Fitness, Friendship and the Autistic Teen

by Ryan Halvorson on Oct 26, 2009

Client Success Story

Working with special-needs clients requires patience, knowledge and compassion.

Client: Kevin

Personal Trainer: Bret Bondlow, owner of Compelling Fitness

Location: Hanover, Massachusettes

Autism’s Grasp.The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that an average of 1 in 150 children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder. Autism does not discriminate by race, culture or socioeconomic status; boys, however, are 4–7 times more likely to develop the disorder than girls. Increasingly, parents of autistic children are looking to fitness professionals to help improve motor skills, fitness and confidence in their children.

One such parent, Mary Bai, brought her 15-year-old son, Kevin, to meet Bret Bondlow of Compelling Fitness, who specializes in special-needs clients. “Kevin came to me with his mom to work on core strengthening and overall conditioning.” But Bondlow knows there is much more to be accomplished than a strong core. “The benefits are far beyond that of the physical; they are behavioral and social as well.”

Freedom to Move. Bondlow’s first meeting with a client seems much different than the traditional initial assessment. Instead of asking loads of questions about health history, goals and physical capabilities, Bondlow gathers this information before the meeting—and then simply observes. “During the initial visit, I allow the child or adult to wander around the facility and touch, climb, bounce or tumble on different apparatus while maintaining a safe environment,” says Bondlow.

If the client is a child, Bondlow also uses this time to educate parents on what he sees as priorities for the child. The second visit is a bit more structured, but Bondlow is still careful to allow the child to move as he or she pleases; the child’s comfort level is paramount to success. “During this session, I am able to get a better understanding of physical limitations and attention and sensory needs.”

Basic Training. “Upon initial assessment with Kevin, [I determined that] he was a quiet boy who needed encouragement to try new exercises,” recalls Bondlow. He also noticed that Kevin presented with rounded shoulders and preferred to stand with a wide stance during pushing or pulling movments. During crawling patterns, he tended to elevate his hips to avoid stressing the core. “With verbal cues and visual demonstration, Kevin is able to make necessary adjustments,” says Bondlow.

To help with standing or crawling patterns, Bondlow places markers on the floor so Kevin knows where to place his hands and feet. Bondlow also employs a weighted vest to help Kevin develop greater core control, and he utilizes small hurdles to challenge gait.

Overcoming Hurdles. Over time, Kevin has demonstrated progress in all areas. “His gait shows improvement while moving through an agility ladder and over the hurdles. He uses arm swings when running, through use of verbal cues.” Bondlow has discontinued use of the floor markers.

“The training has made me stronger and also helped me to stand up taller,” says Kevin. “It also helps me keep up with the other kids in my regular gym class at school. Bret tells me that I am building up my core strength, and that’s important.” Although movement patterns can often be difficult for Kevin, he appreciates Bondlow’s calm manner and reassurance. “Sometimes he pushes me pretty hard, but it’s still fun, and I feel good when it’s finished,” he states. “It’s easier to sit in school after getting exercise.” Kevin adds that his mom relays training information to his school so he can continue the exercises there.

Building Bonds. “It is always important to understand that when working with individuals with autism, each person is unique and offers different abilities and challenges to overcome,” Bondlow advises. However, a common behavior is the need for self-calming, which can disrupt the session. “This may [take the form of] bouncing on a ball, using repetitive language, or the need for touch or quiet time.” This type of work takes patience, specific knowledge and consistency, but is well worth the effort, he adds. “The rewards are great as you see not only physical improvement, but social and behavioral [improvement] as well. As an added benefit, you will develop a lifelong friend who you have made a life-changing impact on.” n

© 2009 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

Calling All Trainers

Do you have a client who has overcome the odds to achieve new heights in health and fitness? Send your story to and you and your client may be featured in an upcoming issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.

IDEA Fitness Journal, Volume 6, Issue 11

© 2009 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Ryan Halvorson

Ryan Halvorson IDEA Author/Presenter

Ryan Halvorson is the publications assistant for IDEA Health & Fitness Association. He is a speaker and regular contributor to health and fitness publications and a certified personal trainer.


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