It looks like child’s play — and it is. When Hunter Standley crawls into a cozy cubbyhole with stuffed animals or sways in a swing pushed by his mom, he’s a 6-year-old having fun.
Yet the time Hunter spends at Wee Fit, a new sensory play space in Everett for children with autism, is part of his family’s effort to help the boy interact with other kids and be comfortable in the world.
Wee Fit is a place for parents of children on the autism spectrum to share what they have learned, often through their kids’ professional therapy. And for both children and parents, it’s a place to meet friends who understand.
“All our therapies are play-based,” said Melissa Wren, whose son, Cooper, 6, received an autism diagnosis after his parents were initially told he had sensory processing disorder and moderate speech delays.
Melissa and Casey Wren, who live in Lake Stevens, opened their Wee Fit business after taking part in a 12-week intensive program with Cooper last year at the Providence Boyden Family Autism Center. That facility is at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett’s Pacific Campus.
Near the end of those therapy sessions, Melissa Wren said, some parents didn’t know where to turn in their search for affordable help for their children. There are waiting lists for many programs, she said.
“We set this up to resemble the therapies we received for our son,” said Melissa Wren, 48. “It’s so expensive, and a lot of insurance doesn’t cover therapy. For $15 instead of $150, parents here can spend up to two hours expanding on the speech and occupational therapies their children have had.”
At Wee Fit, parents are the experts.
On Friday morning, Hunter’s mom and his grandmother gently pushed the boy back and forth in a fabric swing. Suspended from the ceiling at Wee Fit, it’s called a pod swing. It wraps a child in softness and keeps out bright light.
In raising her son, Breanna Standley, 25, is helped by her mother, Barbara Bambrick. A 63-year-old nurse, Bambrick, her daughter and grandson Hunter share a home at Tulalip. With the Wrens, they were part of the autism group at Providence. They now try to visit Wee Fit once a week.
After playing in the spacious and colorful gym area — which is equipped with swings, a cloth tunnel, a mini trampoline, a spiral slide, a climbing wall, a kiddie pool filled with plastic balls, a reading area and tables for arts and crafts — Hunter headed to Wee Fit’s “sensory room.”
Barely illuminated by Christmas lights, lava lamps and an artificial aquarium, the sensory room offers a refuge from the action. The Wrens said it’s a place little visitors often run to first, before coming out to the big space to play. A curtained-off cubbyhole in the sensory room offers a comfortable spot to curl up and hide. Children enjoy soft music and a cushioned floor.
Many people with autism spectrum disorder struggle to process sensory information. They may experience sensory overload, which can cause them to become anxious or withdrawn, or to suffer a meltdown expressed by shouting or lashing out.
“As a parent, I’m worrying about the future,” said Standley, Hunter’s mom. Day-to-day life, and the isolation experienced by families affected by autism, is not easy, she added.
Everett’s Metia Napier, 20, was volunteering at Wee Fit on Friday. A Shoreline Community College student, Napier encouraged one little boy to jump into the ball pool. The child was perched warily on a ladder, like a swimmer worried the water is too cold for a dip. At last he jumped in, and came up with a smile.
“We find ways to teach them to manage their emotions and communicate,” said Napier, who has three brothers, ages 6, 11 and 18, on the autism spectrum.
The Wrens hope other families find their way to Wee Fit. The couple’s primary business, which helps support this effort, is AllSport Court Surfacing, LLC. Their floor at Wee Fit is an NBA-quality maple floor put in by AllSport, which is also donating a floor at the historic Startup Gym. The gym is being restored by the Sky Valley Arts Council.
Casey Wren, 47, talked Friday about their reasons for taking on another business — a place where kids can play and be themselves.
“They’re all just great kids. They have good hearts,” he said. “They’ve all got so much potential.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; email@example.com.
Wee Fit is a play and sensory-integration therapy gym and facility for children on the autism spectrum, ages 2 to 12. Two-hour play sessions, with parents, are $15 per child, $10 each for a second and third child. The facility, also available to therapists, is at 2405 Broadway (next to Tim’s Bike Shop), Everett. Information: www.weefitkids.com/index.html or call 425-610-4066 or email firstname.lastname@example.org