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Strength, Stimulus, and ASD

"You know what PE stands for? Pointless Exercise!"

This was the direct quote from my younger brother for years as I was working towards a Masters of Teaching in Health and Phys Ed. He always hated PE. He hated exercise. He knows it's good for him, but he hated it anyway. Cut from every sports team he tried out for, or playing "center bench or left out," he was never physically active. Exercise has always been uncomfortable for him, someone with Autism Spectrum Disorder, as the sensation of bars or sweat running down his brow bothers him.

But recently, my younger brother asked if I would train him. I think as he's gotten older he's realized being a couch potato isn't in his best interest. I agreed, and he joined my Semi-Private Training Group. I wasn't sure he'd stick with it, but eight weeks in he's going strong. And I've been learning a tremendous amount along the way.

I'm going to be honest here, in admitting some biases I formerly held from my experience watching my brother over the last 20 years, so if you take offense at some views I formerly held I do apologize. I'm embarrassed about them myself. But as I've learned and grown as a coach in training my brother, it's been a tremendous piece of development as a coach.

The first thing I've learned tremendously in training someone with functioning ASD, is the managing of inputs and stimulus. My brother is not uncoordinated or distant, he's just trying to manage the fact of every stimulus hitting him at once and in a heightened state. If it's hot, it's HOT! If the knurl grips the skin, it feels like it's tearing it. If it's loud, it's deafening. And all of these things are happening at once, and in order to allow for focus on strength we have focused on dampening other inputs.

Here's a few things we've specifically done to do this:

  1. Bring a towel: the more we can get rid of the sensation of sweat dripping down the body (the gym we train out of is routinely 80-90 degrees), the better.

  2. Bring headphones: My brother wears his headphones, blasting whatever mix of high school musical and ACDC he has on a playlist (no, not joking here). This allows him to block out the rap music or fast tempo music which makes him uncomfortable. It also brings familiarity to unfamiliar place.

  3. One New Thing: after the initial week, we've only changed one new thing in each workout over eight weeks. Usually it's a mobility drill, or the addition of a new skill. But every workout is the same except for this one new thing. That way we can put all focus and effort into identifying the skill of a movement.

These things have been a huge piece of the puzzle, because the more we can dampen the inputs and stimulus we get from outside sources, the more we can focus on the stimulus of learning skills and movement patterns.

The next thing I've learned, which exposed a huge bias of mine, was how incorrect I was about the coordination levels of those with sensory disorders. I used to think my brother was uncoordinated because he was out of touch with his body, but I was entirely wrong about this. I found very quickly, it's the opposite. Once sensory inputs are dampened, my brother is very in tune with his body and how to move it. He's hyper aware. It's amazing to watch, because the same way he's able to memorize movies and song lyrics, he's able to memorize positions for movements (whether he chooses to utilize them can be a different story...). The ability to visually comprehend a movement and then replicate it something which really made me realize how unique this ability was, and it has forced me to be very detailed in how I demonstrate each exercise.

Now, I am well aware of the varying degrees of Autism Spectrum Disorder there is. These are just some of the things I've been learning training my brother, who is more functioning on the ASD range. There are more things which I am continually learning, which will be saved for further blogs. Yet these are the few worth sharing in a way which is hopefully meaningful to those who have worked with those individuals or will be working with them in the future.

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