TEWKSBURY, Mass. (AP) — Brendan Craig darts excitedly from room to room at Blue Wave Recreation, seemingly wanting to try every activity at once.
The Tewksbury 4-year-old runs to the indoor turf field, to the basketball court and to the art room. But where he’s happiest on this particular visit is the small studio with the teepee-shaped swing suspended from the ceiling.
His behavioral therapist, Caitlyn Allain, alternately pulls, pushes and spins the swing, while Brendan giggles and shrieks in delight.
“Want to spin?” Allain, of Hampton Falls, N.H., asks. “Say, ‘Spin please.'”
“Spin please,” Brendan repeats back to her.
Brendan is on the autism spectrum, and mostly non-verbal. Lately he has been talking more, and Allain remarks how he is using his words.
“I think this is the most fun he’s had on the swing,” said his mother, Suzanne Bone, as Brendan let out another round of infectious giggles.
Bone said she’s grateful to have a place he can play safely and socialize with other kids. On Wednesday afternoon, Brendan was the only child there, but he’s often accompanied there by his brothers, Jonny, 7, who is also on the autism spectrum, and Nate, 13.
Allain and Bone said the facility is also a great place to help Brendan work on motor skills, sensory activities, safety in public places and using a public bathroom, staying with mom and calming techniques.
Opened by Jen and Joe Falcone of Chelmsford in December, Blue Wave Recreation is designed to be friendly for children and adults with autism and other special needs.
The Carter Street facility, adjacent to Breakaway Ice Center, features a number of activities designed to get members physically active, including basketball, soccer, kickball, an obstacle course and yoga. For those looking to express their creativity or tinker around, there is a large open art studio. Adjacent to that is a sensory room where members can play with games, puzzles and musical instruments on one side, or just relax, hang out and watch movies in the low light on the other.
The autism community in particular is special to the Falcones, who have a son, Joseph, 15, who is on the spectrum.
“Over the years, we’ve been very lucky to live in this area,” Jen Falcone said. “We’ve had great programming, but as far as opportunities in the community for recreation, (they) have been few and far between for him based on his ability, and some of the behavioral challenges that are part of our life.
“So what we have always looked for is a place that is accepting of his behavior, that would encourage physical activity and socialization,” she continued. “Something in the community that is a destination, that welcomes anybody regardless of ability.”
Unable to find quite the right thing, they decided to create it themselves.
Falcone has a background in physical therapy, and worked with children with autism in the past. After staying home to raise her three children, she said she wanted to go back and do something rewarding that was geared toward this population. Combined with her husband’s business and technology background, they felt they were in a good position to start their own business.
It took them more than a year to find the right place, which had to be close to their son’s school, Melmark New England, in Andover. They renovated the entire space, which had sat vacant for years after housing other recreational businesses.
So far, Blue Wave has attracted students special-education students from Tewksbury and Dracut public schools and the autism-focused Nashoba Learning Group in Bedford. The Falcones have also built relationships with Melmark and organizations that operate day programs for adults, like Bridgewell’s Rosewood III Day Services Program in Billerica and CLASS Inc. in Wilmington and Lawrence.
Blue Wave will soon start a vocational training program with Melmark, and is working on creating a similar program with Bridgewell.
Bridgewell Career Specialist Marc Jamieson said they are discussing a vocational opportunity in which Rosewood III day program participants would maintain vending machines. Through that, they would be able to improve their skills for grocery shopping, learn about stocking the machine, and collecting, counting and depositing money in a bank, he said.
Jamieson said they’re also looking to develop more vocational opportunities in sports recreation, such as refereeing.
He said the program participants love going to Blue Wave, and they feel welcome there.
“Jen and her staff do a great job interacting with them and understanding some of the challenges they have,” Jamieson said.
He said it is a unique facility that caters to the autism-spectrum disorder population in ways others do not, from the sensory-friendly color schemes to the different types of furniture.
“There’s a lot of environmental triggers in the community that our population tend to keep away from, and so the environment that they created really just makes them all feel comfortable, from the high-functioning to the more challenging populations,” Jamieson said.
Blue Wave Manager Marissa Barner said the programs at the facility are “ever-changing” and growing, thanks to the creativity of the staff and the needs and suggestions of member families.
She highlighted special offerings like music therapy, facilitated by Maureen Young of Roman Music Therapy in Wakefield, and themed weeks that activities will be centered around.
“There’s always something new going on,” said Barner, of Brookline, N.H. “We also tailor to our nonverbal members. So if we’re doing an art class or maybe kickboxing, we make visual instruction boards, so we can reach everyone.”
Some staff members, like Mario Rosa, of Lowell, have experience working with the autism and special needs communities.
Rosa, a family service provider and therapeutic mentor for South Bay Community Services in Lowell, works with children of all ages to help them with things like social and emotional-regulation skills, anger management and hygiene.
Previously a basketball coach for 15 years in Puerto Rico, Rosa said he was missing that piece of his life when he moved to Massachusetts. He was thrilled when he found a part-time job at Blue Wave that would allow him to do that again.
Falcone said Rosa has a natural ability to engage the members and get them active. Even those that have never exercised before “will do anything for him,” she said.
One teen, for instance, would always go directly to the sensory room to watch TV. Rosa said he started talking with him, and got him to come to the basketball court and work with the fitness group. Now, the boy comes every Saturday and works with Rosa for an hour and half.
“This, for me, is more than a job,” Rosa said. “It’s that place I want to come because I make those kids smile and feel good.”
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