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Coaching Considerations For Individuals w/ ASD

The rate of diagnosis for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has been increasing over the years. While I won't give specific statistics on this rate, nor comment on what does or does not classify someone as having ASD, I would be naïve to ignore how likely it is for a coach or personal trainer to work with someone on the spectrum at some point in their career. With this in mind, I find it necessary to shed a light on some things which may help improve the quality of the training and the outcomes one can achieve while working with individuals who fall somewhere along the Autism Spectrum.

Before diving in, I will give one blindspot of mine in writing this, as my experience in training individuals with ASD is limited to my brother (and one other individual who we don't modify anything for). Along the lines of building buy-in or relationship with them, I have an advantage due to being related and living a large majority of the last 21 years in the same space as him. I have an initial relationship with him, and have even built a sarcastic or joking sense about his quirks and the way he is. He is also functioning, with little to no motor impairment. He just had an initially low level of physical literacy based on non-participation in Phys. Ed throughout middle and high school.

If you'd like to read my initial blog on Strength Training, Stimulus, and ASD, you can find it here. For the purposes of this article, I wanted to point out some observations I've made since and how we are approaching training or instruction with tactile aspects of coaching.

The Letter is The Law

In my previous article I detailed how quick individuals with ASD will latch on to details. My brother remembers every exercise I put in his program. I rarely have to show him twice. One thing, I've noticed, is how the aspect of detail orientation can present a downfall if not addressed appropriately. I have explained to my brother how we do the same movements and add 5lbs each week, but my initial explanation likely did not cover how there are some huge variances in this. It took a meltdown of him not understanding that I wouldn't let him add 5lbs because his form had to deteriorated on a Trap Bar Deadlift, for it to stick with me how much the rule of "add 5lbs" hadn't been adequately communicated.

With the way you address and communicate goals and focal points, be clear in the expectation and also communicate the possible changes in the expectation (this goes for more than just individuals on the Spectrum, if we're honest).

Structure is Key

I've mentioned how my brother puts his headphones in to play familiar music to drown out the noise of the busy powerlifting gym. At this point, as per a goal of ours, is getting pretty close to being self-sufficient in the gym. He has his workout on his TrainHeroic app on his phone (he loves tech!), and he goes through his workout, only asking for help if needed or if he wants me to film a set to send to our mom.

But one day I noticed he was looking at his phone and then loading weight on the Trap Bar, hitting jumps of ~20lbs, until he then added 75lbs and tried to hit his top set of deadlifts. I asked to see his phone, of which he showed me his written down warmup sets listed in order, complete with what weight goes on each side of the bar, and how many reps. He wrote these down off of memory from 4 weeks prior when his top set was 235lbs. At this point, he was deadlifting 285lbs, and had still been using his last warmup set of 210lbs as his marker. To combat this, we restructured what gets shown in his workout plan. Instead of having 3 sets of 5 reps, it may look like we're doing 8 sets of 5 reps, but the first 5 sets are prescribed warmup sets to prevent huge jumps.

The Letter is the Law, so structure the Letter in the way you want a Law followed.

Give Tiny Bits of Freedom

Especially with those on the higher functioning end of the Autism Spectrum, part of helping them develop habits and confidence in new environments is allowing some degree of freedom. This may be easier said than done, especially with lower functioning or more movement impaired individuals. My training structure is also almost 100% Semi-Private, so this is more doable in my circumstance, because I have slowly withdrawn intensive coaching in the moment with my brother to more of a "hands-off" approach. I watch most of his training from across the gym, and we've even added a day where he comes to the gym to do a workout on his own (filled with machine exercises he can't get hurt on).

The long term goal, is for him to ultimately feel independent. Especially when it comes to managing a world where you are not always understood, or have to rely on others for help in managing a world which is often not very accommodating, giving certain keys to freedom can be extremely beneficial in gaining more independence and freedom. Those days where he comes in on his own are also beneficial because he has to learn how to communicate more effectively and efficiently with those around him. Granted, this may be easier in the small community gym environment like the one I train out of, where members are more aware of an individuals needs and are helpful in working with them in communicating. All of the gym members my brother encounters know he has ASD, and go out of their way to welcome him and make him feel as if he is no different (I cannot say if this would be as simple a process if in a commercial setting unfortunately).

Now, there are more quirks and funny stories which I could tell. Such as my brother punching a hole in the wall when he tried to punch a punching bag, or telling a gym member I was the "lame older brother," but those can be saved for other posts in the future. The main goal of this article was to identify those three key things: The Letter is the Law, Structure of Training is Key, and Give Freedom. The more we can figure out how to make these things fit within an appropriate context for training individuals with ASD, the better outcomes we can provide them opportunities for in the long term.

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