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Kids with special needs find joy in new sensory-based play space

May 26, 2021 | In:

OAK CREEK, Wis. — Children with special needs continue to struggle during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

A lack of routine, social isolation, and virtual schooling have had a drastic affect on their mental health, as multiple studies have shown.

We Rock the Spectrum Gym in Oak Creek is a respite and long-awaited safe space for many of these children.

Katie Kuzma-Popp takes her son Sullivan there twice a week. The gym, which specializes in sensory equipment for children with special needs, is something Sullivan looks forward to.

“I was really concerned that during the pandemic he wasn’t getting any socialization and getting behind on his speech and not being able to play with kids his own age,” Katie said.

Sullivan has sensory processing disorder, which means even a change in temperature is difficult for him to handle emotionally.

“He struggles with different textures, like fabrics, and he struggles with socialization in general,” Katie said. “He struggles with frustration and handling his emotions.”

The gym opened in June of 2020, at the height of the pandemic. Owner Linda Niemela said it was a big undertaking, but worth it for her community.

“Kids with special needs specifically have had a really hard time not being in school and they’ve had a really tough time not being with their peers,” Linda said. “It’s been nice having a place for them to come and be in close proximity.”

Since Katie has been bringing Sullivan to the gym for the past six months, she said she has noticed drastic changes in him.

“His speech is totally caught back up,” Niemela said. “He’ll even go up to other kids and ask them to play with him, versus just standing in a corner by himself.”

Niemela, who is a licensed pediatric physical therapist, said she feels for all families who have had to endure this difficult year.

“May is Mental Health Month and we know the increase in depression and anxiety was significant during the pandemic because that lack of socialization,” Niemela said.

The gym is fully open, but remains at a capacity limit on the weekends. To see the gym’s open play schedule, click here.

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