Never underestimate how well a more severely autistic adult can take instructions in strength training.
Young autistic men should not look like Homer Simpson.
I have the so-called high functioning autism. To put another way, it’s Level 1 or minimal support needs.
Being a spectrum disorder, though, autism presents amazingly differently from one individual to the next.
While one autistic adult may be a college professor living completely on his own, another may need ongoing supervision throughout the day.
Part of my desire to interact with autistic adults (since my diagnosis was ridiculously late in life, occurring in 2022) is to show up to as many events as possible – kind of making up for lost time.
There’s a local organization that services autistic adults – and one of the events was an indoor obstacle course inside a Salvation Army building.
The vast majority of the organization’s participating Autistics are “lower functioning.”
I showed up as a mentor-in-training, since I had expressed an interest in a part-time job working with autistic adults.
There was a man there, let’s call him Kolton, in his 20s and looking like a slimmer version of Homer Simpson: “skinny fat,” if that makes sense.
- Slender but flabby arms; no muscle tone.
- Excess fat in his middle; a belly that stuck out, reflecting a really sedentary lifestyle.
- His legs were medium size and looked like a typical man’s who didn’t work out.
- Kolton, only in his 20s, already had the body of a typical middle-aged man, as far as appearance. But appearance is very telling.
Lack of muscle tone is a BAD place for ANY BODY to be!
Kolton did not have a genetic disorder that causes low muscle tone.
His level of autism was observably a 3, meaning very substantial support needs. He had with him, at all times, an employee from the organization (let’s call her Jaymi).
He wasn’t even able to slip some bands (they looked like thick hair bands) up his arms – Jaymi had to do it for him – the bands provided vibrations for a soothing effect.
All throughout the entire 90 minutes, Kolton would periodically – and sometimes loudly – blurt lines from a movie. He seemed to be off in his own mysterious world.
At the start of the meetup, we were told by the person in charge to introduce ourselves.
When it was Kolton’s turn, Jaymi prodded him to do so, but he seemed lost. So she showed him something on a phone, and he read off it, “My name is Kolton.”
Kolton seemed as though he wouldn’t know what to do with the obstacle course.
But lo and behold, while seemingly oblivious to other people’s performances, he suddenly seemed focused and enthused as he approached the starting point at the encouragement of Jaymi.
And off he went! He attended to each obstacle did pretty decently (except for the vault). I was very impressed.
If an autistic adult such as Kolton could understand an obstacle course and get through the thing on the first try, then he’s certainly capable of following instruction for strength training. And I told this to Jaymi.
Obstacle Course vs. Strength Training for Low Functioning Autistic Adult
The obstacle course at this event was the type where anyone could work their way through it, while at the same time, a highly agile and fit athlete could choose more advanced ways to clear the obstacles.
But even if they’re cleared at a rudimentary level, this still requires a cognitive demand that exceeds what is required for basic strength training.
I told Jaymi that Kolton was perfectly capable of doing strength training with machines, being that he fully understood the concept of an obstacle course, not going out of sequence, and working his way through each obstacle.
Covering an obstacle course, even at a basic level, requires more cognitive load and mental calculating than does simply sitting in a weightlifting machine and pushing at the handles.
An obstacle course requires balance, coordination and knowing where your body is in space, whereas a sit-down weightlifting machine stabilizes your body in place – and all you have to do is push or pull the weight.
So from a cognitive as well as a coordination and balance standpoint, strength training is much easier for an autistic adult with high support needs to carry out.
Obstacle course training is a great mode of workout, and in fact, after doing this myself, I’ve decided to add some obstacle training to my fitness regimen.
Unfortunately, for Autistics such as Kolton, obstacle course training isn’t something that occurs consistently.
The group was actually supposed to hike that day, but the leader deemed it too hot, and switched the event to indoors.
Who knows when they’ll have another opportunity at obstacle course training.
The big question is why don’t Kolton’s parents have him doing regular strength training?
A man in his 20s should not be so flabby. Low muscle mass is a risk factor for excess fat in the belly, because low muscle mass means a slower resting metabolic rate.
Imagine what Kolton will look like when he’s 40: Homer Simpson all the way.
I keep mentioning looks. But I’m not doing that in the name of being more self-confident if one has a fit-looking body.
Kolton’s autism seemingly prevents him from having that kind of self-consciousness (which can be a good thing!), and he also seems plenty confident, being childlike and loving blurting out movie lines.
IT’S ABOUT HEALTH AND FITNESS.
He’s getting by now due to his youth. But lack of muscle mass, and lack of consistent weight-bearing exercise, will become increasingly relevant as he gets older.
Low muscle tone and a sedentary lifestyle are associated with a slew of medical conditions including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, osteoporosis (yes, men can get brittle bones), fat gain, weak joints, a weak back prone to injury and mobility problems.
The benefits of strength training are nearly endless. They include:
• Lower risk of type 2 diabetes
• Lower risk of serious injury in a vehicular accident
• Longer lifespan
• Improved balance
• Improved focus, memory and overall cognition
• Better outcome from cancer treatment
• Increased testosterone
• Boosted immune function
• Denser bones
• Better heart health
• Lower resting blood pressure
• A calming effect after the workout
Who in their right mind wouldn’t want all of these things for their autistic adult child?
Why hasn’t strength training occurred to Kolton’s parents?
Maybe because they think it’d be beyond his capacity? Well, too bad they didn’t observe him doing the obstacle course – and this includes maintaining hula hooping for several seconds! He also maintained hooping on his arm.
Certainly, he could sit in a chest press machine and understand the concept of pushing the handles out!
Certainly, this young autistic man can follow instructions with pushing his feet against the platform on the leg press equipment.
He can sure as hell stand while pressing dumbbells over his head. All of these weightlifting moves, despite being very valuable to the body, require LESS cognitive load than completing an obstacle course.
Plus, strength training using stabilizing machines poses a smaller risk of injury – way smaller.
An obstacle course carries a much greater risk of a trip-and-fall or a sprained ankle. You can’t trip and fall while sitting in a weightlifting machine.
So many autistic young adults are in such sad physical shape, and these include many Level 1 Autistics.
People are afraid to talk about this stuff. Well I’m not. There needs to be a movement to get autistic adults not just “moving,” but lifting weights with the goal of strengthening their muscles, bones and joints, and improving their body composition.
I’ve Seen It: Dads Bringing Autistic Sons to the Gym
On at least three occasions, I’ve seen what appears to be an autistic teen being guided in strength training by his father — at the health club I belong to.
I’ve witnessed two of these cases at one of the chain franchises, and the third at another.
Now maybe these boys weren’t autistic, but I’m pretty sure they were, especially one in particular.
Along with a peculiar gait, he was making odd vocal noises in between lifting sets that could be heard throughout the entire gym — BUT he was able to follow his father’s instructions with machine use and even dumbbells.
It’s a safe bet that neither of the parents, whose autistic adult children are in sad shape, do any strength workouts whatsoever and, in fact, have allowed their own bodies to go.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical and fitness topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer. In 2022 she received a diagnosis of Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder.