Kouli Nalpantidis, 51, guided the inner tube dangling from her ceiling as it swung across multi-colored mats with Billy Mallin-Holtz, 6, sprawled across the rubber on his stomach.
Billy propelled himself across red, yellow, blue and green floor mats using his hands. Ms. Nalpantidis, senior occupational therapist at Multiple Intelligence School, PS/MS 37, reminded Billy to keep his feet off the floor of the sensory gym in her Kingsbridge basement. He began bending his elbows and bobbing through push-ups.
“Come on, you won’t have to squeeze the pencil so tight if you keep it up,” Ms. Nalpantidis said during an Oct. 5 session with Billy. Billy stopped the exercise and said, “I have a surprise for you.”
He rose, rolled up the sleeve of his blue T-shirt and flexed his bicep. “Wow, do you have a second surprise?” Ms. Nalpantidis asked.
Billy repeated the gesture with his right arm.
“Oh, that is impressive. Someone has been working hard,” Ms. Nalpantidis said.
For Billy and many of his peers, learning fine motor skills like holding a pen, tying shoes or locking doors starts with strengthening their upper body in Ms. Nalpantidis’ home.
Inside the sensory gym she opened last September in the basement of her 3434 Tibbett Ave. house, the occupational therapist works with children who have autism, behavioral problems and sensory issues on improving their strength, balance, focus and fine motor skills. Her clients range from infants to 10 year olds who have city or state waivers to work with Ms. Nalpantidis, to families who need a little extra help.
“She saved my son’s life,” Marisol Cartagena, a Riverdale mom who voluntarily cleans up the gym once a week, said of Ms. Nalpantidis.
A decade ago, Ms. Cartagena said she requested a new therapist after her son Justin Garcia struggled to communicate.