Detroiter Tiera Turner’s life was drastically altered when her son was diagnosed with autism just days before his third birthday. It was 2019 and, as a self-proclaimed go-getter, the graphic designer immediately began to seek out various services and auxiliary assistance programs. To her surprise, however, there weren’t many available.
About 1 in 36 children
have been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) according to the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. In 2021 there were about 40,000 children in Michigan with autism.
When Turner found out, she began to think of ways to galvanize families raising autistic children as she was. She knew she wasn’t the only parent in Detroit struggling to navigate the diagnosis and she generally wanted to bring more attention to autism. She started in 2020 by organizing a yearly autism awareness walk, and a support group called Autism in the D
“Our third year is what popped us off,” she says. “We had a huge walk in 2022, it was after COVID-19, people could go outside. From there we reached 100 families.”
After the initial walk, Turner began to set up monthly meet-ups for the families. She wanted to build a community of kindred spirits in Detroit where parents could share resources, vent if needed, and just be communal.
“I would pick the venue, we meet, let the kids play and we talk,” she says.
“It's usually different families every meetup. We are growing, I do it on the weekend so that it's feasible for everybody.”
Finding the right venue has always been the hardest part. Detroit doesn’t have many spaces built for the needs of autistic children, so Turner decided she would start her own. After an internet search, she found the kids' gym franchise We Rock the Spectrum, an activity space centered around children with sensory needs. The facilities are geared towards making sure children have a safe, nurturing, and fun environment to foster learning, exploration, and safe sensory experiences.
“I saw they had one open in Cleveland and I was like that's what we need here. I need that immediately,” she says. “My son loves to run, climb and jump. That's all he likes to do.”
We Rock The Spectrum
began in 2010, has over 50 locations worldwide, and Turner is in the process of opening the first one in Detroit.
“They’re close-knit and really faith-oriented with just helping people serve the purpose they’re trying to serve, which is helping people get inclusivity around them,” Turner says.
Tuner has been using a crowdfunding campaign, donations from parents, and a large portion of her own monies to finance the venture. She’s worked out an agreement with a space on Livernois Avenue on the west side of Detroit. The space was previously Skills Ville but now is vacant. Turner believes once her financing is complete; she’ll be able to open up to the public in less than two months.
Tuner is certain the venture will feel like a breath of fresh air to families with autistic children. She thinks it will eliminate the anxiety parents have at times when bringing their children to public events.
“I took them to an event, after an hour I had to say ‘I’m sorry’ two or three times,” she says. “The kids were just being themselves but It’s not fair to them that I’m overwhelmed with me saying ‘I’m sorry. No parent should have to apologize for their kids.”
Turner says what makes We Rock The Spectrum unique is that it's designed to service children with autism in a way that allows them to be themselves.
“It's not going to be closed off to neurotypical children but it's inclusive to autistic children,” Turner says. “We still will have space for parties, respite care services. Respite care is a huge need in our community because parents like me, we don’t get a break from our kids.”
Turner’s gym will also have employees who are trained in working with autistic children.
“Our staff won’t just be anybody that would be at a child place center,” she says. “You have to be trained to work with children in this spectrum.”
Turner would also like to see Detroit’s public schools offer more autistic resources to families.
“Occupational therapy, speech therapy, there is an array of therapies but there’s a waitlist because there is no staff,” Turner says.
Turner is not limiting her autism advocacy to the new gym. She is returning to Wayne State University to major in psychology. Her minor will be in Applied Behavior Analysis, which involves learning techniques for understanding changing behavior.
“We need more people in the working field,” she says.