URBANA — This is the kind of gym her 14-year-old son, Paulie, could have used when he was younger, Julie Palermo said.
But she’s still happy other kids with special needs will benefit from the new sensory gym named for her son with autism — the Paulie Palermo Sensory Gym — that opened last month at Carle’s North Annex in Urbana.
The new gym space is serving kids with autism and sensory-processing issues during their therapy sessions.
It has bright colors, play equipment to swing and climb on, tunnels to crawl through, a rock wall, monkey bars and a platform to jump off into a cushioned bean bag-style landing spot.
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, kids with sensory-processing issues can have poor balance and react poorly to sudden movements, bright lights and sounds. They may have behavior issues and be afraid to swing, and their clothing may feel to them as though it’s too tight or itchy.
Among some of the symptoms of autism can also be sensitivity to light, sound and touch. Kids with autism may engage in repetitive movements and avoid social interactions.
A sensory gym is designed to help kids with autism and sensory processing disorders improve their sensory responses and have fun at the same time.
“The sensory gym is a space that we utilize with our kiddos who have a variety of diagnoses. Some have a diagnosis of autism or difficulties with sensory processing, some have a diagnosis of gross motor or fine motor delays,” said Lauren Rubarts, a pediatric therapist at Carle. “The equipment within the gym provides our kiddos with input from most of the eight senses.”
The gym has lights that can be adjusted to help build tolerance to brightness, she said.
“There is also a low-lighting tunnel we are able to use when a kiddo is overstimulated,” she said. “The sensory gym is great because our kiddos think they are just playing — but little do they know, their bodies are being provided with input that helps them regulate to a functional level to participate in daily activities such as dressing, coloring, socially interacting with others and communicating.”
Paulie Palermo, an Urbana Middle School seventh-grader, has autism but isn’t sensitive to sound and light, his mother said. He does, however, like to swing and jump — movements that help him feel grounded, she said.
For those kids who will use this gym, Palermo said, “it would help them in a sense of redirecting, calming effects, desensitizing their environment and providing them the ability to refocus.”
Carle opened this gym in Urbana as part of a larger, sensory-friendly initiative that includes another sensory gym in Normal and soon-to-come sensory-friendly exam rooms at four clinical locations, according to Lesa Brandt, director of leadership giving for Carle Foundation Hospital.
“It was brought to the table as a need, and we understand this doesn’t affect 100 percent of our patients, but it affects enough,” Brandt said.
Carle will be adding the sensory-sensitive exam rooms at Carle Foundation Hospital, its clinic at 1701 Curtis Road, C, the new Carle at the Riverfront campus in Danville and at Carle Richland Memorial Medical Center in Olney.
The initiative also includes education for staff and parents and making thousands of kits available at clinical sites with items to help keep children with autism and/or sensory processing disorders occupied and reduce their anxiety while they’re waiting to see doctors.
As of May 26, 7,200 Carle staff members had undergone education on behaviors related to autism and sensory processing issues so employees will recognize them when patient families walk in, Brandt said.
In about a month, a video will be available to view on Carle’s website for parents to help prepare their kids for a doctor’s office visit, Brandt said.
Palermo, also president of Champaign-Urbana Autism Network, and her husband, Dr. Mark Palermo, Carle’s associate medical director of orthopedic surgery, provided the lead gift for the sensory gym named for their son.
In all, $829,000 was raised for Carle’s sensory-friendly initiative through an employee giving campaign and fundraising event, according to Brandt.