Can strength training or working out with weights reduce frequency, intensity and/or duration of autistic meltdowns in adults?
Even autistic adults with high intelligence can have meltdowns that disable their ability to work full-time.
I’m a former certified personal trainer and also have a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
I’ve been lifting weights – hard and heavy – since the age of 15.
Before I go on any further, I need to point out that a gym is not necessary to take up strength training (aka weightlifting, training with weights).
A cheap array of basic implements can be purchased online, so that the user can exercise in the comfort of their home.
But also, keep in mind that for some autistic adults, a gym environment would be quite tolerable.
For them, the issue wouldn’t be the bright lights, sounds, smells or other people nearby.
The issue is lack of motivation, and lack of not considering the possibility that training hard with resistance may actually take a big edge off of their meltdowns.
Young Autistic Woman Has a Meltdown Seemingly Out of Nowhere
At a World Autism Day event at a combo pub/Italian eatery with outdoor seating, I was at a table with two women, “Mallorie” and “Jules.”
Mallorie is 29 and Jules is in her 50s. Mallorie was diagnosed with ASD in her early teens, while Jules is in the process of seeking an assessment.
Without going into lengthy detail, just suffice it to say that Mallorie had a meltdown that consisted of vocalizations, crying, inability to calm down and repeated apologies for her behavior.
The trigger was sensory overload, possibly compounded by frustration with trying to adjust a large umbrella at the table that she, Jules and I were sitting at.
The verbal feedback of Jules, as both tried to adjust the umbrella, became too much for Mallorie to process.
Meanwhile, Jules kept trying to console her, telling her she didn’t need to apologize.
Mallorie had driven her own car to the event, works two days a week at the establishment, seems to have at least normal intelligence, is very talkative and articulate, told me she’d been bullied all throughout school beginning in preschool and lives with her parents.
Earlier that day she had mentioned that the idea of keeping track of bill payments, if she were to live on her own, is overwhelming.
When I suggested automatic payments, she became quite distressed and withdrew from the topic (which she had initiated, actually).
It were as though she had too many neurons on standby to get over-fired.
Last year at this same event, Mallorie and I had chatted briefly, and that’s when I learned that she did NOT do any exercise, let alone strength training.
While Jules was recommending to Mallorie’s father — who had to pick her up because the meltdown had rendered the young woman incapable of driving home (she planned on using Uber next day to get her car) – that Mallorie should try something called “electro-brain stimulation” or words to that effect – I was thinking of how strength training could be the best thing that she could do for her meltdowns.
How Strength Training Might Reduce Autistic Meltdowns
Since my diagnosis of ASD in spring of 2022, I’ve learned that an autistic meltdown has a physiological component, whereas a common temper tantrum is 100 percent learned behavior, typically done to manipulate or get attention.
The autistic meltdown can be triggered by sensory overload, which Mallorie had experienced, though at a relatively low threshold (e.g., just one person was talking to her while she was trying to adjust the umbrella: Jules).
• Lifting weights – intensely and hard – changes the body’s hormonal environment including reducing levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone.”
• It changes the neurochemistry. It alters the physiology.
• It improves the way the body responds to physical stress. This can have a major carryover to how the body – and brain – respond to sensory overload.
Lifting fiercely with barbells, dumbbells and other equipment trains the body to efficiently recover from trauma.
The trauma here is the microtears in muscle tissue and stress on the bones, plus also burden on the cardiovascular system.
A highly trained body, therefore, has a much better chance at, for instance, recovering from major surgery without a hitch.
When I had my elective double mastectomy (because my sister had breast cancer, which meant I was at higher risk), the recovery was a breeze.
I literally popped wide awake from the general anesthesia, and never had a need to take the prescribed narcotic painkiller.
Going into this big surgery, my body was highly trained and toughened up.
I like to say that my body thought that the surgery was just another gym workout, and hence, efficiently processed the surgical trauma.
My body didn’t know the difference between gym trauma and anesthesia/surgery trauma.
If we apply this concept to the autistic meltdown from sensory overload, it stands to reason that a highly trained body from intense weight workouts — with its greatly enhanced nervous system and mind-body connection – would field any sensory overload with less spiciness.
In an autistic meltdown, the neuro-network of the individual gets involved. They feel out of control.
But if the body is used to intense strength training, it will blunt the reaction to a sensory onslaught – and this is my opinion based on common sense, my own workouts and my own autism.
A Study with Autistic Children
I have not been able to locate any studies on the effect of strength training on subduing autistic meltdowns.
But I DID discover one study that had remarkable, very compelling results: a study looking at the effect of jogging on autistic kids’ ability to regulate their emotions.
The 12-week jogging intervention involved autistic kids ages 8-12. There was a control group (no exercise).
The paper’s summary states: The intervention group demonstrated significant improvement in emotion regulation and reduction in behavioral problems. Future studies should explore the mechanisms underlying the effects of physical exercise on emotion regulation and behavior in children with ASD.
Strength training has a multitude of benefits. So, if Mallorie stuck with it for six months – and intensely – I have to believe that at least one metric of her meltdowns (e.g., duration or frequency) would be dampened.
Might strength training be a waste of time for some autistic adults?
Strength training is NEVER a waste of time for ANY BODY.
If after six months, the metrics of Mallorie’s meltdowns remained unchanged – she’d still experience other, and guaranteed, benefits of lifting weights:
- Improved muscle, bone and joint strength
- Improved neuromuscular coordination
- A stronger back
- Boosted immune function
- Lower risk of type 2 diabetes
- Improved self-confidence
- Loss of some excess fat
This list is far from complete.
Up until age 15 (when I began lifting weights), I had had one true meltdown that I could recall, at preschool age in response to the sound of a wood chipper down the street (it wouldn’t be until well into adulthood that I figured out that the noise had been a wood chipper).
Nobody knows if I would’ve had meltdowns as the responsibilities of adulthood came bearing down on me as I grew into an adult – because by the time I graduated from college at 21, my body had seven years of kickass weightlifting under its belt.
Prior to 15, gee, there wasn’t much pressure! My parents took care of just about everything!
And college? I lived in a dorm. My only responsibility was laundry, self-care and maintaining good grades. Compared to living completely on one’s own while holding a full-time job, that’s a breeze!
Once I moved out on my own at age 22, I continued lifting weights – fiercely, putting my body, my nervous system, the whole kit and caboodle, through the wringer.
After every workout, I always felt so mellowed out (and still do!).
Prove Me Wrong
I want to see a lot of research on my proposal. It makes a ton of sense.
If jogging after only 12 weeks could improve emotional regulation and behavior in autistic children, imagine what serious strength training could do for autistic adults!
• Agility and coordination are NOT required for lifting weights.
• Lifting weights improves the neuromuscular and overall nervous system.
• A startup set of weightlifting implements is cheaper than you think.
• Gyms are competitive and thus, many chains offer memberships to fit any budget.
• Earplugs or noise cancelling headphones work wonders for gym noise.
No autistic individual has anything to lose by taking up serious strength training or powerlifting.
They only have very much to gain – even if the effect on their meltdowns is minimal.
But – they’ll never know how much exercising with weights can water down their meltdowns UNTIL THEY GIVE IT A TRY.
Other Forms of Exercise Can Dampen Meltdowns
If you’re prone to meltdowns but don’t do any structured exercise, you have nothing to lose by inserting structured exercise into your life.
Ashley Gartner, 24, was diagnosed with ASD at 24.
“A typical meltdown for me feels like I have lost all control,” says Ashley, a master esthetician and skincare blogger.
“Meltdowns for me usually last for a few hours, and recovering from them can usually take a day or longer.
“I like to take walks and do yoga, which really helps me a lot.
“I love taking walks, putting on a podcast, and getting fresh air and vitamin D.
“I also love the calmness and grounding effect yoga has. It helps me be present and de-stress.
“I definitely think these two things help suppress the meltdown response.”
You might be thinking, Gee, if she does walking and yoga, how come she has meltdowns that last a few hours and take a day to recover from?
But we need to look at it this way: If Ashley stopped walking and gave up yoga, there is the possibility that her meltdowns might last even longer, and take even longer to recover from.
Every body needs structured exercise.
Ashley Gartner runs Ash Esthetics, a holistic skincare site where she shares her expertise in skincare, a passion she’s had since age 12. “I was determined to learn everything there is to know about skin,” says Ashley, who’s licensed as a master esthetician. “My main goal is to just help people because I know how hard it is to have healthy skin.”
Lorra Garrick is a former personal trainer certified by the American Council on Exercise. At Bally Total Fitness she trained clients of all ages for fat loss, muscle building, fitness and improved health.