Moms Open Sensory-Friendly Gym in Wellesley for Kids with Autism

Debbie Laplaca
Sisters Sherley Brice, left, and Melissa Defay, posed for photos inside their gym "We Rock the Spectrum" in Wellesley.

Melissa Defay had a problem.

The mother of two needed a welcoming place for her autistic son to play and have fun, while safely stimulating his senses.

The solution? She opened a gym.

Defay and her 8-year-old son had a “bad incident at a local trampoline park” which led to a search for a better playground option.

“I was really distraught and determined to find someplace that I could bring my son where it was comfortable, safe and a welcoming place to go,” she said.

No local options were found but she did discover a gym franchise that offered specially designed sensory play equipment suitable for children on the spectrum.

“It was We Rock but it had no locations in Massachusetts. I knew at that moment that we needed to bring one here.”

Defay rallied her sister, Sherley Brice, and together, they opened We Rock the Spectrum Kid’s Gym Wellesley.

The 5,000 square foot indoor playground at 34 Central Street offers children of all abilities, ages newborn to 12, a place to play and grow together.

“As the only kid’s gym that offers an inclusive philosophy, we have found all children can benefit from our unique sensory equipment that is specifically designed to aid children with sensory processing disorders,” the sisters said. “However, in our experience, all children are able to benefit greatly from this equipment and by allowing children of all ability levels to play together they are able to learn a great deal from each other and become the best motivation for success on every level.”

Sydney Morgan, 1, of Wellesley, took a look over at the photographer as she was walking in one of the pieces of apparatus at "We Rock the Spectrum Kid's Gym" in Wellesley.

Brice is mom to a 16-year-old son, who has tuberous sclerosis, a rare genetic disorder that causes tumors or growths in the brain and other organs. She shared her sister’s upset with the “bad incident” involving her nephew and was all in.

“I thought it was fate because this awful thing happened, then all of the sudden this gym came up and it just seemed like it was what we were supposed to be doing as a purpose in our lives,” Brice said, “It just seemed like something that we were fated to do.”

Their fate was realized when the indoor playground opened in October 2021.

“We definitely thought that we had something unique, and we prayed that we would have a lot of success and a lot of parents and kiddos come through our doors,” Defay said. “We didn’t expect it immediately because we opened during a pandemic and knew it was a tough time to take on this endeavor, but we just had to go for it.”

Since then, roughly 1,300 children have come through the doors.

“I’m pleasantly surprised but not surprised by some of the need during the pandemic,” Brice said. “It was really hard for parents doing ZOOM at home and it was hard on kids on the spectrum. I saw that firsthand with my nephew. If our family was really needing it, then other families would need that as well.”

The gym, "We Rock the Spectrum Kid's Gym" in Wellesley, welcomed kids on the autism spectrum.

A month after the grand opening, We Rock was nominated for Favorite Indoor Playground for Toddlers by the audience of Community Kangaroo in the annual Joey Award competition.

“We are all inclusive,” Defay said. “With the demographic we serve, opportunities are few and far between for our kiddos to find programs where they will be included. Everything we’ve done is adaptive, so we include equipment for children of all abilities.”

The gym features, in part, therapy equipment, an arts and crafts area, and a calming room. It also offers support groups for parents and siblings, a music therapy group, a parents’ night out, toddler playgroup, a vacation club, and birthday parties.

Melissa Gautam is mom to 4-year-old twin boys, one with a speech delay. She holds an unlimited monthly membership to We Rock and uses it three to four times per week.

“They absolutely love it,” she said of her boys. “It has opened them up to playing with other children. Especially with COVID, they haven’t had a chance to socialize and the issue with my son’s speech sometimes makes it difficult.”

The staff at the gym, she said, are caring and patient.

Peyton Penta, 2, of Newton, peeked out from her hideaway to smile at the photographer at "We Rock the Spectrum."

“I really enjoy their extra-circular activities like the science class. My kids really benefit from that,” Gautam said. “The play equipment helps my kids get some energy out especially now that it’s winter. It’s been wonderful.”

The sisters have developed partnerships that bring outside agencies and organizations in for the benefit of the children. One such partnership is Budding Bookworms, a creative enrichment program, that runs science classes inside the gym.

Therapists also attend with the child under their care to observe and provide therapy while using the specialized equipment.

One of the gym’s many structured programs, Play with Purpose, exercises and stimulates the seven senses through positive physical, emotional and social development.

“Our primary focus is for kids to have fun in playing. Fun is always the primary goal but for children on the spectrum and other special needs, it’s more beneficial for them; its therapeutic,” Defay said. “It’s hard for them to focus, so they have to be moving around a lot. They are sensory seeking, so our gym provides that sensory environment.”

Maddie Cox led an Early Intervention group at  "We Rock the Spectrum Kid's Gym" in Wellesley.

Defay is also mom to a 12-year-old son. Her education background and work experience are in accounting and business management. Brice’s background includes degrees in psychology and clinical social work.

The gym offers full use indoor play with parent supervision for a $25 drop-in fee. It also offers packages and memberships.

We Rock the Spectrum is an independently owned franchise with 107 destinations in 25 states and eight countries.

The Pohlman family, of Needham, watched as the song saying goodbye to everyone went around the circle of the Early Intervention group at  "We Rock the Spectrum." Dad Mike was with his son, Mikey, 1, and daughter Kennedy, 2.