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How Fitness Is Changing Autism

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An Interview with Eric Chessen, Founder of AutismFitness.com

I want to take a moment to do something pretty cool here.

I know I often go off on weird little blog tangents, and you guys are nice enough to come with me. I try to give a lot of fitness stuff that you can use. Well, what I’m about to share with you is fitness stuff that most people WON’T use.

Not everything I do is about vanity and abs =)

This is a bit bigger.

And for the people this stuff applies to, it’s incredibly valuable information and I think it’s very important.

You see, I recently interviewed Eric Chessen, an old friend of mine and the founder of Autism Fitness.

But before we get into all of that, I just want to share some background.

Chessen and I met when I was 19 years old on the Testosterone Magazine forums, now TNation.com. At the time, we were both young trainers looking for information and sharing it on the forums we realized we were both on Long Island and decided to meet up.

We became really good friends, really quickly. And over the years, I’ve watch Eric grow as a trainer and as a therapist, and he’s responsible for some absolutely incredible results in both roles.

What’s really interesting to me is the dichotomous nature of Eric’s relationship with training. For his own training, Eric is a complete and utter beast. He lifts tires, pulls sleds, and hauls anchors. For all of that “weird” stuff you see me doing in my videos, Eric is right there with me—He’s intense, impatient, and frighteningly strong, capable of lifting his bodyweight overhead for dozens of reps.

On the other side of the Eric Chessen coin is the therapeutic trainer. Gentle, patient and calm, Eric works with kids a lot of us would easily get frustrated with. In fact, he works with a population that until recently had no voice whatsoever in the fitness community.

Eric is working to change all that. And I want to help him.

Autism Fitness NAA_3

Photo: Eric Chessen

Roman: Okay, sooo what I think we should do here…I’ll ask you a bunch of questions that I already know the answers to so that we have some kind of introduction, and then some that I don’t. We’ll mix it up and make it look pretty on the blog.

Chessen: All righty, you’re the boss, boss. It’s your blog. Where do we start?

Roman: Well firstly, let’s get some definitions. I know there are some common assumptions about what autism is and what it looks like. I assume that a lot of people are confused or just haven’t been exposed. Could you shed some light on what autism actually is?

Chessen: Sure. Autism is a pretty common neurological disorder. And—

Roman: Wait, can you define common for us? We always hear that it’s growing as an issue, so let’s get some hard numbers.

Chessen: Definitive numbers are not really… Well, depending on what stats you read, autism is present in about 1 out of every 100 births in the U.S. and most other Western countries. Some show more, some show less, but those are the numbers we use in the field right now.

Roman: Okay, got it. 1 in 100 seems small, but when you consider how many births that is…

Chessen: Right, exactly.

Anyway, the most universal characteristics of autism are social and communicative deficits, meaning that individuals with autism have difficulty interacting with others. Many also have a great deal of difficulty forming contingencies, “If this, then that” type of relationships between events.

What the general public must understand is that autism is a spectrum. There are individuals who function on a very high level, those who have severely impaired cognitive and adaptive skills, and a lot in-between.

Roman: Right. I think that’s a huge thing to touch on. Some people with autism are remarkably high functioning. So let’s do the origin story: What got you started working with the autism population?

Chessen: This’ll sound familiar to your readers… Like you, I was an overweight kid and got into weightlifting, general fitness and nutrition towards the end of high school. It changed my life in many profound ways, from my self-esteem to my social interactions.

Roman: Haha, yeah, been there. Former Fat Kids, unite! So that’s training. But way back in the way back, we were both working our way up the ranks at the gyms. I went towards athletics, you went towards autism. How’d that specific shift with you occur?

Chessen: I had worked with several young people on the autism spectrum in summer camps and other programs, but never expected to make a career out of it. I think it was in 2002, I was in grad school for General Psychology and a colleague, knowing I was a trainer, asked if I would be interested in working in an NYC-based education program for individuals with autism.

I started really with one or two kids. Then I began implementing fitness programs for all of the students; I quickly realized there were very few people—if any—doing this sort of work, and that was the beginning of Autism Fitness.

Roman: Now, this isn’t easy work, so I don’t want anyone to think this was a sort of, “Oh, well there is no one doing this so I can create a niche business,” thing. It’s more than that.

Chessen: No, it’s definitely not that. I mean, any work worth doing is hard, I think. You have your own set of complications training your athletes and clients. It’s just different. The fact that I’ve made a business out of this is really just an offshoot of everything.

I think it’s important to sort of look at it and know that, regardless of what capacity someone is in, people who work with special needs populations always talk about how rewarding it is. That’s the same here. I just really enjoy helping my athletes.

In terms of it being a “niche,” I guess the main benefit for me is that I can be the voice and the face, for now at least, and I have been really working my ass off to bring all this to the forefront.

Roman: That’s great. I love that. Okay, so speaking of bringing it to the forefront, that’s the question: Why is fitness so important for the autism population?

Chessen: For the same reasons it is important for the general population, and then some.

There is an abundance of research and anecdotal evidence demonstrating that young individuals with autism have gross motor impairments when compared with neurotypical or normally-functioning peers. For many young people on the spectrum, we have to incorporate fitness first to decrease the deficit, and then to optimize functioning.

Autism Fitness NAA_10

Photo: Eric Chessen

Roman: So how is teaching exercise different for a client with autism? I mean, we’re probably assuming that everything is different, but that may not be the case. Are there similarities as well? Between someone with autism and one who is… I guess ‘normal’ is not the right word at all. Someone who is neurotypical, to steal your word.

Chessen: Big differences and big similarities. Most trainers generally do not have to worry about elite level athletes running out of the room, biting you, or having a tantrum on the floor (although I have heard stories, especially about high level athletes).

I on the other hand, in some cases, may be faced with these potential situations. The success of my Autism Fitness programs and methods is a product of combining best practices in behavior therapy (particularly Applied Behavior Analysis) and my approach to fitness, which could be best described as, “Let’s learn to move well and then load weight on top of it.”

Verbal and physical cues play a vitally important role. If directions are given that are too complex, my athletes are not going to be able to follow them. If I break everything down into smaller steps, they will not only be able to accomplish a lot more, but will be able to perform exercises and activities independently.

Roman: Yeah, let’s do an example of that. Preferably something a bit visual?

Chessen: Absolutely. Suppose I want to teach the skill of picking up a Dynamax ball, performing an overhead throw, and then hopping through a series of spot markers. If each skill is not already mastered, it would be ridiculous to expect the athlete to be able to perform them all in sequence.

I would break each skill down into a separate activity. First learning to pick up the ball, then the overhead throw, finally the hops. Once the athlete can perform each exercise independently, I can link them together in a “chain.”

Not only does this have huge implications for general fitness, strength, endurance, and motor planning, but for short term memory and cognitive functioning as well.

Roman: That’s the most crazy thing, but also the coolest. It shouldn’t be surprising, but it is: Physical activity increases cognitive function.

Chessen: Significantly so, yeah. Impossible to quantify, but enough so that it’s certainly “noticeable.”

Roman: Have you met any resistance to your programs?

Chessen: I actually look forward to meeting resistance. I want some out-of-shape moron to suggest that fitness is not important with regard to young people who do not actively engage in physical activity and often have motor deficits. Oh, how I would cherish the opportunity.

Really, the biggest problem I have to combat is ignorance about what fitness actually is, how fitness and sports are different entities, and how to convince people (mostly parents) that they can actually create and implement fitness programs in the home.

Adaptive Physical Education programs, from my experience, are simply not doing the greatest job. It is really time for an overhaul of the entire education system, PE and Adaptive PE included.

Eric 1

Photo: Eric Chessen

Roman: What would you say your training/fitness philosophy is? I mean with your clients here, not your personal stuff. As I mentioned, you’re a beast.

Chessen: My two main goals with my athletes are to get them moving better and to provide them with the opportunity to enjoy movement and exercise. I am a big proponent of building movement fundamentals through bodyweight activities, particularly animal-based movements and gymnastic hybrids.

And as I alluded to a moment ago, I also think everybody, my athletes with autism included, should learn how to lift heavy objects. Different types of heavy objects.

One of the training concepts that came out of my behavior analysis education was what I call “Generalization Training.” Learning how to perform the same movement with a variety of different stimuli (objects) is extremely important.

If you can clean and press 100 pounds on a barbell, can you also do it with a heavy medicine ball? A sandbag? A dumbbell? The more variety of implements, the more you can translate the movement pattern to life or sport skills.

Roman: Interesting. I fee like most of us weren’t picturing that for Autism Fitness. What results do you typically see with your athletes?

Chessen: Regardless of their functional ability, all of my athletes begin to move better in all areas (pushing, pulling, rotation, locomotion). For some of my athletes, particularly those who have lower adaptive functioning, it may take a few months before they begin to really enjoy exercise.

I’ve developed my own functional screen, called the PAC profile, out of necessity. It stands for Physical, Adaptive, and Cognitive. Most of my athletes who score high on two out of the three have had their confidence and enjoyment of physical activity ruined by sports-based PE, awful coaches, or a lack of exposure to new and innovative exercise modalities.

Roman: So that’s where you come in.

Chessen: That’s exactly where I come in.

The biggest success is when my athletes request a particular activity, or begin engaging in physical activity when I’m not around. That is the generalization part: Being able to demonstrate mastered skills in new environments and situations. I get to witness the emergence of self confidence too, especially in my adolescent and teen athletes. That’s everything Autism Fitness is about. That’s life.

Roman: That’s great, great stuff man. Thanks so much for doing this. Where can my readers check out more about you, your program and all the work you’ve done and are continuing to do?

Chessen: Yes, thank you so much for having me, and really just thank you for being wiling to post this on your site, man. This is big stuff. People can (and should!) check us out at www.AutismFitness.com.

Roman: Awesome, we’ll get that up on the blog, and I’ll send out some newsletters.

AutFit Logo Big

Okay guys, thank you so much for reading and being interested.

This is really, really important stuff, Eric is doing great work. If you have anyone in your family on the Spectrum, or if you know anyone who does, please forward this on.

Please let them know about Eric, and let them know that there are people fighting for special needs populations, and pioneering efforts to get great fitness information to those individuals and their families.

I cannot endorse this more fully.

Thank you again—and if you have ANY questions, leave them in the comments; Eric will be popping in to answer them!

About the Author

John Romaniello is a level 70 orc wizard who spends his days lifting heavy shit and his nights fighting crime. When not doing that, he serves as the Chief Bro King of the Roman Empire and Executive Editor here on RFS. You can read his articles here, and rants on Facebook.

  • Great post, Roman. It makes me aware what autism is all about and I hope that you'd post more about this topic.

  • Graeme

    Wow, what an eye opening and educational interview. I think I not only learnt a bunch of information about Autism and approaching special population training, but some great training info that would suit any individual. The Generalization Training is a brutally simple concept that I would never have thought of, let alone seen the potential benefits of. Thanks guys, that was awesome.

  • Eric Chessen

    Thank you John for the opportunity on the interview (after all, I have agreed to film you with your iPhone with your shirt off) and for all of your support. I am beginning to notice a paradigm shift with many parents and educational programs.

    When I first started what would become Autism Fitness back around 2003, I was basically cold-calling various ASD educational programs to try to make an inroad. I will never forget one of the first conversations I had.

    Me: Yes, I was wondering if your school had a fitness program.

    Woman on other end: What does fitness have to do with education?

    At the time, green as I was, I had no answer. I HAD an answer, several in fact, but could not get it/them out.

    Now, as educators and parents begin to realize the link between fitness, cognitive, and emotional functioning, I do not have to do the “Fitness is good for kids” argument anymore. If I can be of help to anyone, feel free to email me at Eric@autismfitness.com

    I hope the information on my site is helpful as well (www.AUTISMFITNESS.com), and I home that woman I spoke with those years ago slipped on a doughnut.

    Live Inspired,

    -EC

  • Great article, great interview.

    Thanks guys, for giving us a new perspective.

  • john

    Great article! As the father of 10 y/o twin boy on the “extreme” end of the spectrum and a new trainer, I can use all the encouragement and support I can get. I give anything to help my boys improve in any area of life. I'm too far from New York to seek Eric's services but any advice or help would be really appreciated!

  • rose

    Great info! My son is “special” or maybe just one of the hundred mentioned in this interview. Another important aspect of exercise for these teenagers is that they have a tendancy to be overweight and absolutely must exercise to keep their weight down. I would be very interested in buying a copy of simple exercises I could train my son to do. He swims twice a week, we go for long walks and bike rides but he still has ten kilos to lose. He is now out of the “obese” weight range. Thanks so much

  • Great interview, Roman. It's so good to see people reaching out to help other people in need. And even as a healthy individual, I find inspiration is watching people overcome difficult challenges. Thanks for all that you guys do. =)

    ~Elizabeth Hastings

  • Slagathor

    Wow, this is amazing! Absolutely heart-warming. I remember my intership in childrens rehab during my time in physiotherapy as one of the true highlights in my education (partly cause we actually had wii-playtime once a week!).

    Unfortunately I think the teenage and up is a crucial time when many “drop out”. Traditional rehbailitation may be seen as a bit “dorky” or boring, but none the less, it makes you stand out.

    Having someone like Eric showing that it's not neccessarily WHAT you do but HOW you do it that matters is proof that we're all God's children, just in different shapes and forms and prerequisites.

    One question though, do any of your clients get physiotherapy as well or do they manage fine with just your training?

    Thanks for a great post!

  • Fredacus

    btw, might wanna update your copyright stuff (says 2009 at the bottom of the blog) :-)

  • Fredacus

    Really moving stuff, you truly get perspective when coming across this type of information. It's sad how much we take for granted on a given day. Eric is doing some truly magnificent things, well done buddy, and thanks for sharing.

    I think it's great that you're taking time to acknowledge and endorse this Roman. Nice interview, high-five man!

  • Terra Dreven

    Roman, thank you for this wonderfully inspiring article. Thank you, Chessen, for doing this important work; I wish you much success in your future endeavors.

  • Robyn

    That's a really great interview. I myself was recently diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome and over the past summer, at my cousin's wedding, I found out her new brother-in-law who is like 5 or 7 (I am not sure), has autism. So yeah, I found this post to be enlightening.

  • Meshel

    I would be interested in hearing what effect this kind of therapy has on the behavioral challenges associated with autism.

    Great interview guys…thanks!

    Michelle

  • Karen

    As a mother of a 20-year old son with Aspergers Syndrome, I appreciate the work Eric is doing. The extent of “adaptive PE” my son was given in public school was sending him to the library during PE “because the other kids would torture him.” Whatever physical training he acquired came from me…and it's very basic. (I'm a single mom of three boys; resources have not been abundant.) How I would appreciate adaptive training programs/guidance in book form to use with my son.

    Thanks for the interview!

  • This is fantastic stuff. Eric should be proud of the work he does.