Ethan South didn’t walk until he was 4. He didn’t talk until he was 8.
But, now, on the cheer mat, he is a leader.
Now 14 years old, South, who is autistic, leads his all-star cheer team with his example — always focused and hardworking — and his encouragement — exuberantly cheering on his teammates.
For one hour each week, he isn’t classified as special needs. He is a cheerleader. He is a member of a squad.
“Briana and Celeste, Alex and Jamie and Madelyn,” he said. “They are my team.”
For Ethan, flips, cartwheels and cheers are a fun routine.
For his mother, Penny, watching is sometimes tear inducing.
“The first time they did their routine with the music,” Penny said, “that is when I saw he and the others really got it.
“We all had our cameras out to video it, and behind those cameras, there were some tears shed.”
Ethan and his teammates are members of a Florence cheer team that caters to special needs children.
It is the brain child of Stuart Ausborn, owner and director of Florence Tumble and Cheer. Ausborn offers the free class each week and plans to take the squad to the same competitions as his other all-star cheer teams beginning in February.
“No child should ever feel as if people don’t believe in them,” Ausborn said. “As a cheer coach, as a father, as a human being, I don’t want any child to know that feeling.”
The squad began in June, and in the past four months Ausborn said he already sees profound changes in members of the squad. Their focus, their motor skills, their attention and their cheer skills have all improved, Ausborn said.
“It does take more patience and more repetition than it would with another team, but when they get it, you can tell,” Ausborn said. “Their eyes just pop open.”
And while Ausborn sees the benefits on the mat during practice, parents take those same lessons home.
Cindy Vandiver, whose daughter, Celeste, is a member of the team, said when Celeste struggles with school work, she quickly points back to cheerleading.
“I can remind her how cheerleading and tumbling were hard at first but, with practice, she got it,” Cindy said. “That is a lesson we use all of the time, and it is a lesson she can relate to because of cheerleading.”
Ausborn calls Celeste a natural leader and teacher. He said she takes the younger team members “under her wing,” guiding them through exercises.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see her as some sort of teacher some day,” he said. “That is her gift.”
As she gently guides others, she also is overcoming fears of her own.
Celeste is quick to answer that cartwheels are her favorite part of cheerleading. It is a skill she is close to mastering, her mother said.
But it hasn’t been easy.
“Her perception is off,” Cindy said. “It is one of her difficulties, so asking her to take her feet off the ground was almost terrifying for her.
“But now, she gets her feet in the air.”
Ausborn structures his special needs class the same way he structures his other classes. He sets goals, and he coaches his students to meet those goals.
“We see them accomplish their cheer or tumbling tasks and goals,” Ausborn said. “But we also see them accomplish social and behavioral goals.”
That is something Celeste is keenly aware of.
“It is very fun, and it helps me meet new friends,” she said. “And it helps me interact better with other children.”
When the class began, it wasn’t unusual to see moms on the cheer mat, too, separating, repositioning or refocusing their children.
Now, the mothers and siblings relax on the sidelines, watching with pride as the children complete tumbling moves, hand motions and stunts.
“They have come so far,” Tina Willis said. Her daughter, Madelyn, who has Down syndrome, is one of the youngest members of the team.
“Now, when we get home, she wants to go directly to the trampoline to practice. I can see her really pursuing cheerleading as she gets older.”
Jennifer Edwards can be reached at 256-740-5754 or jennifer.edwards@TimesDaily.com.