I receive emails from personal trainers around the nation saying that they were approached by a parent asking if they will train their child with autism and they reach out to me asking for exercise tips that would enable them to train their client to the best of their 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.
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.
This past weekend, Athletes Without Limits athlete Jack Elston had his first race in his attempt to qualify for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. He competed in the open 400 meter race at the Lewis & Clark College Spring Break Open.
Athletes Without Limits (AWL) was created in 2009 to become the US member of the international charity INAS and made it possible for US athletes with intellectual disability to compete for the first time in open international competition. Barry Holman, AWL Board President, reached out to me in 2014 to discuss the possibility of opening a training hub for Paralympic athletes with intellectual disabilities in the Pacific Northwest. I didn't need much convincing since it presented a great opportunity for Specialty Athletic Training to give back to the community and help local athletes reach their Olympic dreams. Finding athletes became the challenge, until Jack came along.
Jack started personal training sessions with me and Specialty Athletic Training in October of 2015. Right away I noticed that there was something different about Jack. Many of our clients have had a negative experience with exercise in the past, so we focus on making it fun and teach them the importance of living a healthy lifestyle. Jack was the complete opposite. He was a fierce competitor and made it known immediately that he wanted to be challenged every workout. He would send me text messages on his ride to Specialty Athletic Training to tell me that he was ready to make his body stronger and wanted to leave sweaty and tired. He loved competition and the process of getting better, a perfect fit for what we had been looking for as a prospective athlete to train for the Paralympic games.
I guided Jack's parents to the Athletes Without Limits website and informed them that I felt that it would be a great opportunity for Jack. I didn't know if he would meet the eligibility requirements. They promptly told me that they felt he would meet the qualifications and began the eligibility process.
Fast forward to the present. Jack trains twice a week at Lewis & Clark College, where he receives instruction from myself and the L&C sprints coach, Maile Krumpschmidt. He competed in his first EVER meet alongside over 700 collegiate athletes! Maile and I set a goal for Jack of breaking the 70 second mark, something that he had not yet done. When relaying this to Jack as we walked over to the meet officials to check Jack in for his race, he wasn't happy with the goal that we set for him. His response? "I'm going to win this thing!"
Jack did not win, but did break the 70 second mark for the first time and set a new personal record by 8 seconds.
Jack pictured with some of the University of Oregon track team members.
March Madness is finally here! This is the one of the most exciting times of the year. Filling out your bracket can be the most frustrating and exhilarating thing that you do all year. Which #12 seed will upset a #5 seed this year? Who will be this year's Cinderella story? Will all four #1 seeds make it to the Final Four (probably not)? CLICK HERE to join our bracket and join the mayhem of March Madness. The winning bracket will win a Specialty Athletic Training sweat shirt or tank top! Let the madness begin!!!!!
Shalin, last year's bracket challenge winner, flexin' in his new Specialty Athletic Training tank top!
I was recently asked, "What makes Specialty Athletic Training unique?" The short answer, the population that we serve. But there is a lot more to it than providing fitness programs to our clients with special needs. We customize our workouts to be fun and tailored to our clients' general interests. We make sure that they are successful and build their self-confidence and self-esteem to a place where they feel comfortable challenging themselves. There is no better example of that than our client Lily in the video below.
Motivation and self-confidence were two major road blocks in the way of our friend Lily's fitness journey. She wanted us to take this video to show to EVERYONE how well she can do her straight arm plank! Looks like now motivation and self-confidence are more like speed bumps in her path to living a healthy and active lifestyle!
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.