I just received an email from personal trainer, that has a new client that has autism, asking for exercise tips that would enable him to train his client to the best of his ability. Here are some things to remember when training an individual with autism:
1. Program design process stays the same - People are looking for a personal trainer because they are seeking something a little extra in their exercise routine. They want individual attention to help them meet their fitness goals, something that they cannot get in a group fitness class or in a school's P.E. class. They all will come to you with different reasons for wanting a personal trainer and it is your job to create a program for them that is INDIVIDUALIZED to their needs and goals. Your program design process is the same for all clients, neurotypical or autistic.
2. Variety in communication - Individuals with autism are often very literal in their ways of thinking, so it is important that you communicate in a very clear, concise manner when describing the workout and giving instructions about how to perform the exercises. These instructions should include oral instruction accompanied by visual instruction as well. I will make a list of the exercises that we are going to perform during the workout, demonstrate the exercise while giving oral instruction, and then do the exercise along with my client. Depending on my client's needs, I may also break down each exercise in a 3 step picture sequence along with a visual countdown of repetitions remaining.
Your client may also have processing delays. Make sure to give them time to process the information that you are giving them and be patient. Eye contact may be limited or non existent as well, and that is OK! Here is a slide from Karla Fisher, a local autistic adult, that that explains why eye contact can be difficult and lead to shut down. http://on.fb.me/1k0JFa1
Be precise, clear, and ready to communicate in a variety of ways depending on your client's needs.
3. The weight room sensory experience - Weight rooms can be a living hell for an autistic individual, so LISTEN to your client. Many of our clients have sensory issues and experience the world around them very differently than their neurotypical peers. Loud sounds, strong smells, too many people can all lead to a negative experience. If your client says that it is too loud or that they are feeling anxious because of the crowd, then take the workout to a different room or outside if it is a nice day. You need to earn their trust and respect before you can try and gradually stretch their comfort zones.
They might not understand why their body acts in a certain way while exercising.
"Ryan, my heart feels like it's coming out of my chest." "My legs, they feel weak." "My legs feel like Jell-O." "My arms feel like they are burning."
These are all things that I have had clients tell me. These are all physical sensations that we experience from exercising. Listen to your clients and explain how their body works and why they are feeling like that. Tell them that their heart rate increases during exercise because of your body's need to increase blood flow. Explain to them how to calculate their maximum heart rate and find their target heart rate. You are not only a personal trainer, but a teacher as well. Teach your clients how to exercise and take care of their bodies, but also teach them how their bodies work and why they are experiencing the physical sensations.
DIFFERENT NOT LESS
When training any client you must address their individual needs and goals. With an autistic client, those needs may include communication, processing, and sensory differences compared to your neurotypical clients. However, their bodies and muscles still work the same. There is a saying, "If you have met ONE person with autism, then you have met ONE person with autism." Every one of your clients will have different needs. It is your job to be able to listen to those needs and help them get their body moving and help them live a healthy lifestyle.
The above tips may or may not apply to your client, but I hope they are useful. Remember that there are no magic exercises for training this population, just a need for equal respect and open ears.
I was recently interviewed by one of my former teammates in Poland, who is a journalist for a Polish American Football website. Click on the title of the interview below to see the Polish version, but here is the interview translated into English.
THE INTERVIEW NOT ALL ABOUT FOOTBALL WITH RYAN LOCKARD, FORMER WARSAW EAGLES LINEBACKER
By Marcin Łojewski
You played for the Eagles 3 years ago - do you follow their progress?
Of course! I thoroughly enjoyed my experience in Warsaw and I still think of the Eagles not only as teammates, but as brothers. I have followed every season since I played in 2011.
Do you try to keep up to date with Polish league?
I do keep up to date with the Polish league. I coach college football in Portland, OR and have players looking to take their talents overseas after graduation. Besides following the PLFA to stay up to date on the Eagles standings. I also stay in contact with coaches around the PLFA to help my current college players have the same great overseas experience that I had playing football in Europe.
After leaving Poland you started your own business - tell us something about your company?
I started Specialty Athletic Training with my wife Mary about a year after I returned to the United States. It is a personal training company for individuals with special needs. We train our clients at Lewis & Clark College and provide internships and volunteer opportunities for college students to serve as peer mentors and workout with our clients.
How much of your business is actually a job and how much of it is pure fun?
The only part of my job that I don't view as fun is all of the administrative work that you have to do as a business owner (invoices, expenses, etc). I always tell my clients that my number one goal for them is to have fun and enjoy seeing us at Specialty Athletic Training. A majority of them have had negative experiences with fitness, lowering their self esteem and self confidence. That is always the first thing that I aim to increase by providing a fun, positive, and safe environment that allows our clients to thrive.
Do you think personal training has any influence on your clients besides keeping them fit?
Absolutely! Increased fitness level is expected when you hire any personal trainer, but we want to teach our clients how to enjoy exercise so that they make it a part of their daily lives. There are numerous benefits that have been related to exercise, and not all of them are physical. Exercise reduces anxiety and stress, as well as increases self esteem and self confidence.
How important is physical education for mentally impaired people?
Physical fitness is just as important for individual with mental and physical disabilities as their non-disabled peers, if not more important. Obesity is huge problem in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17% of all children and adolescents and 35.7% of adults in the United States are obese. Those rates increase drastically for individuals with disabilities, 38% higher for children and 58% higher for adults. This population is often overlooked by the fitness industry, even though they are at a greater risk.
Is your company unique to the US or do you know something about others that perform such activities?
There are a variety of services that are offered to individuals with special needs to increase their functional fitness, especially when they are preadolescent. We are the only company, at least that I aware of, that provides professional personal training to individuals with special needs. This is a much needed service and we are at the forefront and innovators of something special.
How important are volunteers to your company, how would you encourage polish youth to volunteerism especially in sports?
We are blessed to have great student volunteers at Lewis & Clark College that do an excellent job with our clients. I love being able to provide volunteer and internship opportunities on campus for the students because that is something that I did not have when I was pursuing my undergraduate degree. I highly encourage all youth to volunteer and give back to their communities. In the United States we are fortunate to have multiple non-profits and charities that offer sport opportunities for children and adults with special needs and they are always looking for volunteers. My advice would be to find a non-profit or charity that provides this type of service in your area and contact them immediately to see how you can get involved. If there is no service of this sort in your area, start one and create volunteer opportunities for others.
Would you like to have a franchise of your company in Poland?
Franchising is not something that I envision happening with Specialty Athletic Training, but you never know. The next big thing for Specialty Athletic Training is creating a certification process so that other personal trainers can learn how we train and interact with our clients and take it to their home town. I would LOVE to see this certification spread to Poland and have a Specialty Athletic Training certified trainer making a difference in the Polish communities!
About the Author
Ryan Lockard, CSCS, CSPS is the founder and head trainer of Specialty Athletic Training and is accredited by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and a Certified Special Populations Specialist. He is a member of the board of directors for the Autism Society of America and the Central Oregon Disability Support Network.