Eric Chessen is the visionary behind Autism Fitness, making athletes out of individuals on the autism spectrum in the New York Metro area. As someone who is looking at wellness through a more inclusive lens, Eric does not hand out trophies for showing up. Instead, he elicits participation from every athlete and nurtures growth over the long-term relationship s he’s built with his clients. He was kind enough to allow me to interview him for the Well & Kind blog. Check it out below, and if you’re a trainer, therapist, educator, or professional, be sure to read on to the end to find out how to become certified in the methodology that Eric has perfected over the last decade.
W & K: How did you end up specializing in training individuals with autism?
E.C: I started as a personal trainer. I was a kid who was active and playing sports until sports got too high level for my skill set, and then I became overweight and didn’t have sports as an outlet. One day junior year of high school I just decided I was going to walk into the weight room, having no idea what I was doing. I found through weight training I was really able to capitalize on what was there for me for self-esteem and self-empowerment. There was always that self-actualization that drove me to be a part of this field.
While I was doing my graduate work in general psychology, my program had a heavy emphasis on behavioral analysis. I was already a personal trainer, and I knew I wanted to do something in fitness and something in psychology. I had a classmate who was working in Manhattan who needed someone to develop a fitness program in a program for autistic teens. Those teens are now 30 year old adults. That’s been a recurring theme throughout my practice. A lot of my 8, 10, 12 year old athletes are now teenagers.
What level of functioning does an individual on the Autism Spectrum need to have to begin fitness training?
The programming I’ve developed is for any athlete from those with highly challenging behaviors to high functioning individuals. Something that had an influence on my developing a curriculum was that I did not and would not cherry pick my athletes. The majority of my athletes are between 18-24. I have one athlete who is 57. This methodology is for the whole of the autistic population.
How do you work with clients who have trouble interacting or participating?
A question that I often address is what happens when you have an individual who is often off-task or doesn’t “like exercise.” One potential strategy I might use is to take a medicine ball and just hand it to an individual. Have you ever seen a radio station with an on-air button? When you hand someone a medicine ball, you’re seeing that on-air button light up.
You always have a starting point and from that starting point, there is always success to be found. We have to create an environment in which it’s impossible to fail.
Most individuals will be able to do a squat at some level, an overhead press at some level. When we are given manageable steps, we see success relatively quickly, and the quicker we get success, the more reinforcing an activity is going to be. We don’t like doing things that we suck at. Falling over and over again isn’t motivating. We have to set the stage for success. We have to manage expectations all across the board. I’m not telling people that if you’re not doing a forty-five minute session every day they’re failing. When I look at two sessions three years apart, we see progress when we’ve started with managing expectations and then consistently implemented good programming.
What does good programming look like from the Autism Fitness perspective?
In really good strength and conditioning programs, everything in scalable. Everyone can be doing the same meaningful movement just with differing volume and intensity. Some athletes engage in a lot of stereotypical movement patterns like flapping, or spinning—it’s purposeful, but it’s not meaningful. Walking is purposeful, but unless we’re increasing our capacity, we’re not going to benefit enormously from it. If we do something like hurdle steps, it’s going to be a greater challenge that comes with a new benefit, increasing our physical capacity—that’s meaningful.
If you’re the parent of someone who is autistic, what’s the benefit of athletic training over a group setting like team sports?
I’m focusing on strength, stability and motor planning, the major deficits we see in the autism population. With sports programs, when we look at the most common deficits- motivation to participate, motivation to move, the abstract constructs of rules and points-- these are all difficult concepts for the autism population. From a physical perspective, if they don’t have the skills to be successful, they’re not going to be able to participate to a meaningful degree. Even in the neurotypical population, if we just put a kid in a football jersey and they stand there, is that playing football? Is that participating?
Adaptive P.E. programs are much the same—they’re not scalable for kids with the kinds of needs that we’re talking about. In a class of twenty-five kids, who’s going to participate? The kids who are already good. But you will still hear, ‘Oh, we played soccer today,’ when in fact, only a few kids saw the benefit of that. Instead, in a general fitness program, we can individualize the program to every athlete so that they all gain something.
So why do we accept the idea of giving our special needs kids a jersey and calling it a day? Why is the sports-by-association good enough for some of our schools and families?
Because we put sports on a pedestal. Read ‘The Most Expensive Game in Town’ by Mark Hyman. We have an almost religious relationship with sports, so that kind of trickles down to younger people. If we care so much about sports at an adult level, of course youth should care about it. But where’s the room for play, for creativity? You only have a small minority of kids with the skill set and the desire to play organized sports by the time we get to middle school-high school. For every kid or young adult who makes it to the Olympics and starts training at 4 years old, you don’t hear about the hundreds of other kids who burned out or got injured or for whatever reason were just done. We only concentrate on success stories for a moment in time.
So to address the need for individualized programming, Autism Fitness now certifies trainers and other professionals, is that right?
Right. People can go to the Certified Practitioner section of the Autism Fitness website to find a Certified Pro There are currently 53 Autism Fitness Certified Pros across North America. A lot of them are specializing in inclusive P.E. programs that work with the needs of students who are all over the board with their physical and cognitive needs. The next Level I Certification Seminar is in St. Louis June 30th-July 1st, 2018.
Finally, with all of your years of experience in training special needs populations, what is one thing you wish that everyone knew?
That fitness is a gateway toward optimizing all other parts of life. When we move, our brains are primed for learning. We are much more apt to have more useful language when we’ve moved a little bit. Fitness is a necessity that acts as a luxury. There’s no shortage of programming information out there. But we’re still in a society that’s plagued by inactivity, why?
I think it starts in schools, where everything is compartmentalized. When you get into the real world, you realize nothing is separate-- everything is interconnected. The two most marginalized programs are art and P.E. Later in life and education, we create these levels of entry to both subjects that are so exclusive. We’re using professional athletes to tell kids that they need to get moving. How does that make sense? The kids who are already good at sports are the only ones who are going to be encouraged.
I think it starts with the educational system, that’s where systemic change can be made. Ideally, fitness would be viewed with no less importance than academic skills and social skills. This can have a significant impact on any individual if it’s done right. And we know how to do it right. It just has to be more of an imperative.
Eric Chessen, MS is a certified personal trainer and the founder of Autism Fitness. You can find him online at AutismFitness.com and connect on social media by searching Facebook, YouTube and Instagram for the Autism Fitness Workout. Be sure to check out his EBooks Autism Fitness in My Classroom for adaptive P.E. teachers and special educators; Bike to the Future- a parent’s guide to teaching an athlete with autism how to ride a bike; and the general Autism Fitness e-book.