Nearly eight years ago, when Dina Kimmel would take her children to indoor playgrounds to play, they would often get kicked out. Kimmel’s son, Gabriel, has autism, and many public spaces — including kid’s gyms and restaurants —were over-stimulating and completely overwhelmed him. Eventually, Gabriel would have a meltdown.
“When we would go to other indoor playground areas because we have a daughter who doesn’t have autism, we were kicked out of them because his behaviors were so severe,” Kimmel said.
Kimmel turned to a local gym as a safe place for her son, yet she still had to rent it for private one-on-one sessions for $150 with his occupational therapist. But this solution was not a long lasting one as Kimmel had hoped for — after being in business for 30 years, the gym was closing down.
“It started at this crazy, maternal, lioness instinct,” Kimmel said. “I sought out the best OT therapist, the best speech therapist, nutritionist and everything. It’s interesting, because as mothers we don’t stop, we don’t think, we just dive in and go.”
Kimmel and her husband, left with very limited options, decided to turn their bedroom into a “sensory safe” indoor playground for their son. They moved everything out of their bedroom, and then furnished it with swings, a trampoline and slides. What came next Kimmel could only describe as a miracle. After about three months, Gabriel, who was nonverbal, finally began to speak.
“We heard him talking in his bedroom,” Kimmel recalled. “So we walked in, and there he was in his crib running back and forth, singing ‘A,B,C,D,E,F,G.’ He was just belting out the alphabet, which of course we have never heard ever from him.”
Soon after, Gabriel begin interacting and playing with his sister and her friends.
After seeing her son’s incredible progress — he was sleeping better, playing with his sister, eating better — Kimmel knew she had to help other families like hers. In 2010, Kimmel opened the first We Rock The Spectrum Kid’s Gym in Tarzana, California. Her mission was to create a safe and welcoming place for families like hers.
“Truly, it was a miracle for our family,” Kimmel said. “Finally we had somewhere to go where we could be together and eat and play, and not be judged. It was our life saver. It was our saving grace.”
It was also important for Kimmel to create an inclusive environment and open it up to families with children who do not have autism.
Within weeks of opening, the response was overwhelmingly positive — even parents with children who did not have autism were frequenting her indoor play gym.
“By having this organic play with the sensory equipment, no one knows who has autism and who doesn’t,” Kimmel said. “That’s the beauty of We Rock The Spectrum.”
Kimmel knew that if her one indoor gym could make such a difference in her community, it could do the same for many others. In 2013, Kimmel franchised We Rock The Spectrum, and today there are 65 gyms across the country and internationally. In December of 2016, the first international We Rock The Spectrum gym was opened in Malaysia.
“This is an experience here built out of love and I feel like that’s why ‘We Rock’ works this well,” Kimmel said.
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Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.