Cutler Bay gymnastics studio works to train autistic child gymnasts

CUTLER BAY, Fla. (WSVN) — A Cutler Bay gymnastics studio is taking a special interest and working to teach children with autism how to do gymnastics.

“Nothing compares to watching a child that came in here with the fear of walking on the high beam and finally getting them to be able to walk on the beam independently by themselves,” said LEAP Head Coach Lauren Petrick. “It’s just such a rewarding experience.”

Petrick is a former gymnast who runs LEAP (Learning Enriched Athletic Programs), which specializes in developing special needs athletes.

“I always get some more training,” said gymnast Zach Torricella. “It gets a bit tough, but you know what they say, the more you practice, the better it gets perfect.”

While gymnastics strengthens the body, the practice also helps improve their social skills.

“My son’s social skills have improved since he started here,” said mother Annalis Castillo. “My son doesn’t talk, and I can see he’s happy. He’s excited, he watches what the other kids do. If he does something that he’s done a good job, he smiles — that’s priceless.”

“We’re customizing our program to fit their specific needs, target their weaknesses and build on the strengths that they have,” Petrick said.

“I can remember having conversations with people and thinking, ‘She’ll never know that I’m her mom. She’ll never be able to say that she loves me,'” said mother Linda Habish. “With all the therapy and things that we’ve been through with her, I think that this leap, she’s been here for three years now, and this has just really been that missing piece to the puzzle that we’ve really been looking for.”

Participating in LEAP has also given the children a new sense of confidence.

“The first time I did it in Georgia, back then, the last two years, I got all blue ribbons and a medal, and they call me the ‘Blue Ribbon Magnet,'” said Zach.

Zach and several other gymnasts have even used their skills to compete in regional meets.

“For me to see my special needs athletes start moving into an inclusion program and seeing that they can compete and challenge alongside typical and functioning kids, is by far the greatest for me,” Petrick said.

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