Talking SMAK With Special Needs Kids

Parents of special needs children spend countless hours with educators and other professionals, crafting IEPs — Individualized Educational Plans.

But when school is out, a small group of kids and 2 very committed young teachers work together on another IEP. They call it an Individualized Exercise Plan.

And boy, is it fun!

Frankie D’Souza and Jenn Fittipaldi are the speech pathologists who founded SMAK (“Specialized Movement Active Kids”). And just as the acronym does not single out “special education,” the program offers this sometimes-isolated group of youngsters a chance to participate in an activity all kids love.

Jenn Fittipaldi and Frankie D'Souza, at Fitness Works.

Jenn Fittipaldi and Frankie D’Souza, at Fitness Works.

Frankie and Jenn have 3 classes, with 6 children each. One meets on Tuesday afternoons at Fitness Works, the gym underneath Granola Bar. Two others take place on Saturdays, at Crossfit in Norwalk.

The kids — many of them on the autism spectrum — do push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups and box step-ups; use weights for squats and dead lifts; perform handstands and sprints; push sleds, and work with medicine balls and kettle bells.

They’re called “exercises.” But the group — ages 5 to 15 — love them.

“It’s so rewarding!” says Jenn, who notes that special education youngsters often have fewer opportunities than others for social and physical activities. SMAK provides both.

“They really get stimulated,” Frankie adds. “A lot of them have social anxiety, on top of other issues. But they socialize in the gym. They’re active, and so proud of themselves. Plus the release of endorphins make them feel really good.”

She notes with pride a boy who seldom showed emotion. Yet he grins broadly while exercising. “That’s the first time I ever saw him smile!” his sister said. Excitedly, she snapped a photo.

All kids -- like those in the file photo shown here -- enjoy the benefits of working out.

All kids — like those in the file photo shown here — enjoy the benefits of working out.

When they go back to school, Frankie says, they feel “a real sense of commonality” with their SMAK friends. Without realizing it, they’ve worked not only on fitness, but following multi-step oral directions, taking turns, initiating and maintaining conversations with peers, and vocabulary.

Merrily Bodell is the parent of 2 special needs youngsters. A member of the school district’s Special Education Parents PTA, she can’t say enough about what SMAK has meant for her kids.

“Frankie was my son’s speech pathologist at Greens Farms Elementary School,” Merrily says. “She’s so sweet and loving.”

Her son can’t participate in team sports, so the chance to be physically active in the gym, doing partner activities, has been fantastic. Her son feels engaged, and enjoys socializing.

Merrily tells the story of a boy who repeats words or phrases, hour after hour. When he’s with Frankie and Jenn in the gym, he never does.

Happily, everyone around — his new friends, his parents, and Frankie and Jenn – smile through the SMAK sessions too.


10 responses to “Talking SMAK With Special Needs Kids

  1. Tom Siebrasse

    Great story and great program. As a parent of a special needs daughter I can speak first hand to the IEP hours and hours and sense of isolation these kids feel. What an awesome gift from these two teachers.

  2. Richard Silveria

    R.L. Silveria


  3. Rebecca Wolin

    This sounds like a fantastic program that gives these children a place to feel a part of a group. Doug – my only complaint is the term ‘special needs kids’ – these are children who have a special need. I know to some it may sound as if I am splitting hairs, but think a minute how it sounds and how it sounds to the people you are talking about. I never refer to my daughter as a special needs daughter. She is my daughter who is living her life to the fullest and yes she is disabled. And yes I still sit through a yearly iep with the state to ensure her adult placement is meeting her needs. Folks it never ends!!! So think about the words we use and how we use them. This is true for anyone.

  4. Thanks, Rebecca. I appreciate your insights. I did check with a couple of online sources, and “special needs kids” seemed to be okay. But you are right there, every day, so I will keep this in mind in the future.

    Please note: My name is Dan, not Doug. At least once a day someone calls me “Doug.” I guess they mash together “Dan” and “Woog” — go figure.

  5. Naomi Weingart

    Frankie is an excellent educator and an amazing person. I’m sure her classes are superb!

  6. Bonnie Bradley

    Thank you, Frankie & Jenn for this program for these terrific kids.
    As a 70-something woman who has been working out for 35 years & still goes to my local gym/sports club at least 3 times a week in spite of severe arthritis, I can attest to the lifelong physical & mental benefits of working out – it really becomes addictive in the most positive way. If these kids catch the bug of working their body it will change their lives and make them strong in so many wonderful ways.

    And, Dan: as for Dougue Wouge, I can’t stop laughing 😃😃😂

    And, let’s all hold hands! Today is International Women’s Day! Hurray!