Juggling Act: A father, a son, a new approach to working with special needs

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News
Life Lab Kids founder Jai Reddy stands in the sanctuary of a former church in Ferndale that's being transformed into a gym.

It’s a mad scramble special needs parents know painfully well: Dashing from one therapy appointment to another, sometimes miles apart, because no distance is too far when it comes to developing your child’s potential.

Jai Reddy has been there. Not long after his son Arjun was diagnosed with autism nearly a decade ago, he and his wife started taking him to Applied Behavioral Analysis, a type of positive reinforcement therapy for autism. In between the hours of ABA, there were music therapy appointments, speech, even equine therapy with horses.

“It was always an hour drive between any two locations,” said Reddy, who owns an IT company in Clinton Township and used to live in Shelby Township before moving to Bloomfield Hills. “It was very hard.”

The endless running made Reddy think there had to be a better way. But there wasn’t.

Now Reddy is creating one. Reddy is gearing up to open to open a one-of-a-kind nonprofit facility in Ferndale called LifeLab Kids that will house not just traditional therapies, such as speech, but more unconventional ones, such as art therapy, recreation, even equine therapy. And it’ll all be under one roof, a former 1950s church on Hilton north of 9 Mile (the equine therapy will be in the parking lot).

Reddy says ABA therapy is just one part of the equation for kids with autism and other special needs.

“It’s great to have ABA but it’s only 20 to 30 percent what a child needs,” said Reddy, who is funding LifeLab mostly on his own though he’s gotten some grants and donations. “Maybe there’s one out of a 100 special needs children who could use all day ABA. Otherwise everyone needs this.”

At LifeLab Kids, which is gearing up for a mid-February grand opening and will accept some insurance plans, kids and parents will have access to a bit of everything. Six therapy programs will be offered, including art, music, sports and fitness. Kids who need to work on gross motor or fine motor skills, for example, could make their own pottery in the art room or climb a rock wall in the upstairs gym. There will even be exercise bikes that can be used to make smoothies. 

And technology, not surprisingly, given Reddy’s background, will be woven throughout every approach.

There will be Virtual Reality modules kids can use to learn imperative life skills like how to cross the street safely or what to do if they ever came in contact with a police officer. And the rock climbing wall is being installed with pegs that will electronically light up. A projector installed over the gym floor, meanwhile, will have the capacity to turn it into a massive piano or football field.

Art therapist Bridgette Crockett, who will be part of the lead staff at LifeLab, says it’s about taking a different approach to therapy and also making it more collaborative. She works with Arjun, Reddy’s son, now, using art to not just boost fine motor skills but on broaders skills like being patient, tolerating frustration and social skills. 

“We working on problem-solving and planning ahead,” said Crockett. “Maybe he wants to throw something away right away, we work work through that.”

And the results show in Arjun’s artwork. “I could never even dream of what he’s doing today,” Reddy said.

And he’ll be able to do that same art at LifeLab, which Reddy hopes is just the beginning. He’d like to open multiple facilities, including one in Macomb County. 

Arjun, of course, will be a student at the first LifeLab, but “it’s not just about him,” said Reddy. “It’s about everyone.”