One of Eric Chessen's personal training clients is 14-year-old girl named Mary. She can lift a 20-pound medicine ball over her head repeatedly and likes doing it—she even asks to do it—but that was hardly the case when she first met him five years ago.
"I remember during our first session I just sat on the ground and watched while she ran back and forth across the room for a half hour," Chessen says.
Mary is autistic, and she's one of the hundreds of kids, teens, and adults who've trained with Chessen through his unique Manhattan-based physical education program, Autism Fitness. Chessen—who has a background in personal training and behavioral analysis—trains clients as young as six and as old as 56, and more than half of them are non-verbal. But they show up weekly to squat, lunge, push, and pull, tackling the same kind of obstacle courses and weight circuits you'd see at a boot camp.
Despite the super-regimented schedules those with Autism Spectrum Disorder often follow (familiarity and predictability reign supreme), fitness tends to fall by the wayside, says Chessen. "There are so many more obvious deficits with the autism population—social, behavioral, and cognitive issues—that we forget about movement and how that's a qualitative part of life."
Chessen is on a campaign to change that, with good reason: Studies show that those with ASD are more susceptible to obesity, and they often suffer from low muscle tone or motor clumsiness. Weakness in the hands and issues with gait are common, and tend to become more obvious as children turn into teens and adults. "We're seeing a big generation of individuals who were diagnosed with autism in the mid 90s or early 2000s who are becoming teens, and their parents are realizing, 'oh my god my child's not active,'" Chessen says. "It's a problem when you have a 15- to 17-year-old male without a physical outlet—it's when we start to see self-injurious or aggressive behavior that becomes hard to handle."
For Lynette Cafaro's 14-year-old son, who clocks in at 5'10" and 240 pounds, working on movement with Eric hasn't just been about coordination—it's one of the few activities he actually looks forward to. "He's not conversational, but when he's bored he'll say, 'Eric please.'"
Of course—like the rest of us—getting to the gym doesn't always come easy for those with ASD. Chessen admits the wheels can fall off in that first session, and he'll often just sit and observe. He doesn't use force, and instead pairs preferred activities (like bouncing a ball) with what's on his own agenda. "You have to give them some control within the structure. You say, 'Do you want to do rope swings or bear crawls first?' We're still doing the activities, but now they feel like they have a choice." It's not a bad strategy for any kid—or colleague—he adds.
He also knows behavior-specific praises, like 'nice job lifting your knees' goes farther than 'good work.' And for his athletes, as he calls them, who are non-verbal, he relies on behavioral cues to take their temperature and build trust. "If someone's starting to pace around the room and hum loudly, I know they need a break," says Chessen. "Every behavior, however odd, is still a communication of some sort. We all do weird shit—autistic people just do it in public."
The goals Chessen sets out for his athletes are almost purely physical—learning to carry a heavy sandbag across the room so that hauling laundry becomes easier at home, or building up stamina and balance so they can reach for a cereal box high on the shelf. Chessen doesn't like to talk about self-esteem or developing social skills, since his athletes often can't communicate how they're feeling in abstract terms. Independence and initiation, however, are fair game.
"My older athlete Richard just shreds the fitness room—he'll do 100 reps, then drop the weight and walk off the stage." That kind of confidence, Chessen says, is hard to miss.