SACRAMENTO, Calif. — As Amy Rogers watched her eldest son, Preston, glide by on his skateboard on a recent afternoon, she marveled at how far he had traveled just over the past few months.

Before he took his first skateboarding lesson as part of an innovative new therapy for children with disabilities, the 15-year-old, who has been diagnosed with autism, had never even ridden a bike before. Most of his time was spent in his room playing video games and sketching, far from family and friends.

On this sunny day, however, Preston was speeding down hills despite his fear of falling. He braked and gracefully kicked his board up into his hands.

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“It’s been incredible for him, gives him something to relate to other kids about and talk about,” his mother said.

His education came through SkateMD, a Sacramento-based nonprofit organization designed to help children with disabilities learn social and physical skills through skateboarding. During occasional clinics held around the region, SkateMD has taught dozens of children such as Preston how to build strength, balance and coordination while helping them overcome their social anxieties.

Teaching children how to nurture relationships was the program’s initial goal, said SkateMD co-founder Melanie Tillotson of Sacramento. At the program’s start late last year, she recruited Erik Nielsen, a physical therapist and skateboarder she and her husband knew, to help volunteers work with children and get them up on a board.

“We didn’t even know if it was going to make sense or if we were going to have a bunch of kids that went home crying,” Tillotson said.

Preston Rogers showed up at the program’s second clinic. Before taking the class, he said, he had wasted away his days cooped up and aimless in his room.

“At first it was the feeling of no hope,” the teenager said. “I just didn’t believe in myself to do this.”

That changed when Preston met his skate buddy, Allan Barclay, a volunteer who at first scared Amy Rogers by dropping her son on a board and towing him as he ran across the skate park. Despite his mother’s worries, Preston came to love that rush and appreciated Barclay’s patience.

“We’ve definitely seen changes with children, like with their strength and balance and coordination,” Nielsen said. “We see them start to progress and get better with things, and we hear from families that if it’s not from a physical aspect, it might be more of a social aspect.”

Before each clinic, Nielsen first goes over with the families any physical or social inhibitions the kids might have. From there, he comes up with a plan that includes showing volunteers how to hold kids up as they ride or have them sit on boards as they roll around. About 25 kids participate in each of the clinics, with double or triple the number of volunteers.

Tillotson said many parents of children with disabilities wrestle with a lack of athletic programs willing to show them extra, needed attention. Some families come to SkateMD after coaches in other programs have asked their children to leave. Children enrolled in SkateMD have conditions such as autism, Down syndrome, spina bifida and cerebral palsy.

One obstacle for some parents has been skateboarding’s renegade reputation, said SkateMD co-founder Andrea Bibelheimer, a friend of Tillotson’s who comes from a skateboarding family.

“The skate community can get a bad name,” Bibelheimer said. “It’s been so neat for people who normally wouldn’t engage with skateboarders to change their views about skateboarding and skateboarders, and become friends.”

She added: “Our own kids, we want them to be involved and provide a community service. It’s been a bonus for us because we really want the compassion and tolerance to trickle down to them, too, where they are understanding disabilities and it being a part of their reality.”

Her son Miles Blackman said he loves the chance SkateMD has given him to use his 10 years of skating experience to encourage other children his age. He has become good friends with Preston, and the two occasionally skate together.

“It’s stuff that they usually don’t get to do, but we’re helping them do it,” Miles said about his time with Preston and other children. “He’s just another normal kid.”

In addition to learning how to carve, do a “kick turn” and perform other skateboard tricks, Preston said he’s picked up other skills from the SkateMD clinic.

“He’s talked about being an advocate because he has the ability to be a voice for some of these kids that don’t have that,” his mother said.

Preston has also learned to develop what he needs to build a career in video game design. He already plans to check out Exceptional Minds, an animation school for students with autism in the Los Angeles region.

“Most of my days were spent inside the house, but I (thought), ‘What am I doing? I can’t just spend my life playing video games,'” Preston said. “I want to interact with other people and get to know them. I do that a lot when we go over to SkateMD. I meet all these nice people, these nice kids. My heart was pounding with happiness.”

© 2016 The Sacramento Bee
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