I felt like I had come full circle. Here I was 5 years later, letting
Merritt try out a gymnastics class. The first time was at the county rec
center. He was 3 years old at the time. I left in tears after being told,
“Maybe you should try the class for 2 year olds”. What was wrong with him?
Why couldn’t he just listen and participate like the other kids his own age?

Many evaluations later we had our answer…a diagnosis of Autism. I won’t go
into that long story here, and how it has affected our family… I’ll save
it for another time.

So here we are, Merritt’s now 8 years old, and we go for a free gymnastics
class, just to check it out. He has incredible balance and plenty of
practice doing flips on our trampoline. He’s very strong, loves to climb and
play hard outside. It seems like the perfect sport for him. His disadvantage
is lack of focus and he is easily distracted by other things going on in the

When we arrive at the gym, it is very busy, with little bodies flipping,
running, and jumping all over the place. Conversations are going on
everywhere. Lots of stimuli that I can see he will have trouble filtering.

One more challenge…the instructor is Russian and has a bit of an accent.
Another challenge..the other boys in the class are younger (awkward), and
they are not beginners in this sport. The experience was less than ideal,
but then to top it off, I’m told some things by the instructor that made me
feel unwelcome there. I won’t go into specifics, but the gist of it was that
there was no place for us there. I felt viewed as “less than” the
neurotypicals…what some call “normal people”, whatever that means. I
didn’t even know what to say, I was in such shock at her words.

She seemed friendly about it, and I could tell what she said was out of
ignorance, a cultural difference, or a foreign language translation issue. I
wanted to believe that we weren’t being shunned.

I told my best friend, the infamous Ange Alex about what had happened, and
she was on it like white on rice. She is the yang to my yin. Ange is one
tough cookie, and I’m glad she always has my back. I don’t like
confrontation at all, but she is one fierce mama! She mentioned contacting
the gym, but I just wanted to forget about it and put it behind us.
I tend to avoid uncomfortable social situations.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that Ange sent them an email and
spoke with them about our bad experience. Ange didn’t even mention it again
to me. The next thing I know, I get a sincere, heartfelt apology from
another coach at North Metro Gymnastics Center, Ms. Dena Daniel. The owner
of the gym, Susan Durning, apparently called a staff meeting to straighten
things out. Ms. Daniel’s kind words made me feel better, but then she went
the extra mile in making it up to us….

“Ms. Dena” has started a program there called “Bright Stars Gymnastics”. The
gym donated the use of the facility and the coaches are donating their time.
The program is free of charge to families with children diagnosed with
Autism or High Sensory issues. The classes will have no more than 3 children
per class. Hours are 9-3, when the gym is less busy, which is great for kids
that are easily distracted, like mine. There are no set class times. Parents
interested in the program should contact Dena Daniel via email…
[email protected]

]Here is some information from our wonderful coach, “Ms. Dena”, about her
background and the Bright Stars program…

“I’ve been married to my husband, Rob, going on 19 yrs.  We have 3
children.  2 have special needs- my eldest and middle son both have
dyslexia, auditory processing and have tracking issues.  My middle son
also had a speech delay.

I graduated from Missouri State University with a degree in Consumer and
Family Economics-heavy focus on child development. I also attended Kennesaw
State University for Elementary Ed.  K-5.  I have been in the field of
gymnastics for over 20 yrs-as a gymnast, parent or coach.  I have been at
North Metro Gymnastic for 8 yrs.  I have coached preschool, developmental
gymnastics, boys/girls classes, cheer and competitive compulsory teams.
Currently I am the Preschool Gymnastics Director, coach developmental
gymnastics and run the NMGC camp programs.  I coached compulsory teams for 5
yrs, taking a break this year to have more time to attend to my daughters’
senior activities, and to have more time to coach Bright Stars Gymnastics.
During my time coaching competitive gymnastics, I’ve had 5 state champions,
numerous gymnasts that have placed in the top 3 at state and a team that
came 4th in the state, as well as one in the top 10.

I have always enjoyed working with children and have a special place in my
heart for children with special needs.  I grew up volunteering in Special
Olympics and volunteered for a year at a special needs school in St. Louis.I
enjoyed the spirit of the children and their desire to learn and be loved.
I taught preschool for two years and the children’s program for 4 years at
our church.

I have been wanting to develop a special needs gymnastics program for a few
years, but did not know where to start, if it would work, and where to
begin.  In running the preschool gymnastics program this past year. I
noticed quite a few children enrolled with autism and high sensory
disorders.  I saw how they thrived in the program and how happy they were in
class. The parents kept telling me how great the gymnastics classes were for
their children.

I started asking the question of, “Why gymnastics”?  I heard from many
parents that their doctor, occupational therapist, or physical therapist had
suggested gymnastics as a wonderful release for their children.  After
noticing all the benefits for the children I was seeing at NMGC, I started
researching articles on gymnastics and autism.  There were so many article
and a ton of programs across the US.  While gathering  the research and
reviewing my experiences at the gym,  I knew this is the route I wanted to
take.  I could definitely start a program for Autistic and High Sensory
children.  These children did well in the class, but I thought there is so
much time in the morning/afternoon hours when the gym is not so busy and
there would be fewer distractions.

I brought my idea to the owners of NMGC; Susan Durning, Carolyn Garrison and
Igor Shumila. The owners loved the idea and graciously donated the space of
the gym and use of all the equipment.    This would be a gymnastic program
that understood the needs of Autistic children and those with High Sensory
Disorders.  The kids would work lesson plans they could do, but it would be
a program that was somewhat directed from the child attending the class.
The program realizes that the focus level is short and we move quickly from
one skill to the next.  There are several activities planned, but if there
is disinterest from the child, or distraction to another event, we can move
to it.  The program plays games that have many gymnastics drills involved in
the child progressing through a gymnastic skill.  We not only work on
gymnastics, but also on strength building, flexibility, socialization, gross
motor skills, fine motor skills, sequencing, focusing,  and following
directions—but mainly I want to have fun and help build new relationships
with these children by providing a ton of positive re-enforcement.

We are only on our second week of classes and we already have 6 children
enrolled.  The program is an outreach program to the community. Since I have
2 children with special needs and know the financial side of special needs,
I wanted to not charge for the classes. I currently donate my time to coach
the classes; there are many other coaches at NMGC who are wanting to
volunteer in the program.  There are 5 classes set up.   Most have only one
child in them and will only grow to 3 students.  Parents who are interested
contact me and we discuss a schedule.   My goal is to try and find a class
for as many children as I can with the coaches I have.

This past week has been one of the most rewarding experience of my life.
There is no amount of money that would take the place of the love, laughs
and success I am seeing from these children participating in the Bright
Stars Gymnastics Program.  The children are bright shining stars in my heart
and I am so excited that the parents are sharing their children with me…

I am so fortunate to work for such wonderful people.  Without the support
of Susan, Carolyn and Igor and their generous offer of using the facility,
the Bright Stars Gymnastics Program would never have gotten off the ground.”
-Dena Daniel

We tried our first class last week, and I was thrilled with how it
went.  This is a brand new program, and I’m so excited that my boys have
this opportunity. I have a feeling a lot of families are going to benefit.

Hooray for good friends, kindness, generosity,acceptance, and gymnastics!!