is these kiddoes are being diagnosed.”
The gym, 1015 Unit A, Century Drive, will be all about fun and interaction with peers. There will be space for birthday parties and art and music therapy classes.
Entrance fees will be based on both memberships and open play. Parents can join up for a month, six months or a year, based on rates set by the company.
Range plans to have the gym open seven days a week. A temporary sign is now in place.
Construction got underway in the middle of April and will continue for weeks, with new paint, flooring and a room addition. The site was the former location of Little Gym, an unrelated business.
The Ranges had been working on the project many months, looking for just the right site and lining up a Small Business Administration loan. Meanwhile, word about the venture was spreading. She’s talking to many parents and behavior therapists about participation.
“I’ve talked to those therapists and some organizations about coming and presenting to parents. One of the hardest things for us, when our guy was younger, was being able to go listen to people in the field about how to help our son,” she said. “I’ve always felt like he was part of our life for a reason. And as parents who have walked the path for so long, we are thrilled to be able to help families who are just starting the path.”
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