Ten-year-old Jack Cogel is strapped into a baby’s swing and a gymnastics instructor pulls on the ropes to hoist him up.
The autistic boy’s feet hang and shuffle, feeling the 5 feet of air beneath him, as he begins to swing.
Tracey Cogel, who’s been bringing her son to weekly gymnastics sessions at the Gold Medal Gymnastics Center in Centereach for two years, sees the program as guidance in his development. But Jack sees it as enjoyment, even though he doesn’t speak.
“I think he likes learning new things and thinking he can do something special. It takes much longer for a kid with autism to learn than a typical kid would in a shorter amount of time,” said Cogel, of Centereach. “But they still get the same enjoyment out of it and so do we.”
The gymnastics program at the Gold Medal Gymnastics Center is a special needs program that helps children with learning disabilities improve their motor skills.
Autism affects one in 88 children and is almost five times more common in boys than girls, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The special needs program at the Gold Medal Gymnastics Center helps children with disabilities socialize as they engage in physical activities -- jumping, swinging and crawling.
“It helps a lot with their coordination,” said 22-year-old Tara Savino of Coram, one of the two special needs instructors. “They have a chance to move around and work muscles that they’re not able to work with when they’re at school.”
During the hourlong session, the group of eight children walked on balance beams, completed an obstacle course, swung, stretched, jumped on a trampoline and climbed through a pit of sponge cubes as their parents were nearby for support.
“It gives them a chance to think harder about what they’re doing,” said Savino, who has been with Gold Medal Gymnastics since 2004. “If they’re doing a forward roll on beam, they have to think: ’If I don’t tuck my head, this might hurt and if I don’t tuck my head, I could fall off the side of the beam.’ There’s a lot of higher thinking questions that come into play with it and I think that’s important for them to experience.”
Kristen Hutchinson, 37, of Selden, has been involved with gymnastics since she was young and now teaches special needs and regular classes at Gold Medal. Her passion for teaching the special needs class was discovered accidentally. She began by covering for other instructors but grew to love it.
“With those kids, they’re faced with so many challenges in their lives,” Hutchinson said. “They don’t reach their milestones at normal periods like another child would. When they accomplish something, it’s a big deal so we all celebrate them. They have such wonderful lives and are so brilliant.”
Opportunities for children with special needs on Long Island range from gymnastics centers, like Gold Medal, to art schools and sports leagues. Physical activity is stressed for these children, but so is social activity.
“A lot of the things we find with special needs children is that their social skills are lacking,” said Valerie Reid, regional director of Long Island Parent to Parent, a non-profit group for parents with special needs children. “Whether they have autism or ADHD, it’s important for the kids to get together to socialize. Special needs children are like any other children.”
Reid’s organization has hosted events for special needs children and their parents to interact with other families.
“Both parents and children need a sense of community, to know what’s going on with other families going through the same thing they are,” she said.
For the Cogel family, the gymnastics program helps their son stay active and socialize with other kids.
“There’s not many things, especially close by in the community, for kids with autism to participate in. We’ve tried many programs years ago but as they get older there’s not much available,” said Tracey Cogel. “With gymnastics, you can see how proud he is of the things he can accomplish with the help from the girls.”