Kellye Jones’ two sons are autistic, so she knows up close and way too personally what it feels like to see a child ostracized, left out and unchallenged.
She learned that, ironically, from her daughter – who is not autistic, she said.
Jones’ daughter, you see, doesn’t face the neurological challenges of her siblings, but when younger she faced the challenge of having to fend for herself at home or on family outings because her younger brothers required so much of their divorced mother’s attention.
The boys are now 18 and 16; her daughter, 19. Even though they are close to the same age chronologically, she said, their developmental age difference is wide. It was even wider when they were younger.
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Years ago, she said recently, there were playground-type attractions such as slides that were too big for her children to get on alone, but which weren’t large enough for her to join them on. “We were at an amusement park,” she said, “And I caught a glimpse of my daughter sitting to the side, looking bored. I also saw parents who were just sitting and watching, or reading and texting, as their children ran around, playing, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some place families could go where everyone could participate based on their ability?’”
She thought about that long enough that she came up with the idea for Beyond My Expectations, a playing facility that right now exists in her mind and on paper, but which she hopes to have up and running – along with parents and children – within the next year.
The groundbreaking for Jones’ groundbreaking idea will be in the next 60 days, she hopes, and she is considering sites in Apex and Raleigh, among others. She hopes to unveil a website at halftime of Sunday’s Super Bowl.
Why then? I asked.
“I figured,” she said, “that’s when there are a lot of commercials and breaks, a time when a lot of families are sitting down together. Since I’m really gearing this toward families – the mothers, fathers, children, grandparents – they can all look at it at the same time.”
Fortunately for Jones’ daughter, she said, “We found out early that she liked track and excelled at it.” Her daughter also developed a preternatural interest in politics and, at 19, is now a student at N.C. State University and director of development for the College Democrats of North Carolina.
It’s a blessing, Jones said, that her daughter had such extracurricular activities to keep her occupied. “Children with special needs take up so much of your time,” Jones said. “I’ve seen studies that show that mothers spend 80 percent of their time focusing on the child with special needs.”
A lot of that time, in Jones’ case, was taken up trying to find a park or facility where her sons were welcome. If they became disruptive, she said, she was often asked not to bring them back.
“I’m not blaming anybody,” she said. “They were big boys when they were nine and 10. People with autism don’t always have great depth perception or social skills, and if they saw something they wanted they wouldn’t know to go around” some smaller child who was in their path. “What happens is that they are so focused on the goal, instead of what’s in between, that they might knock that child over.”
In school, she said, teachers discovered that the more her sons were challenged academically, the better they performed. Jones thinks the same thing will occur when it comes to playing. “They could always rise to the challenge. If given an opportunity to excel” on some ride or maze, she said. “It’s easier to have something that is more complex and break that down to a simpler format for them to join in, versus having things that are really, really easy to do” and watching other children be bored to tears.
“Autism is new to a lot of people. Even doctors have not been able to unravel it,” she said. “The more insight we can have, the better. The reason there are delays in having children diagnosed – and treated – is because of the stigma surrounding it. It shouldn’t be deemed something negative. It should be considered something different. People learn different ways, and have different skill sets.
The mazes, climbing walls and attractions at her prospective park, she said, “are designed for success, not failure. You can still be challenged by them (regardless of your skill level), but you won’t get lost and frustrated.”
Instead of having children and frustrated parents at home figuratively climbing the walls, it sounds as though they can come out and literally climb walls together at the park.