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Everybody Is A Champion At Karate Kids

Central Queens Y offers sports for autistic children.

Wanda Love's five-year-old son can't wait for Wednesday nights these days. That's when he can join other children with Autism Spectrum Disorder at the and learn karate.

"He's been practicing all week," Love said while watching about 30 children run around the Forest Hills gymnassium during warm ups. "He's getting it."

Love, who lives in Springfield Gardens, searched throughout Eastern Queens, but she couldn't find an affordable program for autistic children. So she happily makes the weekly trek to 108th Street.

"I'm ecstatic," she said. "It's great to have so many peers. It's important to teach them focus."

Called Karate Kids, the roughly one-hour program unites volunteers, social workers and martial arts teachers with autistic children, from 5- to 11-years old. Jeri Mendelsohn, associate executive director, explained that the Central Queens Y is now striving to provide "sports situations" for children who can't participate in community sports programs due to their autism. But she also thinks Karate Kids is building community awareness to special needs.

Danielle David, a senior at who volunteers with Karate Kids, looks forward to Wednesday nights almost as much as Love's son. "It's fun to work [with this population]," she said. "They make a really big transformation once they warm up to you. They learn so much."

The program begins with warm-ups, as children shoot baskets, jump through hoops, crawl through tunnels and perform gymnastics with individual attention. Then they gather on a large, blue mat, where Robin Rosenthal, who has 19 black belts in four different martial arts, teaches them some moves.

"Find your bubble," she instructs, while getting her students to do stances, stretches, kicks, punches and other tricks of the trade. At times, they clap. Other times they chant: "We are strong!"

"I know that it's impacting them so they feel greater self-esteem," said Rosenthal, who has taught at the Central Queens Y for more than 28 years. "They have within themselves a special power just like everybody else. The processing is a little different, but the result is wonderful."

Harry Weisman said that Karate Kids provides a wonderful socialization opportunity for his eight-year-old son. But he benefits, too, from the networking. "It's nice for me because I get to talk to parents in similar situations," he said.

Mendelsohn informed that Karate Kids will run until May. There will be no such programs over the summer, but she hopes to offer a soccer program again and initiate a swimming program this fall.

"We need to learn how to be together," she said, noting that roughly one of every 100 children born in the U.S. has autism.

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