African-American man with long dreadlocks, wearing yellow muscle shirt that reads “Give Me This Mountain” in green letters, attempting to lift a 50 pound dumbbell. Credit: Timotheus Gordon, Jr.

On October 13th, we had a didactic session on nutrition among people with developmental disabilities, including barriers to proper exercise. It was eye-opening to learn how people with developmental disabilities, like me, face many challenges in staying healthy and fit. Some would assume that we just like to eat unhealthy food or too lazy to exercise. It’s not really the case when you dig deeper into why fitness may be a challenge for us. Myself and my LEND classmates learned that certain conditions may prevent people with developmental disabilities (e.g., autistic people) from eating healthy. For instance, one may be sensitive to certain textures or smells that could prevent the person from eating particular nutritious foods. Or, some may not like certain foods touching each other, which that could also alter how one can obtain the necessary nutrients.

We, along with our presenter Leslie Stiles, engaged with the nutritional topic so much that we didn’t have time to cover the fitness aspect of health of a person with developmental disabilities. And as I looked over the slide, I honestly think that we wouldn’t have had time to go over fitness in depth anyways.

Fitness and sports hit home to me because I am a sports and fitness fanatic myself. I was active throughout childhood; I participated in several events on the Special Olympics team at Foster Park, such as floor hockey, track and field, bowling, basketball, soccer, and softball. I also played basketball, floor hockey, flag football for Chicago Park District Leagues; I competed in Junior Lifeguard meets. I played freshmen basketball when I was in high school, excelled on the varsity football team for two years (playing every game and starting most games in my senior year as a defensive tackle), and set a school record in shot put. I played in flag football, broomball, and basketball leagues in undergraduate college while I took up boxing when I pursued my MFA. Even now, I would still try to compete in a sport; you would occasionally see me play basketball or throw the pigskin around.

As far as overall fitness….while it’s true that I’m big guy, I still like to keep in shape whenever I can. I like to do wall push-ups, lift machine weights and dumbbells, walk and jog to places, get on the elliptical, shoot hoops, and try out various workout plans (such cycling class or upper body workouts). I love the feeling of standing like a giant, 10 times stronger and meaner, when I finish my workouts.

But, there are challenges that I may face as an autistic adult when it comes to trying to stay in shape. For starters, consider the atmosphere of the gym. Autistic gym

African-American man with shorter dreadlocks in a boxing stance, wearing black boxing gloves and grey t-shirt, left hand cocked back to the face, and right fist aiming towards the camera. Credit: SCAD-Atlanta & Atlanta INtown

rats may dread noise from crowded gyms, loud dubstep music blasting from the speakers, and people gazing that their every move to see if they may fall on their tails, lift only a light weight, or lift a ton. They may also have sensory issues with the equipment. For instance, I refuse to ride on stationary bikes that have narrow cushions; otherwise I would constantly stop cycling due to the cushion irritating my tailbone. I would prefer riding on stationary bikes with a wider cushion, or bring an extra one myself. People on the spectrum may also have difficulties performing certain workouts because of gross motor skill deficiencies, reduced strength, subpar body coordination (especially doing multiple body functions at once, such as dancing), and difficulties with balance. I don’t do any dancing workouts because it involves complex movements; my brain seems to be not wired for such movements. I prefer machine weights over free weights because I have better control and balance; you do not want to see me struggle to lift 35 lbs. on each side of the free bench press, with one arm trying to level with the other. And for some autistic people, the workout may just be too strenuous on their bodies; they may rather just take a walk, swim, or do something less painful than lifting weights or playing a contact sport.

In addition to personal barriers that autistic adults could face, people must also look at systemic barriers to fitness. For example, I glanced through several articles and excerpts on fitness programs for autistic people. I was appalled at most of my findings: not only most of the fitness programs were mainly for autistic children, it was also mostly rehabilitation-focused. The goal of those workouts are to improve gait, balance, and gross motor skills. But beyond that, I didn’t see any workout plans where an autistic person can improve their athletic performance or help them improve their overall fitness. What if your trainer doesn’t know how to handle autistic people or mocks them? What if you get the trainer who is willing to work with you, but your peers in the gym may not like you (at first) or mock you? Those are the barriers that I am talking about, besides cost and accessibility.

In short, if people want to help us (the autistic adult community) get fit, then ask us what we like to do for fun that can be also part of a workout regimen. Also ask us what is stopping us from going to the gym. Perhaps all it takes is for fitness centers to be more accommodating to autistic people’s needs and goals, and not encourage us to “suck it up” if we cannot do a workout the way they want us to do it. Or, provide us options were we can choose to be competitive with our workout and not just improve our postures and balance.

Resources:

“Athletes with ADD and Autism Spectrum Disorder”. Linden Attention Learning Center. Web. 19 Oct. 2016. <http://www.lindenalc.com/sports-performance/athletes-with-add-autistic-spectrum-disorder/>.

Chessen, Eric. “Five myths about fitness and autism”. Autism Support Network. Web. 19 Oct. 2016. < http://www.autismsupportnetwork.com/news/five-myths-about-fitness-and -autism-768933>.

Dupont, Doug. “Research Sheds Light on Strength Levels in Autistic Clients”. Breaking Muscle. Web. 19 Oct. 2016 < https://breakingmuscle.com/strength-conditioning/research-sheds -light-on-strength-levels-in-autistic-clients>.

Gajadhar, Curron, ed. To Build A Traceur. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.  <http://tobuildatraceur.squarespace.com/>.

Lockhard, Ryan. “My Client Has Autism, How do I Train Him?” Specialty Athletic Training. Web. 19 Oct. 2016. < http://www.specialtyathletictraining.com/blog/my-client-has -autism-how-do-i-train-them>.

Specialty Athletic Training. Web. 19 Oct. 2016. < http://www.specialtyathletictraining.com/>.