FALLS CHURCH, VIRGINIA - On a Sunday afternoon, 18-year-old Emma is exercising at her gym. She stands in front of a panel of lights on the wall and heaves a ball at it. She smiles as it hits the target and the lights go out. Emma has autism and epilepsy, as well as delayed speech and gross motor skill deficits.  

"What we do here, we help her work on more sensory-related skill by hitting the lights, but also work on her sport-related skill and gross motor skill by doing simple chest pass,” said Ricardo Cunningham, the owner of the studio.

Cunningham opened Life Changing Fitness Kids, also known as LCF Kids, in 2011. The studio in Falls Church, Virginia, near Washington, D.C., offers a therapeutic program to help children with disabilities develop physical and social skills.

Responding to a need

A new government survey suggests that one in 45 children, ages three to 17, have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the U.S. This means that two percent of the nation’s children are living with autism. Most of them have limited physical and social skills but they don’t have much of an outlet to improve their condition. 

Cunningham wants to change that with his adaptive fitness program.  

“What inspired me to start a program like this is my aunt. She has Down Syndrome,” he said. “When we were growing up, we saw her struggle. There were not a lot of programs for her to participate in to help her build up her gross motor skill, coordination, and even motor planning skill.”

Cunningham, a former track and field athlete, came to the U.S. from Jamaica in 2000, and studied health fitness and recreation research at George Mason University in Virginia.

“It was always a vision of mine to help people. It is my passion,” he said.  “I wanted to create an environment where kids can come and work and build their confidence and also don’t feel intimidated, a place like a safe haven for them, a place that they come and feel good about themselves,” Cunningham said.

The program is designed for people as young as three years old and as old as 21. The specific routine in a one-on-one setting for each child varies depending on their particular needs.  Cunningham and other trainers assist children using equipment that is designed to help improve skills such as memory, coordination and elevate their metabolic rate for weight management.   

The children also have group sessions.

Disguising therapy as play

“It is like a playground.  When they come here, they don’t think of it as a therapy.  They think of it as a place they have to go to have fun,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham also published three instructional books that would help children outside the gym.

“What these books do is it gives the parents a second tool to help them work on the skills in the home comfort of their own,” he said.

Emma has been coming to the gym for four-and-a-half years and, according to her mother Donna Budway, has had great success with her weight management, a typical problem facing kids with autism.

"And one of the really great benefits we never ever anticipated was a social aspect of it.  And the friendships we have here with the kids she comes to the gym with," Budway said.

Yet, Cunningham's goal is more than providing a comfort zone for the kids.

"So the key is to build up success.  It is to build up individual skill.  And then they will take it out into their community,” he added. “My goal is to have these children more acceptable in the community and also in the workplace."

However, he stressed, this can only be possible if able-bodied people make an effort to make those with disabilities feel included.