By Anthony Romanelli, Executive Opinion Editor
We Rock the Spectrum (WRTS), a gym franchise dedicated to helping children with a wide range of developmental disorders, opened its first Chicago chapter on Saturday, October 6. The grand opening included fun activities for children including a zip-line, trampoline, face painting and snacks provided by neighborhood businesses.
The decision to open up a Chicago location, according to owner Mary Alice Gilgunn, came about a year ago shortly after Thanksgiving. A former speech-language pathologist, Gilgunn wants to ensure that kids across the mental spectrum have a fun environment to learn coordination and social skills.
“We have new parents coming in that are so excited to see this,” Gilgunn said. “Sometimes we get siblings of kids who are also on the spectrum, and we love seeing them get involved.”
WRTS was founded in 2010 by California native Dina Kimmel, who wanted kids like her autistic son Gabriel to have a safe, judgement-free play environment. The organization has gyms across the country, as well as in other nations including Malaysia, Australia and the United Arab Emirates.
While the original gym focused on sensory development for those with autism, the organization does not discriminate, and allows children with no disorders to play with their friends. Gilgunn believes that banning children with no disorders or issues would be hypocritical to the organization’s values, and also points out that the gym’s activities can improve the social and developmental skills of any child, autistic or not.
“We don’t want to be known as ‘the autism gym,’” Gilgunn said. “That’s only a small part of who we are.”
Any parent can bring their child into WRTS for $12 at the door for as long as they need. Memberships are available and range from $30 for three play sessions, $50 for five play sessions, or $100 for 12 play sessions. WRTS’s Palatine location is open from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Play sessions are usually two to three hours, but there is no time limit and Gilgunn “can’t imagine kicking anyone out”.
In addition to the memberships, WRTS maintains itself through its in-house store, the “Rock Shop.” Many of the Rock Shop’s products are educational toys that aid brain development, including many products from Melissa & Doug, a Connecticut-based company specializing in puzzles and arts and crafts made to challenge a child’s mind and encourage organic learning.
WRTS is connected to My Brother Rocks the Spectrum (MBRTS), a nonprofit organization that helps pay for therapy, social interaction classes, and other activities to help children regardless of their position on the spectrum. The WRTS gym includes an informal “classroom” where educators and therapists working with MBRTS give children the tools they need to be successful and happy, often in one-on-one sessions.
“We are a community resource above all,” Gilgunn said. “We want to be that resource, not just for kids on the spectrum.”