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How the SU Fit Families program helps children with disabilities

A program in Syracuse University’s School of Education is helping children with disabilities achieve things they previously weren’t able to — like helping a boy with a visual impairment swim to the bottom of a pool.

SU Fit Families is a research-based physical activity program that was formed in 2013 for children with disabilities and their families. The program is currently accepting applications for its five one-day workshops, which will assess families with children aged 5-10 with autism on a variety of physical skills. The workshops will begin this month, according to a release on the School of Education’s website.

Each workshop will consist of five different areas of focus: sensory integration and behavior management, communication, motor development and physical activity, aquatic opportunities and sports, said Luis Columna, the program’s founder.

Columna said he gained inspiration for the idea of SU Fit Families while working with children with disabilities in Guatemala.

Columna recalled an interview with a parent during which the parent said she had read pamphlets about parenting and the importance of physical activity for children with disabilities. The parent said that the pamphlets hadn’t helped her learn to play and connect with her child.

“I said, ‘You know, you have given me the best idea of the world,’” Columna recalled, realizing the parents have to learn exactly how to connect with their children.

From there, he said he got support from the John Hussman Foundation and the Jim and Juli Boeheim Foundation. Then, he tailored the program to center around connecting parents with their children.

Columna and his multidisciplinary team will provide feedback at the workshops to the families to help them implement what they’ve learned, he said. The team consists of faculty from SU’s School of Education, psychology department and exercise science department.

“You can have a disability, you can have an impairment, but that doesn’t mean you can’t achieve great things in life,” Columna said.

Upon arrival at the workshops, families and children are split. While parents go upstairs to learn about how to connect with their children, the kids play a variety of games in a gym below, Columna said.

At a typical workshop, Columna said he and his team first identify the needs of the children. For example, children with visual impairments may have trouble walking or running. For those children, Columna would suggest doing exercises centered around orientation mobility.

At workshops, parents also interact with exercise science and physical education students at SU. Since Fit Families launched in 2013, more than 200 SU students have volunteered for the program because the experience complements their coursework, Columna said.

“Many of them want to be physical therapists and personal trainers, but they don’t have experience working with kids with disabilities,” he said. “That’s what we’re doing. We’re teaching them how to do it and do it well.”

Columna recalled an interaction at a workshop last year between a mother and her son, who has a visual impairment and had reached the bottom of a swimming pool with the help of exercises learned in the program.

“Tell him what you did today,” Columna recalled the mother telling her son, referring to Columna.

“I was able to go all the way to the bottom of the pool! I’m like Superman! I’m the king of the world!” the boy exclaimed.

Daniel Drashinsky, a junior health and physical education major who has volunteered for SU Fit Families since his freshman year, said there’s nothing like helping a child do something he couldn’t do before.

“The parents’ response, they’re coming up to me, shaking my hand and saying, ‘Thank you, you really impacted me,’” Drashinsky said. “That’s the most gratifying.”

Columna said he hopes to expand the program to children with different intellectual and physical disabilities such as Down syndrome and muscular dystrophy, among other disorders.

He added that he would also like to expand the program so there is more space to run workshops for children with autism, Down syndrome and visual impairments. He’s also planning to expand the program in India, China and Puerto Rico, among other places.

Said Columna: “Parents tell me, ‘I feel so bad because I was holding my child back and your program allowed me to push him to the maximum potential. The sky’s the limit now.”’

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