Many autistic kids feel socially isolated. They don't get the "typical experience," playing team sports, learning about comraderie and getting into shape. But one Maryland program is helping these kids realize that they have more potential than they realize and that playing sports can actually be fun.
"She was a kid who was afraid to try and sat on her mom's lap," said Cy Simonsgaard.
Most people would never realize that 8-year-old Griffin is autistic. That's because she's not afraid of other kids. She loves to play sports. She's even learning tae kwon do.
"A lot of kids with special needs have no strength and no endurance," said Simonsgaard, Griffin's mother. "So, she was one of those kids who never even could stand up until she was two and a half."
Parents of autistic and special needs children say while there's many programs aimed at educating these kids, there's still a gap when it comes to physical fitness programs. These are necessary not just for health, but for building confidence and learning how to socialize with others.
"These kids really did not have a place that was so essential to them, both from a social point of view and a fitness point of view," said Tom Liniak.
So Tom and Natalie Liniak, whose own son Jonathan is autistic, developed Sports Plus. It's a series of camps and programs that teach special needs children to play sports, things like soccer and swimming. Recently they added Tae Kwon Do.
"They come in so shy and they're scared and they think that they are going to be made to do something that they don't want to do and before you know it they're in there, 'see you later Mom and Dad, I'm going,'" said Natalie.
The Liniaks say they've worked with experts to develop curriculums geared towards these kids. All coaches and instructors are credentialed to work with special needs children. The programs work best with kids who are moderately to mildly challenged.
For her son Jonathan, Liniak said she's seen a huge difference.
"It's been very beneficial to him physically," she said. "He had put on a few pounds and he's now much leaner."
Jonathan is also learning self confidence, extremely important for autistic kids because they usually have problems socializing, Liniak said.
Griffin's mother Cy Simonsgaard, said she's seeing the same thing in her daughter.
"She's unafraid. She used to have high anxiety. She's doing great. Her confidence is huge."
Right now, Sports Plus is only offered in Montgomery and Howard counties. But they're hoping to bring it into the District and Northern Virginia soon. The cost is between $104 to 155 dollars per child.
Sports Plus is a non-profit program, funded completely by donations from organizations including the Washington Nationals.
The Nationals are donating a portion of some ticket proceeds to Sports Plus and other autism organizations.