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April 28, 2017

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Locations updated 6/3/16

TIM LAMORTE/RIVERTOWNS ENTERPRISE

Beth Blank Dunn kisses her 5-year-old son, Conor.

 
Mom champions activities for children with autism

By Kris DiLorenzo

DOBBS FERRY — National Autism Awareness Month, sponsored by the Bethesda, Md.-based Autism Society, didn't have to compete for attention last Sunday, April 23, at Dobbs Ferry’s New York Sports Club, thanks to the club’s post-rehab physical therapy specialist, Beth Blank Dunn.

Dunn, a 20-year veteran of NYSC at several locations, organized the club’s first Autism Awareness event, offering parents and children three hours of activities in the club’s gymnasium, small-group room, and pool. Dunn, a Dobbs Ferry resident, was inspired to create the event because of her and her husband Jim’s experience with their 5-year-old, Conor, who was diagnosed with autism at age 3.

Because Conor was nonverbal, the Dunns wanted to develop his socialization skills, but encountered frustrations trying to find a place where he belonged.

“Every soccer program we tried, he was either too young, or too autistic, or the groups were too big,” Dunn told the Enterprise. “I got the idea since I work for the Sports Club. We have an empty studio in the back; it’s small, it’s contained. In early October, I put something up on social media to see if anybody was interested in joining a soccer program, and we had 32 people sign up within a week.”

The soccer program for children with autism was up and running before the month was over. Classes are held daily, for 45 minutes, on Monday through Thursday between 3:30 and 5:30 p.m., and on weekends from 8:30 a.m. to approximately 1:30 p.m. Individual soccer classes cost $40 per class, swim classes cost $50 to $80 per class, and packages are available for each. Classes at the Somers NYSC are due to launch in May.

Dunn limited enrollment to four kids per class, arranged according to attention span and skill level, because, she explained, “with autism now, everyone has different little quirks.”

Conor, who attends Hawthorne Country Day School, is physically rather than verbally oriented. He doesn’t watch TV or play video games, so the Dunns turned their basement into a gym packed with multicolored equipment to satisfy his need for activity. He’s at home in the pool, too, swimming underwater with or without fins. He loves wheels, and can roll a car tire around the gym without it falling over. However, Conor doesn’t always like noise, so the Dunns have a teepee in the house where he can enjoy quiet. 

Soccer has proved to be a boon to Conor and other children with autism. Dunn found the right instructor in 26-year-old lacrosse and soccer instructor Brandon Mager, who was diagnosed with autism when he was a child. Mager’s cousin, a client of Dunn’s, had told her about him. “I made Conor the guinea pig, and I had Brandon do a couple of lessons with him, and it was just amazing,” Dunn said. “He took to Brandon instantaneously; it was almost as if he knew there was something similar to him.” Conor is now teaching other children to play soccer, using the exercises Mager taught him.

Mager exerted a calming influence over the half-dozen boys in his soccer cadre last Sunday. On the floor of the small room was a sequence of large green dots numbered one through 10, and each child took a turn following Mager’s directions to jump from one dot to the next, counting out loud, then kick a soccer ball into a goal net. Mager showed patience with any child who didn’t do the exercise correctly, and had him try it again to get it right. One boy even showed off his expertise by doing the exercise, then reversing it, counting backward from 10.

Being in a room with a dozen people, listening to and following instructions, and maintaining concentration is often difficult for children with autism, but they all managed on Mager’s watch.

“I was born with disabilities, so I understand what these kids are going through on an everyday basis,” Mager explained. “I see what their capabilities are.”

Mager has a pervasive developmental disorder, also known as an autism spectrum disorder. “My mother knew something was up; it was that mother instinct,” Mager recalled. He’d sleep through birthday parties — even his own. “It was my way of shutting people out,” he explained. He also found it tough participating in sports. “My mother signed me up for Wiffle Ball or T-ball — and I was one of those kids who would sit in the outfield and pick flowers.”

Soccer and lacrosse became Mager’s entrée to opportunities as an adult. Last summer he participated in the Israel Premier Lacrosse League, playing with and against adults from all over the world and receiving the IPLL Sportsmanship Award.

His success is an inspiration. “It’s so great for parents to see, because so many of them are so terrified of what’s going to happen as their kids get older: are they going to be able to hold a job and do things? Watching him come back and teach is a powerful tool,” said Jim Dunn, who is the global account manager for Masergy, a cloud communications company.

Back on the NYSC’s basketball court, Conor and several other children navigated an obstacle course. Under the supervision of instructors, they jumped over physical therapy wedges, wove through a line of mini-cones, and “walked the tightrope,” i.e., followed one of the lines painted on the court. “If this room is too much for them, we’ll bring them into the back room where there’s a chalkboard, so they can draw, or use Play-Doh — whatever’s good for them,” Beth Dunn explained.

Children with autism often demonstrate remarkable abilities in unexpected areas. Jim Dunn attested to Conor’s particular expertise. “He is nonverbal to a certain extent, but he can be very expressive, and he’s wicked smart,” he said before recounting how his son, who “loves cars,” figured out a way to get behind the wheel.

“One day he got a stepstool out, pulled it to the key rack, stepped up, took the keys to my car, went to the front door that has a deadbolt on it, took a broomstick, reached up to open the deadbolt, opened the front door, walked to the car, got in, and started it,” Dunn laughed. “Now, mind you, he can’t operate the car because of the footbrake and all that, but he figured it all out.

“He’s a very intense observer of everything, so we have to be careful about what we do,” he continued, “because if he sees something once, he will not forget it. Like with locations — we could’ve been someplace once two years ago, and he will remember exactly what that place was.”

National Autism Awareness Month was launched nearly 25 years ago to call attention to this range of developmental disabilities. Autism affects individuals differently and to different degrees, but is on the rise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that nearly one in 54 boys have some form of autism, compared to the 2004 rate of one in 125.

For information about the NYSC program, contact Beth Blank Dunn on Facebook, or email Beth.blank@newyorksportsclubs.com.



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