Jumping for fun and advocacy, too
By Lou Fancher
You can dim the lights and soften the music, but you can’t tone down a kid’s jubilant desire to jump on a trampoline or dive like a dolphin into a sea of soft foam bricks.
At Sky High Sports in Concord on Tuesday afternoons, it’s impossible to tell who’s having more fun: the children with special needs bouncing like basketballs on the trampoline center’s many padded surfaces or the adults watching them.
OK, it’s both — and just because these kids and their parents or caretakers are participating in the club’s weekly “special needs jump time,” doesn’t mean the physical activity isn’t commonplace.
“We got invited to a birthday party and she just fell in love with the place,” says Danette Niblett, of Concord, about Matilda, her 4-year-old daughter. “I went to their website and saw the special Tuesdays. We’ve come three times now. She just loves the freedom of bouncing in a huge court.”
In 2006, Bay Area brothers Jerry and Ron Raymond recognized that their urge to flip and fly while bouncing on trampolines was universal. The first Sky High Sports was launched in Santa Clara, and there are now 15 locations across the U.S.
To celebrate their 10th anniversary, this month has been declared “Jump for Autism Speaks October,” with all proceeds from the sale of special $2 autism awareness jump socks donated to Autism Speaks, a national autism advocacy organization.
For founder Jerry Raymond, autism is more than a cause, it’s part of everyday life as he has a son with Asperger’s. Now 24, Tyler is currently a courtesy clerk for Albertson’s grocery store. But when his children were young, Raymond says he had a hard time finding places his family could go without people judging them if his son acted differently.
Providing a “judgement free zone” to other families with children with special needs, he says, is rewarding.
“If your kid has a meltdown, no one bats an eye. It’s freedom,” he says. “It’s also awesome for the neuro-typical siblings who don’t have to ‘keep an eye on their sister’ the way they might have to somewhere else. Everyone’s free to have fun.”
During the three-hour afternoon program, kids and young adults on the autism spectrum, with Down Syndrome, Muscular Dystrophy or other conditions find comfort in the toned-down sensory environment — the park’s music is off and lights are dimmed to accommodate special sensitivities.
The reduced, $5 fee allows entry for one jumper and one parent or therapist. Standard waivers signed by caretakers over age 18 and additional, informed staff are safety measures.
“The first time, there were at least 30 kids,” says Niblett. “I’ve seen the staff intervene immediately if someone moves too aggressively near Matilda, or if she sits down to take off her socks. They keep it safe; it’s a busy but fun place.”
Niblett says she appreciates the excitement a visit to Sky High provides for her daughter, who has autism and is nonverbal.
“When we turn onto the street, she starts ripping off her shoes because she knows where we are. She squeals with anticipation.”
But even more, she says it removes stress and pressure that she experiences as a parent.
“I’m not embarrassed or ashamed of my daughter’s condition, but a lot of times, in other places, people wonder: ‘Why is that child eating with her hands?’ or ‘Why is that mother saying her child’s name over and over and she’s not responding?’”
In the embrace of “other families who know what I’m going through,” Niblett doesn’t have to describe autism or the daily ABA (applied behavior analysis) sessions or the daily trips she and her husband, Edward Niblett, make with Matilda for physical, speech and other therapies.
There is no need to explain why she has set aside her manicurist career to care for their daughter and 4-month old son, Oliver.
“To have this time with other people from the autism community,” she says, “it’s actually priceless to me.”
Raymond says visits to the sport park 10 years ago provided exercise his son needed and helped Tyler’s social engagement.
“He was able to play dodge ball without being judged, which helped him open up to other kids, and he really liked being part of a team.”
Tuesdays are naturally quieter than weekend days, so designating a special needs time — the park is open to all, but signage and court monitors remind visitors of the program — was a natural idea.
The goal for raising $75,000 with sales of the special socks that feature the “autism awareness” jigsaw puzzle piece pattern on the “grippy” soles, is on track. The socks will sell until they run out, but Raymond notes that their popularity means they may not last the month. Fortunately, special Tuesdays continue year-round.