Glen and a friend try out the Triple Trapeze at Circus Arts.

A parent with a special needs child may find it challenging when searching for recreational activities. For Jennifer and Scott Sheppard of Decatur, circus arts has been the highly successful go-to activity for 9-year-old twins Glen and Madeline (Maddy). Glen has Asperger’s syndrome, so it’s been especially trying to find an activity that both siblings fully enjoy. For about two years now, Glen and Maddy have each been working on skills ranging from balancing on the tight wire to trapeze acts and juggling. In addition to circus skills, our roundup of activities that are fun and beneficial include karate and therapeutic horseback riding.

Circus Arts: Fitness, Focus and Fun

It’s tough enough when boy-girl twins don’t want to do the same things, such as attend the same summer camp or play the same sports. But when one twin has Asperger’s syndrome, it’s even harder for a parent to schedule both kids in activities that satisfy each well.
Except when it comes to circus arts.
“We’ve tried multiple activities, from gymnastics to soccer,” says mom Jennifer Sheppard, “and circus arts is the only activity that I never have to argue about. They both can’t wait to go. It’s also the only activity they both love.”  Twice a year, Jennifer and Scott Sheppard get to come watch Glen and Maddy show off what they’ve learned.
Circus skills help a wide array of special needs kids, from children with sensory and processing challenges, ADD, ADHD, PDD and Asperger’s to kids who have anxiety, self-esteem, emotional, physical and behavioral challenges.
Says Carrie Heller, executive director of Atlanta’s Circus Arts Institute: “I feel like I have hit the jackpot as a therapist, because in teaching circus skills we are able to work on the mental, the physical and the emotional – all at the same time.” Working on circus skills, Heller notes, helps kids with balance, flexibility, coordination, muscle strengthening and more.
Heller is a professional trapeze artist and a licensed clinical social worker. The Circus Arts Institute she founded offers summer camps for kids of all skill levels, plus classes and workshops throughout the year. Heller directs a year-round program for special needs kids using circus tricks and skills as both therapy and recreation. Most special needs youngsters participate for one or two hours each week. There’s a 2-to-1 child-staff ratio to ensure children are carefully monitored.
– Julie Bookman

Circus Arts Institute is located at 206 Rogers Street NE, Suite 214, Atlanta, (close to the Candler Park and Kirkwood neighborhoods.) For more information call 404-549-3000;


Ameri-Kan Karate

Martial Arts: Discipline and Body Awareness

Hiyah! Martial arts takes a systematic approach to teaching ancient combat traditions while stressing self-confidence, discipline and respect.
This exciting activity benefits a wide range of special needs mostly associated with neurological-based disorders, such as autism, Down syndrome, ADD and sensory-processing disorder. Noticeable improvements are found in balance, coordination, discipline, focus, attention, physical fitness and social skill development.
While defending themselves on the mat, participants develop a mind-body connection that maximizes focus and concentration. Ryan Mitchell, owner and founder of Ameri-Kan Karate, says his classes generally start out with some kids running off the mat, but by the end of the session, discipline kicks in and the youngsters are performing specific and precise skills. “Overall, I have noticed a dramatic shift in body awareness, self-control and sociality among the students I work with,” Mitchell says.
After engaging in classes, kids gain a new level of social behavior and start conforming to the rules and expectations of the group. Self-confidence also skyrockets. “I worked with one student in particular who especially thrived and rose to the occasion when I introduced him to group classes,” says Noel Plaugher, shun shifu (headmaster) at Moore’s of Atlanta Chinese Martial Arts. “These kids are capable of a lot. They really can do anything they put their minds to. Nothing is impossible.”
– Allie Fogel

Martial Arts Instruction in Metro Atlanta  

Ameri-Kan Karate at WorldClass American Karate, Conyers. 770-722-1347;
Moore’s of Atlanta, Smyrna. 678-602-2908;
Therapy Solutions of Georgia Inc., Dacula. 678-377-9634;
Tucker Taekwondo Center, Atlanta. 770-630-2995;
Other martial arts centers in your area may have programs that would benefit your child. Call your local martial arts center to inquire


Calvin Center Therapeutic Riding Program

Horses Help Kids Thrive

Riding on the back of a horse can be a thrilling experience for young and old alike. In therapeutic horseback riding, gentle giants and excited kids work together to reach unprecedented heights.
This exciting recreational activity combines the positive and powerful movement of the horse with a rider’s ability to take control. Along the way, kids learn riding skills and horsemanship. The experience can help children with a variety of physical, psychological and social disabilities.
“Therapeutic riding has so many benefits,” says Gretchen Ahrens, equestrian director at the Calvin Center in Hampton, Ga. “The horse works wonders in ways that we, as humans, can’t even imagine. I’ve seen children who are anxious and upset become calm and focused because of a horse. I’ve seen children who can’t complete a task or follow directions on the ground able to follow three-step directions on horseback. I’ve watched riders physically change their muscle tone and body movement while riding. Most importantly, I’ve seen the smiles and the looks of pride and accomplishment on riders’ faces. It’s amazing and I feel privileged to be a part of it all!”
Joyce Ahrens, an occupational therapist and a member of the board of directors at McKenna Farms Therapy Services, says that another desirable result of any horse interaction program is the bond built between the child and horse. The positive effect that horses have on the children is apparent. “The kids beam and glow,” she says. “Everything we do feels less like work and more like play. They are just having fun and the horses love it too.”
Robert Fousch has been taking his son Collin to Chastain Horse Park’s Therapeutic Riding Program for the last four years. His son, who has nonverbal autism, is thriving under the direction of the devoted and caring staff at the program. “The riding program is the highlight of my son’s week,” Fousch says. “Each week the night before his session, he signs to me that he wants to go horseback riding.”
– Allie Fogel

What Parents Need to Know:

  • Therapeutic horseback riding is more for recreational enjoyment and relaxation. It can help children with special needs gain confidence and a sense of accomplishment.
  • Hippotherapy is a treatment program prescribed by a doctor that uses the horse’s movements to help the rider gain better balance, control and increase motor skills. It is a combination of physical, occupational and speech therapy that can help improve the neurological and sensory processing systems of the patient.


Collin Fousch at Chastain Horse Park

Therapeutic Horseback Riding Services in metro Atlanta

Angels on Horseback, Jasper. 770-893-1992;
Chastain Horse Park, Atlanta. 404-252-4244;
McKenna Farms Therapy Services, Dallas. 770-443-9672;
Calvin Center Therapeutic Riding Program, Hampton. 770-946-4276;
Horse Time, Covington. 770-784-9777;
Reece Center for Handicapped Horsemanship, Palmetto. 678-423-1734;
Sonora Creek, Canton. 678-614-5636;
The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.) is a great resource for therapeutic horseback riding information and listings.

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