Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2008 | 5:56 p.m.
As the children go through the obstacle course, they approach the various challenges differently.
When asked to jump from one foam block to another, some make daring leaps while others pause at each level and cautiously step to the next.
When asked to somersault down a foam ramp, some dive head first, some roll on their sides and others do a move that's somewhere in between.
Each task allows the personality of each child to shine through, and each is a crucial learning exercise.
The children, who have been diagnosed with autism, are learning coordination, exercise and how to follow directions from teenage gymnasts at Gymcats in Green Valley. The gymnasts have been teaching the free classes twice a month since June, when gymnasium owner Cassie Rice launched the class for Families for Effective Autism Treatment of Southern Nevada, a local organization for parents of autistic children.
Rice said she got the idea after seeing how gymnastics exercises helped the autistic grandson of one of Gymcats' former coaches. She wanted to get her students involved in service projects, and the FEAT parents readily accepted her idea.
"I really need our gymnasts not to be so wrapped up in their own world," Rice said. "The question was how do you make a teenager reach out and help others and really like doing it? But our gymnasts have adopted this program and made it their own."
This Friday afternoon class is one of the smallest, with only five students. But each is paired with one or two personal trainers, who take them by the hand and walk them through every exercise.
Rice said she's already seen changes in the children in a few months.
"You can see each week that they have a little bit better listening skills," she said. "They obviously will have little problems here and there, but you can see them improving week after week."
Standing in a small observation room that looks into the gym, the parents of the participating children said the Gymcats program has been a gift.
"There are many activities happening here in Henderson for kids, but not many of them are set in this kind of environment and geared toward autistic children," parent Stephanie Smock said.
Mabel Miranda said her 2-year-old son, Jancarlo, doesn't open up in other playgroups the way he does at Gymcats. Her son, normally hesitant to be away from her, kicked her out of the class on his third visit to Gymcats. She was delighted.
"They have a little helper to not just tell them what to do, but take them by the hand, guide them through it and break it down for them," she said.
Jancarlo Miranda's helper, 15-year-old gymnast Erica Oswalt, beamed as she talked about the enormous strides the toddler has made.
"He's doing so much better from the first time he came," Oswalt said. "He was crying, screaming and didn't want to do anything. But after half an hour or so, he began to calm down and run around the gym and have fun. Now, he does everything."
Oswalt said she enjoys helping the children.
"It makes me feel good," she said.
Another mother, Leslie Brusa, said her 4-year-old son, Zach, is getting valuable help with his balance. She credited the one-on-one approach for the program's success.
"There's not any other class I know of that provides a helper," she said. "These girls are wonderful. … From the first class to now, he's actually paying attention and following along. He's listening to his helpers and doing everything they say."
The classes are free to any autistic child, but require advance sign-up so that each child can be paired with an individual gymnast.
Jeremy Twitchell can be reached at 990-8928 or [email protected].