The magic of Gympanzees for children with autism
“There’re very few places in the world designed for autistic people or disabled people,” says Jade, “but thankfully Gympanzees is.”
Jade, from Bristol, has two sons — Joe, 6, who has autism and is non-verbal, and James, 4, who also has autism. Joe and James both found adjusting to lockdown difficult, with drastic changes to their daily routine putting a strain on the family.
“Lockdown has been hard for us, particularly for Joe, who really struggles with change,” says Jade. “For a while, we couldn’t walk in the park because Joe and James couldn’t understand why the swings were closed.
“They weren’t able to go to soft play or school either… it was difficult.”
Living under lockdown
Under normal circumstances, the family regularly attend play sessions at Gympanzees, which works to ensure children with disabilities have access to inclusive exercise, play and friendship in an environment with soft mats, padding and toys.
However, because of social distancing requirements, Gympanzees needed to rethink how they supported families like Jade’s during the COVID-19 lockdown.
The social enterprise was awarded £10,000 through The National Lottery Community Fund’s Awards for All programme to set up Our Home. Through the project, children with disabilities and their families can access a package of exercise and play videos, remote one-to-one support with a qualified therapist, and a lending library of specialist play equipment.
Families are also able to book out - at no cost to them - specialist play and exercise equipment, such as sensory boxes and soft play equipment, which Gympanzees deliver following the Government’s social distancing and hygiene advice.
Parenting & play
“The lending library is fantastic,” says Jade. “We’ve had some soft play equipment for two weeks and the kids have been loving it. Soon we’re getting a hammock delivered.”
Items like swings or hammocks are important for the children’s sensory feedback and helps keep them calm.
Gympanzees also have a section on their website, which gives ideas for activities.
“They have online Zoom workshops for parents, which have been really informative too,” says Jade. “It’s been really helpful to be able to talk to a professional and say ‘my child’s doing this,’ and for them to come back with useful advice. As a parent of children with autism, there’s just so much to learn - it can be overwhelming.”
National Lottery funding
Stephanie Wheen, CEO and Founder of Gympanzees, says: “COVID-19 brought a multitude of difficulties and challenges for the children and families we support. But thanks to National Lottery funding, we can bring a bit of the Gympanzees magic into the homes of our children and families.
The project is supporting families through an online resource hub with activities and videos, specialist online therapy sessions and an equipment lending library.
“Take up has been exceptional,” says Stephanie. “The lending library was booked out in 48 hours – there’s now a 24 week waiting list for some items - the online therapy sessions were very popular with some running at full capacity and our online resource hub content has been viewed over 50,000 times. Our services are also being recommended to families by other health professionals.
“We’d like to say a huge thank you to National Lottery players, who’ve made it possible for us to continue with our work during this difficult time.”
It’s about family
“As a family, we’ve gained more understanding of Joe’s and James’ sensory needs and how to meet those needs,” Jade says. “As parents we get to see our kids interacting with the equipment and if they keep going back to one thing we know that’s something we might want to invest in.”
Her advice to other parents raising children who are autistic during lockdown?
“I would say to any family in Bristol to absolutely go to Gympanzees. Take your children and experience it for yourself. They come home exhausted and go to bed happy, which is what you’re looking for."
Learn more about Gympanzees at www.gympanzees.org