SANTA MONICA BLVD — For two weeks last month, Christian Rossi saw colorful signs for a kid-themed center opening on Santa Monica Boulevard as he walked back and forth to his daughter’s school.
Both he and his wife, Jenny, were looking for a center where their daughter, Finley, could play.
This past weekend, We Rock the Spectrum Santa Monica, a play center that caters to children from the autistic community, opened its doors.
Autism is a neurological disorder, characterized by impairments in three areas: communication, behavior and social interaction and is one of the disorders on the autism spectrum.
On Monday, Christian Rossi and his wife watched as Finley bounced around, swung across the room on a zipline or played in the brightly colored swings with her 3-year-old brother, Kellan.
Rossi said his daughter has significant attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, a psychiatric disorder where kids can have issues with attention or hyperactivity. Their son, Kellan, doesn’t have any signs of it, Rossi said.
Both parents bring their kids to the facility every day. Initially, it was convenient to bring Finley to the center because the family lives nearby. But then, the facility also provided an opportunity for the couple to get to know other parents with kids who have special needs.
“It’s almost like having a support group,” Christian Rossi said. “It’s amazing to find out that we are all going through the same thing as parents and that’s been a really amazing bonus for me.”
The facility is the first of its kind to open in Santa Monica, said owner Debra Davis.
An inclusive sensory gym for all kids, the center has a lot of occupational therapy-based equipment like different types of swings, a treadmill, a stationary bike and trampoline for children, Davis said. Because the equipment that’s used by occupational therapists is so expensive, the facility offers “open play” for $12 per visit. That’s where parents shadow their kids and staff show parents how the equipment works. A child’s behavioral specialist and occupational therapist are also welcome to attend.
Davis wanted to open up a center that was inclusive to all kids in Santa Monica, but especially kids on the autism spectrum. Her own daughter, Ryane, was diagnosed as a 4-year-old with high functioning autism and Davis had a difficult time finding the right fit for her. She ended up home schooling her daughter from first grade through fifth grade, but said it was difficult to take her to home-school groups and do general activities.
“She has auditory processing issues and it was hard to find different outlets for her,” Davis said. Last year, she took her daughter to a We Rock the Spectrum in Tarzana, Calif. and discovered the founder was looking to franchise. Davis, who worked as a designer getting homes ready for sale, decided to change careers and open her own location.
The center has different types of equipment that lets children touch, feel, bounce and jump. Most children on the autism spectrum have difficulty processing sensory information, said Tanya Paparella, associate professor in the department of psychiatry at UCLA. She’s written a book called “More than Hope: For Young Children on the Autism Spectrum.”
The children can seem to have a neurological, sensory imbalance and so many, because they have difficulty processing sensory information the way others do, may avoid certain experiences of interactions.
Those children who have difficulty processing that information may do so “in a way society doesn’t consider is socially acceptable,” Paparella said.
With a place like We Rock the Spectrum, the children can get the sensory information they’re seeking with equipment like the bolster swings, which kids can sit or lie down in, are used for relaxing and therapeutic balancing.
Davis said sensory issues are often caused by a disconnect/overconnect between the brain and the sensory receptors throughout the body.
“Swinging, specifically, triggers those receptors, and helps recreate those connections in the brain,” Davis said.
For kids who tend to have poor muscle tone, the center’s equipment is also effective at strengthening them.
Paparella did caution there is little research evidence to support sensory integration therapies.
“However, anecdotal reports suggest that it can be beneficial for some children,” Paparella said.
The classes, which will begin next month, include a special needs dance class; a fitness program for younger and middle-school aged kids; a yoga class; and a dance inspired workout for the mothers. There are four total instructors for the various classes. The prices range from $15 per student and up, depending on the program.
There is also Break Time, or drop off for parents who can leave their kids at the facility for up to three hours, for $12 per hour, Davis said.
The center also has an area where it sells sensory puzzles, kids’ costumes and toys.
For more information on We Rock the Spectrum Santa Monica and business hours, visit www.werockthespectrumsantamonica.com.