Florida's First Choice for Autism Support

Posts tagged ‘Tampa’

Making Tampa Bay Autism Friendly

If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you either live in the greater Tampa area, close to it, or have some connection to the city. As previously mentioned, I’ve had the great honor and distinction of being a part of the City of Tampa Autism Board in an advisory role. Our mission is to, little by little, transform Tampa into a place where individuals all across the autism spectrum can feel safe, secure and welcomed. The mayor has been incredibly receptive to the initiative, as have many of the prominent institutions around the city, such as the Glazer Children’s Museum who will be hosting this year’s Fiesta by the Bay for Autism. I’d like to talk about some of the efforts being taken around the city, as well as some small things the average person can do to make Tampa a more accepting place to people of all abilities.

Besides the support from the mayor himself, we’ve received support from so many places across the city. It’s no simple task covering a major urban area, but we believe we’ll get to every business one day. The Tampa Police Department has already integrated our teachings (which I starred in!) into their officer’s training, and the paramedics will now be carrying around cards, which people with autism can use to point out what is wrong without having to speak. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have featured CARD on the big screen at their games, and the Tampa Bay Lightning just had an Autism Awareness Night at a recent, very important game (I would have gone myself, but I can’t go betraying my Penguins like that). Glazer Children’s Museum and the Florida Aquarium are among the family-friendly locations around the Tampa area who have embraced our mission, and we have meaningful connections with WEDU, the local PBS branch. As a side note, make sure to check out Sesame Street, which has autism representation in the form of Julia, a friend of Elmo. These are just some of the larger, more recognizable groups involved with Autism Friendly, we have many more and the number will continue to grow. If you’d like to know more, check out the recent article I wrote for Tampa Parenting Magazine. My article is on page 17.

Every individual can make a difference. If your place of work is within the Tampa Bay area, please feel free to contact Dr. Karen Berkman at KBerkman@usf.edu or by phone at 813-974-4033. It’s completely free and is almost guaranteed to be a boon for your business. Plus, you’re doing a great thing for an entire group of people. But there’s an even smaller scale we can all work on. If you come across someone who you believe may have autism, be it in your place of work or just out in public and they’re struggling, be there for them in a supporting role. That doesn’t necessarily mean go and do everything for them; most won’t need it anyway. Rather, just be ready to offer a helping hand, and be patient with them. Be a friend, and they will be grateful, even if they can’t fully express it.

G. Sosso

 

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Autism Friendly Tampa

 

Tampa’s Mayor, Bob Buckhorn, delivering his State of the City address where he unveils the city’s new initiative, Autism Friendly Tampa, and the new partnership with CARD-USF.

Meet Olando Rivera: Where Kickboxing Background & Autism Connect

Last week, I had the incredible opportunity to interview one of the most prominent dads in the Tampa Bay autism community, Olando “The Warrior” Rivera. The former kickboxer, whose record boasts several championship titles, now is a successful business owner running the B.A. Warrior Gym and soon opening the Warriors for Autism Fitness & Sensory Center specifically designed for individuals with special needs. The center inspired by his own son and other children on the spectrum will have a sensory room, zip line, rock wall and various activities that are geared toward children and young adults with sensory sensitives.

As you can imagine, I was a little nervous meeting someone with his résumé, but it turns out he was a really nice guy who seemed to genuinely care about all the kids that walk into his gym. As I was listening to his story, I couldn’t help but feel like it could be the plot to a movie; star athlete who had it all, life tries to knock him down, comes out in the end happier than ever, knowing family is more important than anything else. Listed below are the questions I asked Mr. Rivera, followed by his responses. Hope you enjoy!

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Coach Olando helping a young boy on the Sensory Center’s rock wall

 

Q: Please describe your mission here at the B.A. Warrior Training Center. We can all read it online, but I’d like to hear it straight from your mouth.

A: “The mission here, our vision, is to have a place where the kids can come in and have fun, but at the same time, not feel like they’re overwhelmed with all the noise. I can’t have it loud and noisy in here, or have a lot of bright lights, because as you know, I have an autistic son. He’s 17 now, and I want him to know that when he comes into this room, he can have fun and not squint his eyes or cover his ears and stuff like that; I’ve been through this with him his whole life, so I understand what he needs. I basically designed this place alongside my wife with the thought of helping these kids, and my son, to not only have fun, but to get some exercise. Can’t get in shape when you’re sitting at home on the computer!”

 

Q: What sort of growth do you usually see in your disciples, from when they first walk in here to when they leave for the last time?

A: “That’s another reason why I’ve been so inspired to do this program. Since I started this back in 2000, what I’ve seen throughout the years with all the kids that have come through those doors to train with me, is that when they got here they were very shy and scared, and didn’t know what they were getting into really. I’ve seen them transform from that into saying, ‘Hey this is so fun and cool!’, and it had to do with simple things that I did to help them, which I’ve also done with my own son. I figured if it works for him, I could probably duplicate it with other kids. Why not help as many of these kids as I possibly can? The best feeling is when I see some of them go from non-verbal to verbal, and actually say, ‘Thanks coach!’, it’s magical. It shows how much they truly do care. The key, I believe, is the eye contact. Once you’ve established that, and they’ll look at you right back, you know you’ve gained their trust.”

 

Q: How did getting that initial diagnosis for your son change things for you and your family?

A: “That one’s really close to the heart. When we found out, we didn’t know what it was. Who did? He was 5 when we found out, so going on 12 years now. The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘I’m a champion athlete, why does my son have something like this?’, and it was hard for me, as a man, to wonder how could he have gotten this from me when I’m so healthy? It caused a lot of problems between me and my wife; shifting the blame on one another, going back and forth, it was bad. But through the grace of God, we realized fighting wouldn’t solve anything, and that he’s our son and he needs us to help him. Being completely honest, I was in denial about it, thinking he’ll be fine, or “grow out of it,” but as the years went by, nothing changed. My wife Deena stayed on top of it though, making sure he always got what he needed. They called me a warrior when I was fighting, but she was the real warrior, doing what needed to be done for her kid. When I realized that, I accepted my son for who he is, and began my mission to help out other kids in similar situations.”

 

Q: There’s an unfortunate stigma against dads of children with autism, that they “can’t be as involved as the mom.” What would you say to any dads out there to convince them to be proactive in their child’s life?

A: “It comes down to the last question I answered. I was in denial as a dad, I didn’t want to believe it even existed, let alone that my son had it. I’m sure there are a lot of dads out there who go through the same thing I did. But that’s crazy, because if you think that way, then you’re not really a dad. When you’re a parent, you take your child, and you deal with the hand you’re given, and you do what you have to do to ensure they’re the best they can be no matter what’s involved. Moms are going to do what needs to be done almost always, because they carried you! They know what’s best for you by instinct, but many dads don’t have that. What I can say though, is to just remember: it’s not about you, it’s about your kid. Just love them and take care of them, and I promise you’ll do just fine.”

 

Q: Thank you so much for doing this. Last thing, can you give any general advice to all the dads out there who may be reading?

A: “It’s no problem, glad to do it. My suggestion to the dads out there: get down on one knee, look them in the eye. MAKE that contact with them, if they look away, pull their face back to yours. Let them see you, because once they do, it breaks that barrier they put up automatically. “There’s nothing you can do to change your situation, other than change your situation.” Doing nothing will change nothing. I’ve seen it consistently ever since I opened this place up. When you work hard to make things better, the change you will see is contagious, and it’s one of the best feelings in the world. That’s the reason I’m here today standing in this building with you, is my determination to make things better, and that is my advice to all the dads out there.”

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Olando and his wife, Deena.

 

  • G. Sosso

 

 

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