Dina Kimmel Chats About Inclusive Play

By Elena Epstein

autism

Dina Kimmel – with husband Tim, daughter Sophia and son Gabriel – created We Rock The Spectrum so her kids would have a sensory-safe place to play. PHOTO COURTESY DINA KIMMEL

Dina Kimmel has always been an entrepreneur. She launched two successful boutiques in North Hollywood in her 20s and 30s. But her business adventures turned personal when her son, Gabriel, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age 2. With diagnosis came an overwhelming array of therapy appointments for Gabriel and the quest to preserve some sense of normalcy for her daughter, Sophia, who was 5 at the time.

Kimmel discovered that Gabriel was happiest during occupational therapy where he could swing and jump on a trampoline to help with his muscle development, coordination and sensory processing. So, she turned one room in her house into a sensory-safe play gym. Gabriel started sleeping better and had fewer tantrums. But something else happened that was equally wonderful: For the first time, Kimmel’s kids were playing together. The idea for We Rock the Spectrum Kid’s Gym For All Kids was born. The first gym opened in 2010 in Tarzana. There are now 62 We Rock the Spectrum locations in 22 states – all run by trained therapists or families of children with disabilities. And in 2016, the first sensory bus “We Rock on Wheels” was launched and the first international gym opened in Malaysia.

Tell us about the first couple of years after Gabriel’s diagnosis.

There was one day that I was at a local frozen yogurt shop with both my kids. Gabriel had a major tantrum and suddenly every eye in that store was on us. Afterwards, my 5-year-old daughter says to me, “I wish I had autism. Gabriel gets all your attention.” That was the loneliest time of my life. My husband and I were in therapy to balance our relationship, my daughter felt neglected, I wondered if I was doing everything I could for Gabriel and I felt like I was apologizing everywhere I went.

What was the initial thought behind We Rock the Spectrum?

Our motto is, “Finally a place where you never have to say I’m sorry!” Turning that one room in our house into a play gym changed our lives. For the first time, my son and my daughter’s friends were all playing at our house and it was so beautiful to see a group of kids playing together and not knowing which one is on the spectrum. I just thought there have to be other parents like us out there. Our goal is not only to have a safe place to have fun with your child, but also to build a community and a support system for families.

How did you come up with the name?

My husband is a musician and we said to ourselves, “We’re going to rock this diagnosis.”

What do you say to moms of newly diagnosed kids?

You are not alone. Don’t stay in your house. Seek out other families and the help you need. You need to be your child’s voice, and early intervention is everything. Start today. There is no time to be scared. Get out there and get your child what he needs, and don’t underestimate what your child can do. Gabriel has surpassed everyone’s expectations. Always keep your focus on what your child can do.

Are you a different mom today than you were before Gabriel’s diagnosis?

Absolutely. I’m so much more patient. I watch more, I listen better. I see every day as a gift and live in the now. As moms, we always feel like we can make everything right. But I have learned that this is my son’s journey. I will always be beside him and provide all the resources and tools he needs, but I cannot walk this journey for him.

 

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