Cape Town - “Unfortunately, we don’t take children like that” – these were the piercing words that outraged a Pinelands mother who attempted to enrol her “high-functioning” autistic son in a supervised gym class.
Shannon Gukelberger, mother to 14-year-old Luc, considered to be “high functioning” on the autism spectrum, said she felt discriminated against by staff at the Virgin Active gym in Claremont.
Luc Gukelburger, 13, was refused a gym membership from Virgin Active on the grounds that they do not "accept those kinds of kids". Photo: Thomas Holde. Credit: CAPE ARGUS
The gym’s spokesperson has since admitted that it was the wrong choice of words and has apologised.
The Club V classes are supervised and are for children between the age of eight and 13.
While Luc is 14 years old, socially he is considered to be in the nine to 10-year age group, and because of his medication his growth is slower and his frame slightly smaller than other boys his age.
Luc, who has an above-average IQ, enjoys science and history and aircraft. However, he struggles socially with other children his age. He has sensory integration problems – a heightened sense of touch – and he does not have a short-term memory.
She had approached a sales representative about enrolling Luc in Club V for children.
“I told him that my child is a high functioning autism child and he cannot be unsupervised.”
The sales representative said he would speak to the manager. When Gukelberger approached the sales representative five days later she said he “appeared quite apprehensive”.
Gukelberger said she was told: “Unfortunately, we don’t take children like that.”
Gukelberger tweeted about the incident and received a response to her tweet asking about the incident. She also received an e-mail from the gym’s manager, John Justus, who said that they did accept children with special needs but that Luc was already 14-years-old and that they could not allow him to join “purely from an age perspective”.
“His age was not mentioned to me by the sales guy,” Gukelberger said.
She has since cancelled her gym contract.
“As a mother of a child like this – you spend your whole life fighting for your child to have a normal life,” she said.
On Wednesday, Virgin Active apologised.
Virgin Active spokeswoman Les Aupiais said that Virgin Active should have apologised and that the gym would apologise sincerely: “We were wrong, we should’ve apologised, we’ll find a solution.”