Local gym offers exclusive class to children with autism

The Iowa Gym-Nest is offering a class for children with autism in an environment where they can express themselves while working on their motor skills.

Emilia+Cryer+plays+during+a+class+at+Gym+Nest+in+Iowa+City+on+Sunday%2C+Sept.+8%2C+2019.+Gym+Nest+has+begun+offering+gym+classes+to+children+on+the+autism+spectrum+and+their+siblings.+
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Local gym offers exclusive class to children with autism

Emilia Cryer plays during a class at Gym Nest in Iowa City on Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019. Gym Nest has begun offering gym classes to children on the autism spectrum and their siblings.

Emilia Cryer plays during a class at Gym Nest in Iowa City on Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019. Gym Nest has begun offering gym classes to children on the autism spectrum and their siblings.

Katie Goodale

Emilia Cryer plays during a class at Gym Nest in Iowa City on Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019. Gym Nest has begun offering gym classes to children on the autism spectrum and their siblings.

Katie Goodale

Katie Goodale

Emilia Cryer plays during a class at Gym Nest in Iowa City on Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019. Gym Nest has begun offering gym classes to children on the autism spectrum and their siblings.

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While trampolines, balance beams, ropes, obstacle courses, loud music, and children running around may seem overwhelming to a child with autism, an Iowa City gym looks to make those obstacles a welcoming environment instead.

Iowa Gym-Nest, 545 Olympic Court, began offering a class last year on Sundays geared toward children with autism called the Challenging Obstacles Requiring Strength and Endurance Spectrum. 

The class was previously offered at the gym and eventually adjusted for autistic children following an inquiry by parent and Iowa City Autism Community co-founder Dina Bishara. 

Katie Goodale
Emilia Cryer plays during a class at Gym Nest in Iowa City on Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019. Gym Nest has begun offering gym classes to children on the autism spectrum and their siblings.

After realizing there was not a class accommodating that population, class creator and gym coach Ryan Pearson developed not one, but two classes.

“We made a couple flyers and put out a couple things on the internet,” Pearson said. “We got a pretty good response with the first class, and we’ve just built on it.” 

Pearson said the first class is more structured, with an instructor directing children through the course on how to tackle certain obstacles and addressing anything they may be nervous about.

The second class is similar to an open gym, he said. The kids are reminded of the rules but then are free to do what they want. Their families and siblings are also invited to join, Pearson added. 

The class has helped kids build confidence in their coordination and balance skills, spatial awareness, and ability to overcome the obstacles, he said. 

“The biggest challenge with regular classes with places like the Gym-Nest is the gym is going to be full of other kids, and safety is a real issue, because there’s a lot of tumbling and a lot of equipment,” Bishara said. “And it’s going to be loud, and they’re going to be playing music, so it’s not very conducive to a great experience [for autistic children].” 

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The class gives kids an opportunity to play and enjoy themselves while also providing time for parents to talk and get to know each other, she said. 

Katie Goodale
Charlotte Cryer plays during a class at Gym Nest in Iowa City on Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019. Gym Nest has begun offering gym classes to children on the autism spectrum and their siblings.

It also creates a community for both the kids and the parents who attend the classes, Bishara said. Having a welcoming environment shows that there are businesses and organizations in the area that care, she said. 

Although Iowa Gym-Nest is the only gym location tailoring its services for children with autism, the Iowa City Autism Community has worked with local businesses to create events catered toward individuals with autism, co-founder Jessie Witherell said. 

“Part of inclusion isn’t just having everyone share the same space. I think it’s creating equal access to public spaces,” Witherell said. “I think that with this unique class, it gives kids on the spectrum and their families a place to explore on their own terms.” 

Jill Cryer, parent to Charlotte and Emilia, has brought both daughters to the gym for classes since January. After attending a couple of classes, Cryer said, she noticed her daughters were gaining confidence with their bodies. 

Cryer recalled the pair being scared of the height of the balance beam and wanting to hold her hand the entire time. After a while, she said, the girls began climbing on and running across the beam on their own. 

“I have met several really nice parents of autistic kids, and it has given me a network that I didn’t know existed, and I’ve become friends with these people,” Cryer said. 

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