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Children with autism learn life's skills on ice

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Something magical is happening on the ice at Sugar Land Ice and Sports Arena. A group of children with autism, and others with chromosomal and mental disorders, is learning social interaction, physical endurance, and self assurance in the ice rink.

This unlikely cold space is really warming up lives through a program that started with only a few children two years ago. Now it's blossomed into a large group of accomplished skaters!

B.L. Wiley is the Director of SkateTherapy.org. This job comes naturally to her, as her son is former Olympic skater and silver medalist, Paul Wylie. She keeps a very regimented schedule here.

"Those dealing with autism have a different timeline but that timeline is very important to them, so as we start - everything is done right on the minute. They know how long they have to wait - if they have to wait a minute too long, it's too long," B.L. tells FOX 26 News.

Her warm-up begins at 9:18 a.m. sharp. The students closely watch the clock and know when it's time to advance to the ice at 9:30 a.m. The day we visited, the Zamboni was late by one minute, and that matters. Several of the students began to get anxious and their parents had to help them work through it. A reminder, that their time on the ice was coming soon, seemed to help.

Many of the children are able to stand in line for the first time in their lives because of this program, and the benefits just go on and on.

"Just learning how to exercise and do it with us! A lot of them are very sensitive to light, sounds to people being around them, don't even like people around - this gives them the opportunity to learn to overcome these fears or sensations," exclaims B.L.

It's one baby step at a time, at first. Like any child, the majority of these students have no idea how to ice skate when they join the program. Young instructors are ready to make the students feel safe and secure though.

"If they're too scared to get on ice, we'll put their parents in a chair, pull their parents, and they hold on to them and skate," explains one of those young instructors, 16 year old Katie Lebman. She has a loving spirit about her, and the children seem to be drawn to that. She even goes to school with several of the students, and those students told us how neat it is to see her in school and know she's there to help them, if needed.

Livia Erich sure is proud of her daughter's progress.

"It gives her an environment where she can do something everyone else is doing, and it's a very positive social environment. She is accepted. She doesn't get stares, like we get in the community," explains Livia.

Besides autism, 18-year-old Nicky has been diagnosed with chromosomal disorders, and one of them left her profoundly hearing impaired. Her mom encourages her through sign language from the sidelines and rejoices in her progress. Ice skating is a real breakthrough for Nicky. Her mom says it's given her more confidence and strength to perform tasks like changing her own clothing.

"Her balance is better, so she's more independent doing her activities like dressing, and more coordination going up and down steps! She's safer, because her balance is better, and just that she's more social interacting with other people," says Livia.

Carol Li is proud to see what that means for her daughter, Alice." She has a lot of new skill sets from the instructor - the instructors are their peers so she connects with them very well," says Carol.

John and Luli Graham are happy that their 12 year old daughter is doing so well on ice. They were hesitant at first to try it. However, they kept seeing the Director of the program at local restaurants, and B.L. Wylie kept insisting she could help their daughter. That's how B.L. gets many of her students! " We are absolutely impressed with our daughter's progress. She loves it, she looks forward to it, and after five weeks, she is absolutely engaging. It's a gift to be able to come here," exclaims Luli.

It's a gift that becomes a family affair, since many times these families feel isolated. It's a sport that the parents can enjoy! For the first time they get to sit in the stands and enjoy other parents, because they never can do that," says B.L. It's incredible to see one of life's most challenging sports being conquered by these children.

This therapeutic group meets on Saturday mornings at Sugar Land Ice and Sports arena. The students range in age from 4 to 26.

For more information, visit http://skatetherapy.org/.

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