Haven for fun and inclusion
In Business Daily’s ongoing series on entrepreneurs, we meet a family who brought a play gym concept for kids with sensory needs Down Under
WHEN Sally Johnson’s son Digby was diagnosed with autism and ADHD at age two, she was at a loss to find a safe and welcoming place for him to play.
She longed for an affordable, inclusive venue where he could play freely on suitable equipment, and where she could meet families facing similar challenges.
“Digby was severely delayed in many areas of development,” Ms Johnson said.
“In some ways it was a kinder entry into autism. We realised pretty quickly that he wasn’t developing typically.”
She noted he did not feel comfortable in a lot of settings and she sought help.
One of the programs was an early intervention centre at Latrobe University.
For Ms Johnson this was a breath of fresh air. She was meeting families facing the same challenges.
In the meantime, she was taking Digby to the swimming pool first thing in the morning and parks in the evening to avoid large groups.
Ms Johnson said she found her family was becoming isolated because they couldn’t engage in activities with other kids.
“I kept searching for venues,” she said. “Digby really loved sensory gyms but they were attached to occupational therapist practices.”
Some years later, she learned that such a place existed — We Rock the Spectrum Kids Gyms. But they were in the United States.
These places were not as busy and noisy as other play centres. The lighting, sound and equipment was tailored to help children with sensory issues engage without feeling overwhelmed.
Ms Johnson made contact with Dina Kimmel, the mum who established the We Rock centres, and organised to travel to the US.
“Within the first hour of being there and seeing how relaxed and comfortable kids and their families were, I started scrambling to figure out how I could get one in Melbourne,” Ms Johnson said.
“I knew how powerful that feeling is to feel accepted.”
On her return to Australia, Ms Johnson spoke to her brother, Marcus, who had a long-term involvement in children’s programs and had worked for a franchise swimming school.
They pooled their funds and were able to negotiate to buy the master franchise for We Rock’s sensory gyms in Australia. The agreement requires them to establish two company-owned centres and find appropriate franchisees.
With an extensive background in marketing and brand management and connections in autism support networks, Ms Johnson said she was hugely passionate about bringing the We Rock concept to Australia.
“Within our own special needs community, I see the desire families have to connect with one another,” she said.
“I also know how good it feels to know our children are benefiting from activities that help them develop skills and regulate their sensory needs, while having fun.”
The county’s first We Rock the Spectrum Kids Gym will open on Gilbert Rd, Preston on August 11.
Ms Johnson said the centre would also welcome kids without autism, providing a safe space for siblings and friends.
The equipment is designed to be fun for all kids, although to particularly benefit those with sensory issues, fine and gross motor delays and balance or motor planning issues.
Ms Johnson said longer term they would look at a cafe but for the time being they would have vending machines offering “healthy” options.
The business’s early recruitment has been geared at people with lived experience of autism/ADHD. They had 70 applications and hired 11.
We Rock will operate seven days a week, from 9.30am to 6pm but may extend its opening hours.
Sally Johnson, son Digby, 7, and brother Marcus at We Rock the Spectrum Kids Gym in Preston. Picture: LAWRENCE PINDER