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

Herald Sun - - BUSINESS - CLAIRE HEANEY claire.heaney@news.com.au

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

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