Fitness for the autism and special needs population doesn't exactly seem like a topic brimming with excitement or practical application to higher level athletes, clients, or your own training. It didn't even seem exciting to those representing the autism population; parents, educators, and professionals, for roughly the first six years of my career.


I started my career as a trainer working with general population clients and gradually despising every minute of it in the sucky little gym run by a cheap, overly self-involved, numbskull with a penchant for machine-based circuits and cardio. Through a series of events, I began developing and implementing fitness programs for young teenagers on the autism spectrum, eventually becoming the leading authority on the subject due mostly for three facts: I found excellent mentors on both the fitness and behavior therapy side, became very, very good at what I was doing and, third, no one else was doing it.


Niche marketing is the trending business model in the fitness realm right now. Specialize, specialize, specialize, and you will capture your “target demographic.” Despite the advertising to the contrary, everyone needs pretty much the same thing with a few individualized programming tweaks. Squat, push, pull, rotate, locomotion. Build a foundation of strength, stability, and power. Nobody, it seems, ever thought to have a kid on the autism spectrum do an overhead walk with a loaded sandbag. It's the same, only a little more involved teaching a non-verbal 15-year-old to squat, but I loved doing it and so I began to build a specialization. Presto! A niche.


With increased frequency I get this email or phone message from a trainer whom I've never met:


Hi Eric, I just found your website and I think it's really cool what you do. I have a client who wants me to work with her 10-year-old son who is autistic. He's mostly good but seems to get a little frustrated and doesn't follow directions really well. Can you give me some advice? Thanks!


I've been waiting for those messages for about five years. Whether prepared or not (yet), the fitness community faces a new challenge and opportunity - provide programs for the autism and special needs population that is slowly gaining acceptance into mainstream society. You may never have encountered an individual with autism. It seems, though, that today everyone knows a neighbor, has a cousin, or volunteered with a group related to the autism spectrum. I've been waiting for those messages because I know a special few professionals in the fitness industry can help change the lives of many people on the spectrum.


At one point I believed I could convert a good majority of the fitness community to lay down their dreams of training NFL linebackers, MBL pitchers, and future MMA champions to embrace the idea of providing exercise programs for a much-deserving population. Then, rather quickly, I realized I was being an unrealistic ass. The autism population is not entirely easy to work with, particularly in a fitness capacity. It would also be helpful if autism were more well understood.


Autism is characterized by a list of symptoms, the most obvious being a lack of social abilities. These are people who have a difficult to near-impossible time trying to effectively interact with others. Some show little appreciation or caring for others around them. At the extreme end, some are aggressive or self-injurious when frustrated or upset. Some have little or no verbal language and many engage in repetitive behaviors that make practically no sense to someone observing. Sounds charming, doesn't it?


Ever tell a client to perform a new exercise with a dumbbell and they do something unexpected? You say, “Andy, do an overhead raise” and then Andy picks up the dumbbell and does a lateral raise or a shrug or something. Here we come to a concept that may just cross over from my world into yours:


Can't vs. Won't


I've spent piles of hours figuring out whether my athletes could not or would not perform a particular activity. The distinction is sort of important. If Andy can't physically perform that overhead raise, there is no good reason to continue telling him to do it. A new plan is needed. If he can't do it because he has never seen the press performed, you demonstrate it. If he can't do it because the weight is too heavy, you lower it, and if there is an impingement or injury, you modify or supplement it.


Won't is different, and when I spend a majority of my time. Individuals with autism can be hesitant to do new things and, in my experience, are usually not thrilled with exercise and movement activities. Won't means there is no incentive for Andy to do an overhead raise and segueways to concept two:


You Can't Force Fun


Telling someone something is “fun” is most often a good indicator that said activity ranks somewhere between “ugh” and “bleh” on a scale of Complete Crud to Awesome. Telling a wandering 8-year old with autism to “come back here” because “this is really fun” is a good way to accomplish absolutely nothing. The target activity has to be reinforcing in some way. Enter the contingency.


Contingencies are if/then relationships. If you back squat, then you can have your Totally Vanilla Bean Blast protein shake with extra creatine and nearly natural vanilla flavoring. Contingencies are tough concepts for the autism crowd, but make it readily apparent that Mary will get to read her favorite book after she does 30 seconds of rope swings, and you have one very solid if/then relationship.


Let's talk about those rope swings. Suppose Mary can only do them for 15 seconds. Physically, she cannot yet perform the target activity. Many individuals with autism get frustrated quickly when they fail at something. Since establishing a positive relationship with both the instructor and the activity is crucial to success, concept three is:


Progress and Regress at the Pace of the Athlete


Yogi Berra as it may sound, you have to start where they're at. Early success with a new exercise or activity will help to make the overall situation more enjoyable. Some of my athletes could/would only bend their knees, throw a medicine ball, or even stand in place for two seconds before scattering off to the far corner of the room in attempt to escape the demands of a new instructor and new tasks. I developed a program called the PAC Profile Assessment toolbox as a way to figure out what my athletes were capable of, willing to do, (can/can't, will/won't), and how best to teach them new exercises. Develop a good understanding of what abilities your athletes are starting with and steadily build up from those foundations.


I attempted to cover several crucial items in this article. I'm not sure it all worked. You may read it over, forget it, and in six months do a search for it because someone wants you to work with three high-functioning teens on the autism spectrum. I want most to introduce the fitness professional world to the autism population, because I love both equally and there is a great amount of mutual benefit that can occur given the right circumstances. The opportunity will be there, the initiative remains to be determined.