Gym offers autistic children space to be themselves

Finally, a place where they can play. A place they can be free.

Janet Burrows knows all about kids on the spectrum. And she's teaching them to rock it.

"How are they going to learn to be friends?" she asked. "How are they going to learn to fit into society if we don't give them a chance?"

Two years ago, she opened the We Rock the Spectrum Gym -- a gym for all kids. It was a move inspired by her love for her spunky 9-year-old daughter Eden, who is autistic.

She didn't exactly set out to do it, but the Pinellas County mother has become a warrior for special-needs children, autistic ones in particular.

Janet is a hairdresser by trade, but, without any business experience at all, she opened this place in Largo where the kids and their parents are getting the help and hope they desperately need.

She's teaching people in the autistic community to stop apologizing.

Janet remembered the days when she took everything so personally. At first, it was the comments and stares from parents. Then, as the kids got older, they became the source of the heartache and fury.

Autistic behavior is quirky and hard to explain. She was tired of making apologies for Eden's "isms."

"It wasn't going well for her, and it was either I keep my mouth shut or I do something about it and obviously that's not my style," she said, laughing.

She can laugh about it all now, but it took time. 

At "We Rock the Spectrum" it's literally written on the walls, "Finally a place where you never have to say you're sorry."

The social part is tough for kids on the spectrum -- and for the parents. This is an inclusive place where special needs kids and their neurotypical brothers and sisters can play together.

You go into a high-dollar occupational therapy office and you may not find cooler toys than the ones they have. Occupational therapy is expensive, but crucial for the socialization and well being of autistic kids. On average, a visit to an occupational therapist is $50 to $100, sometimes more. Insurance very often doesn't cover it.

Janet is not an occupational therapist or a health care provider. She wants to make that very clear, she said. This is simply a place where the kids can play and get the same benefit.

It's really therapy for the kids and the parents, too, in a lot of ways.

For Nicole Henderson, it was exactly what she needed. Her 6-year-old daughter Danielle is autistic. If it weren't for her lamp device, it would be hard to understand what she was saying. It is hard for Nicole to watch her struggle socially.

"Inside she really wants to be around other kids and play. She tells me about it at home, but when she has the opportunity, she isolates herself," she confessed.  

Here, she hopes her daughter can find a place she feels comfortable enough to open up. In the meantime, she's found a place where the grown-ups just get it. Janet has assembled a fierce web of advocates and friends who know everything you'd need to know about the best schools, scholarships, doctors, laws, rights -- you name it.

"I have some great friends that I've met here and it's just amazing," Nicole said, her mood lightening a little, "It's the best feeling in the world to know you're not alone."

Janet hopes one day apologies won't be necessary and parents can relax a little.   

In this little world she's creating, she's taking the first step. "I did this for my daughter," she said, "but this has been more of a blessing for me, for my family and for my soul than I could have ever given to them."