Category Archives: exercise

Guest Post: Running Toward Myself

This essay by my friend, Dillan, is about his love of running. For him running serves many purposes. He channels hyperkinetic impulses. He gets fit. He interacts with others. But here he describes one more thing– the mental benefit. He mentally gets liberated from autism while running. How lucky to get a respite from autism.

I encourage people to exercise. Living with autism does not mean we must not exercise. It helps in every way. But respites can be found in many things, in music, in swimming, in learning- simply in moments when joy breaks through the symptoms.







Dillan’s Introduction:

I have experienced many challenges in my life with the autism that takes root in my actions, my thoughts, and my feelings. However, I have also been blessed with gifts, and I am going to talk about one of them today. I wrote this essay for my college applications, and it means a lot to me that you will also read these words about the times when I can leave my autism behind.

Running Toward Myself By: Dillan Barmache

It would be easy to write about autism. I always have that inspiring story in my pocket, The Boy Who Had Autism and Learned Anyway. In this moment, however, I want to talk about the moments when I can separate myself from autism, even if it is only for a short time. Those moments come when I run.

I am on the cross country team in the fall. I run track in the spring. I wake up early in the summer and run miles just because I want to. I am fast and my legs are strong. My body moves with certainty and obeys my commands. That means more to me than it does to many others because in almost every other moment of my life my body is a mess. The chasm between what I want my body to do and what it does is huge and everyone who spends more than five seconds around me can see it plainly when I run my hands through impulse patterns and babble in nonsense noises. So, when I run, those moments of control are like air to the drowning man. My body goes exactly where I want it to.

My most ambitious event was the time I ran a half-marathon with my dad. He and I trained hard. This was, after all, the longest run of my life. As we trained, my dad would strain to keep pace with me. I would wear him out with my voracity for the trail, eating up the ground beneath my feet. We trained until the day came when we had to go to downtown LA and put our feet to the pavement.

You could think that a run like this would be easy. I’ve established how I love running. I’ve talked about being good at it. However, I have so much more to consider when it comes to an event like this. I would be surrounded by strangers. I had to sleep near the event in a strange hotel room with none of my familiar comforts. My routine was crumpled up like a piece of scratch paper and tossed away. To a person like me these are major, catastrophic concerns. My parents have to constantly wonder how I will react. Will I be able to handle it? Will I break down and freak out and have to be pulled away into a quiet room where the strangers’ eyes won’t see my weirdness? I felt not just my own anxiety, but the anxiety of my parents as they tried to plan for every problem and prayed for the things they can’t control to just go smoothly.

Just before the marathon the runners gathered at the starting point. The buildings of downtown LA loomed over me. They closed in like giants and all of us gathered runners were packed in together. I did feel the energy getting wild inside me. I felt my control slipping. I felt the autism that wanted to take over and become everything my parents and I feared. Then, the signal came and it was time to run, and none of it mattered anymore. The threat was over the instant my legs started moving, because then I knew exactly what to do. Run and run and run.

I finished the half-marathon just like the waves of people around me did. I was part of them and I fit seamlessly among them. You can’t imagine how rare that is for me. I am always either the odd boy off to the side with special needs, or I’m the miraculously intelligent boy everyone is shocked can do anything but flap my hands and repeat simple words. I’m always different. I’m always other. But when I ran that day I was just a runner. I was just Dillan.




Autism Exercises

Exercise helps me in every way. When I was young I suffered daily from having a mind that couldn’t control my body well. It made it hard for people to realize I was intelligent. I have worked for years on improving this skill and continue to do so. One of the ways I do this is through exercise.

I believe exercise is incredibly important in helping people with autism. I use exercise often to help me control my feelings or my energy level. Of course, it also helps me to have better mind/motor communication, better motor planning, better fitness and even to participate in certain physical activities or sports I never could do before.

I exercise in a variety of ways including hiking, bicycling, riding a scooter, jogging on a treadmill, swings and trampolines, as well as working out with  trainers.

I share below a few short film clips of me working out as well as a photo of me sawing a tree branch on a two-man saw with my dad.

Parents: Don’t be afraid if your kid isn’t fit yet or even into moving. It took me a long time to get to this point. You can build up the skills and interest over time by starting slowly but making it a part of the regular routine. It’s so worth it!


















Exercise as an Early Intervention

I believe exercise is one of the most important early interventions for autism. In so many cases I see people with autism who barely walk ten feet and have no muscle tone, yet no one works on fitness with them. In a mind/body communication disconnect, early exercise programs can help forge a better communication network between body and brain. I’m sure the kid gym classes I took as a toddler and a young boy helped me be more coordinated, though I wish I had had more intensive help in several areas I will discuss. If I had received that support when I was younger I would have an easier time now in fitness.

In no particular order I recommend early intervention in:

1. stretching,

2. coordination–especially bilateral movements

3. cardio work, such as hiking and running

4. strength training.

My biggest motor obstacle today is that I have tight muscles and tendons. It is a problem affecting my physical comfort and will take a lot of time and effort to improve. I feel that it should have been noticed by adaptive PE teachers, or occupational therapists, or other professionals working with me physically, but they never said a word. Physical assessments looking at  the areas I mentioned should be standard because catching problems early makes them easier to fix.

Since professionals may miss things, parents should be vigilant and try to work on stretching, cardio, strength and coordination with their kids starting when they are young and making it part of their lifestyle. Going for brisk walks, doing simple stretches, picking up light weights, or touching alternate toes,  are all things young children can do daily and can help make movement and exercise comfortable and can help the body learn to listen better to the brain.


More on Autism and Fitness

Here is an interesting interview on Autism Spectrum Radio with my trainer, Mike Ramirez, (who recently wrote a guest post here),  on autism and physical fitness. We can be fit too.

Creating a Fitness Program for People with Autism

 by guest blogger, Michael Ramirez

Recently I received a call from a parent asking if I could fitness train an autistic child. I had been a high school baseball coach for over 10 years. Much of my expertise in fitness had come from various experiences in working with athletes in strength and conditioning programs, working in fitness centers, through textbook study, and apprenticing other fitness experts. I also had 10 years of experience working as a behaviorist with autistic children. I had a sound understanding of both areas, but this was an opportunity to combine the two. I quickly discovered that despite the fact that people with autism face many physical challenges, there wasn’t much information out there or programs that addressed this area. In order to work with this child, I would have to start from scratch and develop a program tailored specifically for him.

When I began my research, I started to think about what was available to the autism community. School programs, like Adaptive PE, really didn’t address the issues I was going to try to work on. One problem I saw with APE, during my years as a behaviorist, is that it focused too much on teaching how to play certain games or sports, which I found to be too abstract, with not enough focus on getting the kids to move and use their bodies. Instead of focusing on functional movements, these programs produced more frustration because of the slow paced activities. I then questioned why people with autism don’t go to their local gym or just hire a trainer. This was obvious. First, even if a parent hired a personal trainer to work out their child, there was no guarantee that the trainer would have any understanding of autism and the challenges that accompany people living with this condition. Secondly, therapists like myself, don’t always have the fitness background to be able to work on the fitness side in a safe and knowledgeable way. Needless to say there weren’t many resources out there, so I was going to have to develop a program through the combination of my two experiences in both the fitness world and as a behaviorist.

I began to think about all of the different children I had worked with in the past and the physical challenges they faced each day. Many of the kids I had seen shared many similar physical characteristics like low muscle tone, poor coordination, lack of strength, lack of flexibility, balance issues, and overall limitations in their movements. Then there was the neurological aspect that impacted their physical functioning. Challenges with motor planning and sensory integration (proprioception and vestibular) were the most evident.Communication and behavioral challenges are also common among children with autism. Taking this into consideration, it became clear why there weren’t many programs out there for people with autism. There were so many issues that made it difficult to produce such a program. Safety was the first thing came to my mind. Initially I was uncertain how I was even going to get a child with autism to perform the basic functions of fitness. Although I had a great deal of experience in working with kids with autism on the behavioral side as well as many experiences working with neuro-typical people on the fitness end, I had never combined the two. Many autistic people are very out-of-shape and have significant gaps in their strength and mobility. With this in mind, I began

imagining the process of getting one of my clients to do a burpee, or a deadlift or to run for an extended period of time, or to be willing to exert themselves in a way that would get them the types of results that would be necessary for a physical transformation. This is hard for anyone beginning a fitness program, but is particularly challenging for an autistic child who may not be used to engaging in any kind of exercise. I knew that if I was going to get anyone in shape, they would have to be exposed to “real fitness.” I had worked alongside occupational therapists for many years. I had seen how they struggled to get children to do some of the things they demanded. What I was going to require was not like putting a child on a swing. I was going to demand real workouts with the goal of fitness and progression.
A couple years back, I had been exposed to the concept of CrossFit through a family member. I had trained in CrossFit for a couple years when I began to train my first client with autism. When I started to think about all the experiences and knowledge I had from the therapeutic and fitness side, CrossFit was a good match as a means to structure a program specifically tailored for children with autism. CrossFit scales exercises to the individual. This seemed to connect to the “I” in Stanley Greenspan’s DIR Floortime Model which stands for “individual differences.” Since no two people are alike, no two people with autism are alike either. Children that I would be working with needed a specific program to fit their needs. CrossFit allowed people to progress based on their current fitness level. CrossFit was developed by Coach Greg Glassman. CrossFit ,com states that Glassman defined “ fitness in a meaningful, measurable way (increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains). CrossFit itself is defined as that which optimizes fitness (constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity).”
Many children with autism struggle with flexibility and range of motion. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) was a good answer to this. Of course I needed to modify its application. PNF was a good way for me to facilitate stretching without having the student do the work. The combination of this type of stretching routine and the CrossFit structure, gave me the necessary components needed to design a good program to fit the needs of people with autism. All I needed to do was test it.
I began to work with the family who was in search for a personal trainer. It was my first opportunity to test my concepts and ideas. There were many bumps in the road, but the road to success is not always straight, as they say. It took a while to figure out how to elicit certain movements, capture attention, and promote motivation. I relied heavily on my experiences working with Dr. Arnold Miller, who created The Miller Method; a cognitive systems approach to working with kids on the spectrum. The basic philosophy that I took from his teachings, in the application to this program, was the use of children’s aberrant systems and transforming them into functional, relevant activities. For example,
one of my athletes likes to take string like objects and twirl them around. It is a self-stimulatory behavior. I used his motivation to stim on these objects, to introduce a heavy rope and create a system of functional movements that can be repeated. It turns “rituals into repertoire”, also a title of one of Dr. Miller’s books. His philosophy in working with people with autism shifted my view about how to use certain behaviors that are common to people with autism. I was fortunate enough to have worked closely with Dr. Miller for several years before his passing. His techniques worked well in combination with CrossFit methodologies. They simply complimented each other.
The philosophy of this workout program is based on three principles: Neurological/Physical/Individual Based (NPI). Neurological Skills, as it refers to fitness, describes functions like agility, accuracy of movements, coordination, and balance, as well as body awareness. Physical Skills include characteristics like strength, flexibility, endurance, stamina, power, etc. The last part takes into consideration the differences between each individual. Everyone has their own set of skills and abilities. With children and teens with autism, I needed to consider many different things, primarily communication (receptive
and expressive), cognitive ability, socio-emotional skills, sensory processing, behavioral challenges, and learning styles. Scaling and modifying exercises, using the CrossFit methods allowed us to tailor a program specifically for each individual, while helping them progress through each movement at their own pace.
The physical components of exercise in relation to people with autism needed to address the student’s areas of weakness as well as their strengths. My research emphasized the five basic fundamental movements of fitness: pushing, pulling, bending, rotation, and locomotion. These foundational movements allow us to work on basic movements, and build up to more complex and compound movements, through the use of scaling and prompting. Many autistic kids have difficulties with these movements. For example, one of my clients has a big frame and was fearful of certain movements. In our assessment, he was fearful of bending his elbows to lower his upper body because he thought he would
not be able to support his own weight and might flop down and smash his face into the ground. As a result, he was unable to do a push-up, so for weeks and months we worked incrementally toward this goal, first by getting him vertical and pushing off a wall, and then by progressively lowering him horizontally towards the ground. Today he can push off the ground, and with a little assistance, he can get his hips up. I know it will be no time before he is doing a full push-up on his own. He has also made big strides in his ability to bend and squat. Initially he would bend his knees only very minimally. This impacted on his ability to perform daily functions like picking up an object from the floor
or even sitting down at a desk. A few weeks ago he got his rear end below his knees for the first time, when doing an air squat, with some support to maintain balance (holding his hands out in front of his chest). This was a great accomplishment for him.
When I began to work with some of my first clients I noticed many common

characteristics. Many of the children had bodies that had low muscle tone, very weak posterior chain and core muscles, tightness in the lower half, and very soft upper bodies (Physical). Some of the kids I met had difficulties with balance, coordination, motor planning, agility, the ability to perform compound movements, and be accurate in movements (Neuro). There were also deficits in communication, attention, and behavioral issues, which made it difficult to motivate them to perform for an extended period of time. Let’s face it; exercise can sometimes be painful and hard, especially in the beginning. To get the best results in each workout I focused on strength, compound movements, strengthening a specific muscle groups, and work on the constant varying functional movements at a high intensity.

It takes time to get the kids accustomed to the workload, the pacing, and to gain confidence in the movements. There are times when I need to be more of a motivational coach, than a fitness coach. It is definitely a process. All of my students are making gains in one way or another. Working on physical fitness has its obvious advantages when you consider the health benefits but when it comes to people with autism, the benefits are even greater. I have received feedback that fitness training has impacted things like: sleep patterns, energy levels, mood, attention, communication and behavior. One of my students expressed that exercising helps him to feel his body better. He also feels

it has been helpful with his pointing (typing). Exercise gives kids with autism added satisfaction and increased self-esteem when they connect their brain and their body and even strategies to deal with excess energy. Recently, the mother of a client told me that her son requested to do some pull-ups in the middle of a behavioral therapy session. He then proceeded to continue to perform his own routine of sit-ups and push-ups in combination until he relaxed.

Fitness is an area that has far too long been under utilized in the lives of people with autism. My mission is to change that, through my company, Special-Fit. I want to thank all of my students for inspiring me and helping me develop this program. It was because of the relationship I’ve created with them and their families, that forever changed the way I view people with autism. They have taught me more about breaking through limitations than any other individuals I have met in my lifetime.

Michael Ramirez

Owner and Head Trainer
For more information about Special-Fit, visit our website at

Motor Planning and Autism

Clues into non-verbal autism can be found by observing how we move. It is obvious that moving in certain ways is difficult for us. It is easy to be idle when your body frustrates, but we must fight that. My exercising has helped me a lot, though I am far from my goals. In exercising I struggle with many things, but one of the most challenging is doing different upper and lower body movements at the same time. My body will do one or the other. It takes all my concentration to just do the legwork if the movement is even a little complicated. If you add in arms to my steps, I need to stop my feet. This is an obstacle in sports, as you can imagine. In sports you need to run and catch (or whatever). I can’t do that at all. I run or I catch. Period. If I work out and I march in place and then I have to do arm lifts with hand weights at the same time, my brain sort of thinks, “huh?”
The ability to do different actions, arms and legs, is something most people take for granted. It is very frustrating to fight your body the way we do. Some people with autism are frail. Some are soft. But we all need to work on our movements and muscle development. In autism it is the disconnect between our intentions and movements that is so challenging.

The Mind Body Connection, and Exercise

This morning I was edgy. My electrical currents were coursing through me. In Autismland that means either do stims or temper. It is a stressful time for me and it is hard to be calm, but I can’t freak out just because I’m stressed. This is what my family did to help me: first I worked out with weights. I complained non-stop. Then my mom insisted I go on the treadmill. I lasted fifty minutes including running on and off. It is amazing. I feel normal now. 
This summer we have decided to concentrate on fitness because my body needs to listen to my brain better. If I could have a trainer every day, how would I improve? I wish I could do that, but we have to work out even without a trainer because it is important that autistic people wake their mind/body connection. It is not do-able if the person is not using his body in exercise ever.
I recently hiked with many autistic people. It was short. Maybe a mile, but it had a hill at the start. I saw many turn back after five minutes. They were not used to moving enough. My new goal is to get fit this summer and see if it helps my brain too.

Exercise and Autism

When I was a small boy I went to occupational therapy. They had me go on swings, hammer pegs, climb on ladders, and jump on trampolines. I remember one occupational therapist telling my mom that I had low muscle tone. In this case wouldn’t exercise, including weights, improve my muscle tone? We worked on my vestibular processing so I went from one swing to another instead of stretching, becoming more fit, or becoming more muscular. The result is that I was not fit enough, which is a problem in a mind/body communication deficit. Being fit enables me to tell my responsive body what to do. I work out with a trainer now because I need to have my body learn to be responsive. Now I see where my problems lie. My soft muscle tone needs to get stronger. My cardio endurance needs to improve and I need more core strength, so I work on everything. Stretching is my most necessary thing and I detest it because it is painful. I will do it because I need to and it is worth the hurt. A lot of my current problems could have been prevented if people had worked on this when I was small. I think it is essential to work on fitness and flexibility for autistic people in a regular program.

Waking a Sleeping Mind Body Connection

I work out and I feel a lot better. In truth, I feel like my body is waking from a slumber. In my doing jumping jacks or knee lifts I teach my body to respond to commands. In the strength exercises I gain muscle power. In the cardio, I get healthy. It used to be horrible. I had soft muscle tone, according to my old OT. In reality, I was out of shape. I was mostly bored in adaptive P.E. I never had exercise, just drills. I needed to teach my body to listen and I needed exercise to do it. I’m tall and big-boned. If I wouldn’t have autism I’d try out for football or rugby or something like that. Now I have to be content waking up my sleepy and long slumbering response system, and doing what my body needs to wake up even more. Staying out of shape is not for me at all.

Exercise is Good for Fighting Autism

For me, exercise is a necessary thing. If I’m irritable I get poor impulse control. The tension is overwhelming inside, but if I jog or walk or do a Tony Horton tape, I stabilize. That is why stamina is good for fighting autism. Two and a half years ago I was sorely out of shape. I couldn’t run more than a short distance without real fatigue. I was weak in my abs and unable to lose weight. I was down too.
I was forced to exercise. My mom insisted that I needed to assume I could be fit. She pushed me hard and I was resistant and tried to make her quit. Stupid in retrospect. My mom and I persevered until she hired a wonderful- really wonderful- trainer for me.
I never had a guy who got me so well. It was hard, man. We worked on cardio and coordination and strength. I loved it eventually, and I stopped resisting. Truthfully, he was so much stronger than me I couldn’t have won if I tried.
My family is active so I needed to have stamina too. I think exercise helped me in so many ways. I’m not sad like before. I concentrate now in school better. I have much more body awareness, and I feel better than ever.
I should do more. I always get scared to try, but it’s silly. Formerly I couldn’t do much. I’m so much fitter now, but it’s good to go farther. So… work out here I come! Ha-ha.