Carrying On: When Our Athletes with Autism Gain Strength and Confidence

Fall, 2018: my husband Charlie and I are raking leaves while our son, 23 year old Henry, who has autism, runs around aimlessly, showing little interest in the job at hand. We take turns stopping what we are doing each time Henry disappears from our view to chase him down and bring him back to where we are. My mother’s heart aches, just wishing we could work together as a family to get the seasonal job done. As I rake, I fret over whether Henry will ever understand what it means to have a job that needs doing and whether he will ever be able to do his part. Will he ever take responsibility? Will he ever be able to have a real job? What can I do to help him get there? I brush the tears away and just focus on raking.

I’ll be honest, when I started doing Autism Fitness training with Henry, my objective was simply to give him something to do. The days are very long for a young adult with autism who is currently unable to hold a job or otherwise be a “productive” member of society. Having a regular thing to do is important. “Gym” went on the permanent schedule for Mondays and Fridays and became the highlight of our week. Twice a week for over a year now, Henry performs heavy carries in the gym with me. Using the principles of Autism Fitness, I use proper cuing and coaching to gently encourage Henry to carry progressively heavier sandbags. After each carry I praise him and make sure he knows he just did something great. “Look at that! You just carried that heavy sandbag all that way! Nice heavy carry, Henry!” High five. I’m impressed. Henry’s getting stronger. But something else is happening that I’m not quite aware of yet. 

Here’s Henry performing a farmer carry in the gym.

Here’s Henry, Spring 2020, helping his Dad carry a heavy trash can of leaves. He’s choosing to help because he knows he can.

Here’s Henry, about a week later, helping carry this year’s Christmas tree from the yard to its final resting place in the woods. A year and a half ago he would not have done this. I am positive that at the point where he lost his grip, he would have also lost all interest and wandered off. But he didn’t. He picked it back up and finished the job. 

It turns out that the Autism Fitness activities we perform together in the gym aren’t just things to do to pass the time. They just might be the key to building confidence and perseverance in a person with autism, two necessary qualities of a productive human being. 

Perhaps people with autism don’t show initiative because they aren’t aware of what their bodies can do. And how can they be if their bodies aren’t doing things? 

If Henry is used to successfully carrying very heavy things in the gym twice a week, it’s not such a big imposition to ask him to carry something that isn’t that heavy at home. He does it because he knows he can.

Our Autism Fitness exercises are not just something our athletes are doing. The exercises are actually doing something for our athletes. Our athletes are growing not only in strength, but in ability and confidence. That’s why we do what we do.

Carry On!

Mae Lynn

Autism Fitness @ Home Exercise # 1: Bear Crawls

Here is our first Autism Fitness @ Home exercise. Watch Eric Chessen, founder of Autism Fitness, introduce Autism Fitness with Bear Crawls, then watch the video of me and Henry working together on this exercise. 

I told you our contribution would be a “real life example” and that is most definitely what we see here. Even though it’s a relatively short video, there is a lot to see and learn. We can discuss Henry’s motivation, cognitive state and ability to generalize.

Our athletes are going to be different each time we see them. We assess them physically, cognitively, and adaptively each session, and their levels of performance in each of these areas will vary. 

One goal we have is that the athlete be able to perform the exercise in any setting. This is called generalization. While Henry and I have been working on bear crawls for a year together, this was the first time Henry has done them outside at home. He is used to doing them inside, mostly in the gym, and for the last couple weeks, inside. 

I think Henry is not unusual in that certain settings have different meanings for him. For Henry, going to the gym means he exercises with me, and we have our shared experience. Being outside at home usually means he is free to enjoy his swings or his tractor or jump in the stream wearing all his clothes. While this can mean a greater challenge to attempt Autism Fitness @ Home, it is also an opportunity for growth and generalization.

Assessing physical functioning: Because of his long legs, Henry has difficulty keeping his back flat when doing a bear crawl. Therefore, Henry has been exclusively doing bear holds for a few months. As you see in the video, he is able to keep his back flat when doing a bear hold. I wanted to assess his current level of ability with the bear crawl today, and you can see, he still bridges quite a lot and rotates his hips. That is why I decided to regress to the quadruped crawl, which he is also usually able to do. 

As you saw, he never performs a quadruped crawl, despite my labeling and demonstration, even cueing him to put his knees down. Is this because Henry has suddenly lost the ability to do a quadruped crawl? Of course not. This gives us the opportunity to think about other possible explanations.

Assessing adaptive (motivational) and cognitive functioning: Now you need a little background. Henry’s favorite thing to do outside is ride his tractor. This time of year is when he begins asking when he can get it out of the shed. The answer is always the same: when the ground is dry and the grass comes up. 

We have had two solid days of rain here in NH and Henry has asked me more times than I can count when he can get the tractor out. So it’s no surprise that Henry, finally outside after two solid days of rain, was almost completely focused on assessing the condition of the ground (it was, in his words, “a little wet,” which is not the preferred condition). 

So Henry’s seeming inability to do a quadruped crawl was less about being able to perform the crawl and more about not understanding the direction because he: 1) didn’t watch my demonstration (lack of interest /focus) even though I tried twice, and perhaps 2) not wanting to acknowledge the wet ground by putting his knees down. I can almost guarantee that if we were in the gym on a typical Monday, he would perform the quadruped crawl with ease. Sometimes our athletes will be “all in” and other times we have to be satisfied with getting them to go through the motions. In times like these, we take the wins where we can get them. 

I hope that you learned something from our first videos! Please feel free to comment or ask any questions on the Facebook post! Eric, Henry and I will be back with video number two, Overhead Presses, soon! 

Mae Lynn

AUTISM FITNESS @ HOME is here to help

AUTISM FITNESS @ HOME is here to help

Henry hates it when people say “okay?” at the end of a sentence. Hearing that one word can cause him anxiety leading to his screaming “okay!” loudly and repeatedly. Because of this, taking Henry to the doctor causes me as well as him a lot of stress. 

Supporting Henry and others with autism means knowing that the key to avoiding stress and anxiety is careful preparation before the doctor appointment. One especially useful tool is a social story that we read a few times before the appointment and maybe even on the way there in the car. The story calmly explains that many people use the word okay at the end of a sentence and that he will probably hear it at the doctor’s office. Okay is just a word and he can be calm and take a deep breath when he hears the word. If he can stay calm, mom will be proud of him and he will earn a trip to the mall to ride elevators. Today Henry has an eye doctor appointment. He reads the story to me a few times on the drive. I park the car, take a deep breath and we get out. Please don’t let the first person we see say okay…

As this example illustrates, on a typical day we autism parents have to think about a lot. Simple activities are not as simple for us as they are for most parents. Because of anxiety and cognitive processing differences, our kids don’t experience the world like most people. We need to think ahead and prepare them. They may need to read a social story before trying something new. We may need to make a written schedule telling them what to expect that they can hold onto and refer to on a day when they feel anxious. We can't ever just “wing it” or wait and see what happens.

Right now we are living an experience no one could prepare for. Social isolation has everyone scrambling to figure out a new normal, and that means a new daily structure. For those with autism, anxiety is probably at an all time high because every plan, every calendar, every schedule, is gone. They need predictability now more than ever. 

What meaningful and appropriate activities can we include on our daily schedule at home? Perhaps it occurred to you to add exercise into your loved one’s day. That’s a great instinct. There is plenty of research that tells us exercise is one of the best things we can do to reduce stress. It has even been shown to alleviate anxiety disorders and clinical depression. We know physical activity decreases levels of stress hormones and increases levels of endorphins, which elevate mood. We can all use a little more of that these days. 

What’s more, lowering the levels of stress and anxiety your child is feeling will reduce the frequency of their anxiety related behaviors (Henry asks the same question or repeats the same phrase over and over when he’s anxious) and might in turn lower the levels of stress in your entire household. 

Knowing this should inspire you to give exercise with your autistic offspring a try, even though we know that our kids are not generally motivated to try new things. They tend to want to do the same activities over and over, maybe the same movie or video game, because it’s what they are comfortable with. How do we get them off the couch? 

No worries. 

Autism Fitness begins by taking their fundamental differences into account. We know motivation is the number one hurdle we need to get over. Because of this, we have proven reinforcement methods that allow us to get athletes with autism to exercise. These methods work, time after time.

Okay, so maybe you went online and found some exercises. That’s a great beginning, but are those exercises even appropriate for your athlete? How do you know they can do them? What if they do them wrong? Will they get hurt? Once again, here is where Autism Fitness has the answer. Autism Fitness exercises are appropriate and doable for our athletes. They have been carefully chosen because they address the specific physical weaknesses that are typical in those with autism. Eventual mastery of these exercises will allow our athletes to move more efficiently and effectively. This is essential for activities of daily living. Talk about meaningful and appropriate.

In Autism Fitness, we meet our athletes at their current ability level and celebrate every achievement, no matter how small. If your child is successful at something you try together, and they see the excitement in your face, they will want to do it more. 

Here’s a little secret: in the year since I started doing this with Henry, he and I have had more joyous shared experience than in the previous 23 years. I don’t think you have to be an autism mom to enjoy doing an activity with your child. But only an autism mom can know what a miracle that is.

Ready to do this? Here is how AUTISM FITNESS @ HOME will work.

I will be sharing short videos produced by Eric Chessen, founder of Autism Fitness. These videos give a concise overview of a single exercise for you to use with your athlete. Then I will follow up with a video of me using Autism Fitness principles to guide Henry through these exercises.

Each time I post a new video, the workout I post will grow by one exercise. That way you will be able to see how we can train as a circuit and see the cuing we use to move from one exercise to another. Please feel free to ask questions! You can comment on the Facebook post or send me an email at I am looking forward to forming an interactive community where we share and help one another through these trying times.

Mae Lynn

Today’s Focus: Welcome to the New Blog for Right Focus Fitness

Welcome to "Today's Focus" - the new blog for Right Focus Fitness. By following this blog, you’ll have an opportunity to follow along with the Autism Fitness magic that happens regularly here. Each blog post will focus on specific concepts and insights related to our Autism Fitness approach.

In the last couple of months, much has been going on behind the scenes. As I continue working with my athletes in their individual programs and having them amaze me pretty much every session, our mission is gradually taking shape. We now have two more coaches certified to train athletes using the Autism Fitness approach and we have begun planning what we will be able to offer in the coming months. First, we will now be able to provide one on one training for more adults on the Autism Spectrum than was possible when I was the only certified Autism Fitness professional here. Second, we have a plan that will enable us to reach out to the wider community. While our one to one training will continue to focus solely on adults, we will also offer the three hour Autism Fitness “Try This @ Home” hands on workshop for parents and caregivers of athletes of any age. I held the first of these in November at Get Fit NH and it was well received. At the workshop, I encouraged parents to think of fitness as a life skill and they left empowered to go home and set up an environment to help their own athletes with autism make fitness a part of their lives. Our plan going forward is to do these a few times a year at Get Fit NH and even “take our show on the road” to bring the magic of Autism Fitness to camps or day programs where this programming would be useful. 

Please follow us here and watch our Facebook page. We will be announcing our first workshop in the coming weeks as well as the availability of more one on one training opportunities. In the future, I’ll be using the blog to share videos and write educational pieces about Autism Fitness concepts and principles.

Yours in the Movement for Movement,

Mae Lynn 

UPDATE 3/28/2020

I wrote this blog post just a few days ago, but had not yet published it. And then everything changed because of the rapidly spreading CoronaVirus. All of a sudden, I could no longer work with my athletes at the gym. Henry and I were isolated at home and we needed to figure out a new normal. Today we were spending time outside and I was thinking about how hard this is, especially for people with autism. Families everywhere are coming to a new understanding of how important structure and routine is for their mental health. But autism parents have known it all along. For my Henry, the difference between having a schedule versus not having one means the difference between a calm, peaceful, interactive day and a very anxious day with a lot of ritualistic behaviors and stims. He depends on his monthly calendar that we keep on the fridge and checks it several times a day. Seeing “gym” on the calendar on our regular gym days as well as all the other activities scheduled on the other days was his rudder in a stormy sea. In late March, gradually these activities were erased, until the calendar was blank. 

There is nothing more anxiety provoking for Henry than an empty calendar. It was pretty clear to me that that calendar had to come down and get replaced by a new daily schedule each day. Filling that schedule was the next challenge. I know I share that challenge with all parents, but I especially relate to autism parents who right now are trying to be everything to their families: teachers, direct support staff, chefs, housekeepers, etc. all while trying to explain it all to our kids who most likely will not be able to understand why the rug has just been pulled out from under them. It’s up to us again to provide them with some stability - and the sooner the better.

Over the last year, Autism Fitness has given us functional, meaningful activities to enrich Henry’s days. Now when so many others are looking for this very thing, I’ve decided to tweak the mission of our program for now. I’m going to use this blog and our Facebook page to coach and encourage parents to add exercise to the daily schedules of their athletes with autism during their time at home together. Since we are all at home anyway, there can be no better time to “Try This @ Home.”

We're all in this together, let's make it happen.

Mae Lynn