Monday, April 15, 2013

12 Question with Eric Chessen of Autism Fitness

What a day we have for you to start your week!  It is our incredible honor to bring you an interview with Eric Chessen of Autism Fitness.  Eric is putting in work in the trenches to improve the quality of lives of athletes, with all different levels, of Autism. 

While many dream (including us at BBA) of working with top-level professional athletes or Olympians, Eric is out there making a much bigger difference than anybody training a pro athlete.  He's improving the lives of these youth athletes through the incredible benefits of fitness.  He's working to provide an informational outlet for anybody that works with kids with disabilities. 

Autism Fitness is changing the perspective of training youths with disabilities, and Eric is doing a job with as much importance and influence as any in the fitness business.  Many of you probably haven't heard of Eric or Autism Fitness, but we are going to change that today!  So without anymore delay, let's get down and ditry with 12 Questions for Eric Chessen!

1. Hey Eric, first off thanks a ton for doing this interview! Can you give a brief background of your work and how became involved in it?

First, I appreciate being considered for your blog. About twelve years ago I started my professional training career at a crappy little gym on the North Shore of Long Island working with general adult populations. It wasn't exactly thrilling for me. At the time, I thought I wanted to pursue a career in sports psychology, and was taking graduate classes towards a degree in general psych.

One of my classmates knew that I was a trainer, and I had mentioned to her that I worked with the autism population in a few summer camp programs. She asked if I'd be interested developing fitness activities for teens with autism in a small, NYC-based educational program. After a few conversations I agreed.

I soon realized that there was little information or practical knowledge about developing fitness programs for the autism population. As I underwent intense training in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), I began to incorporate those methods for teaching and behavior support along with my exercise and movement activities. That was the beginning of Autism Fitness.

2. Beyond the physical benefits, what other benefits do fitness and training have on your clients with Autism?

When the programming and environment is right, fitness can be a gateway towards building social skills, independence, self-regulation, and some increased cognitive skills. All of this is dependent on the individual, but they are certainly qualities that I've seen enhanced by providing ASD individuals with quality fitness programs.

3. What considerations do you have to take during training that might differ from a coach that doesn't work with kids with Autism?
Good question. I seldom have the luxury of my athletes finding movement reinforcing (enjoyable) in the beginning. With autism, you tend to have a lot of anxiety and aversion to new tasks, directions, and activities. My primary goal is almost always increasing the athlete's motivation to participate. Motivation in the case of my athletes, particularly those who are lower functioning from adaptive and cognitive perspectives, is not a case of “I'm too tired to do a 14th push-up,” but may involve them not standing on a pair of spot markers and attending for longer than 2 seconds.

4. Do you perform assessments or screens?

I attended an FMS seminar, actually I think it was the first one on the East Coast, years ago. When I got back home I thought; “I can use some of the exercises, but there are other considerations that are definitely part of how I design individual programs.” I realized that I was evaluating 3 different areas of ability: Physical (how well they move), Adaptive (how motivated they were to move), and Cognitive (learning style and ability to follow 1, 2, and 3-step directions). This became the foundation for my PAC Profile method, which is not just an assessment but serves as a flow chart for program development and goal-setting.

5.  Can you go into more detail of your PAC Profile?
The PAC Profile is the methodology behind everything I do with Autism Fitness, from assessing to long-term success . PAC is an acronym for Physical, Adaptive, and Cognitive, the 3 areas of ability that are absolutely necessary when developing fitness programs for the ASD population. A coach or instructor has to have a baseline understanding of how well an individual is able to perform various exercises/movements (Physical), how motivated they are to perform those activities and whether there are any problem behaviors (Adaptive), and what type of learning style (visual, kinesthetic) along with how many directions they can follow (1-3 steps) (Cognitive).
There are 20 different assessment activities in the PAC Profile ranging from standing on a pair of spot markers for 3 seconds to frog hops and star jumps. An athlete new to fitness may not be able to complete all 20, but it gives the instructor/coach a starting point. If they are not motivated enough to complete all the activities and/or there are some problem behaviors, we know that increasing tolerance to and eventual enjoyment of physical activity is a priority. Cognitive functioning is going to provide us with information about how best to provide information and teach new activities. The PAC Profile really serves as a "flow chart" for the whole process of fitness programming for the autism population, from beginning to the course of an active, healthy lifetime.

6. Are there basic movements and skills that you want your kids to develop and master?

Yes. All of my athletes squat, push, pull, locomote (get from one place to another), and rotate. My philosophy is that by developing strength, stability, and fluidity of movement, there is a foundation for more advanced activity, including creative/free play and building social skills through fitness activities.

7. Have you found different types of regressions/progressions that work best with your kids? If so, can you give an example?

Absolutely. My go-to for teaching squatting is having the athlete sit to a Dynamax medicine ball and stand back up. It gives them a good amount of feedback and a visual cue as well. I use both visual and physical prompting, by demonstrating the movement and/or physically guiding the athlete through the activity, respectively. All of my Physical ability stuff in the PAC Profile is based on being able to progress or, almost always more crucial, regress activities.
With medicine ball throws, my athlete may not be able to perform a push throw from 5 feet away, so I'll regress it back to 2 feet, or 1 foot, or even just handing the ball back and forth depending on their baseline ability. That is why assessment is always important. You want to start from the point of successful completion for the activity/exercise.

8. Can you take us through a typical training session?
Usually we start out with a medicine ball or Sandbell catch. I've found that using catch is almost perfect for assessing how my athlete is feeling on a particular day. Even with a couple years together and a good repoire, there is still variation in mood from one session to the next, particularly with my teenage athletes.
From med ball throws we usually go to some focus activities. For my more advanced (physically) athletes we'll do squats, presses, and even overhead squats and Olympic lift variations with a variety of equipment including Sandbells, Body Bars, Sandbags, and heavier medicine balls. Sometimes I'll even use a kettlebell if it makes sense.
I like to finish up with different circuits or movement “medleys” that include rope swings, bear walks, frog hops, overhead walks with weighted objects, or carries. Not only do they promote strength endurance and good carry-over/generalization to real-life tasks, but they require the athlete to attend, remember, and complete a lengthier series of movement, so it works on Adaptive skills as well.
Depending on the athlete and his/her level of Adaptive ability, there may be a lengthy break (access to preferred activity) between structured exercise or a typically appropriate rest period (2-3 minutes). Particularly for my younger athletes, I try to mimic the durations you would observe in a “play period,” maybe 1-5 minutes of focused activity with 4-6 minutes in-between for relaxing or contemplating the next adventure.

9.  How important is the atmosphere you create and the support structure in your gym for success?
Absolutely critical. The mistakes I see most are when instructors provide too much or vague information, expect the athlete to complete an exercise they are not yet physically capable of performing, and not providing reinforcement (praise or access to a preferred activity) following successful completion of a target. You have to ensure that the environment is set up, from beginning to end, to support the athlete. This includes activity selection (appropriate progressions), positive behavior support (reinforcement and the right ratio of structured activity to preferred activity), and approach to teaching/coaching (length of directions, types of prompting/cuing, appropriate language) 

10. What is the biggest challenge of your job?

Several. Convincing people that exercise is important for the ASD population and teaching them that team sports are not the answer. It used to be much worse in terms of people (parents, educators) “getting it.” Now, unfortunately, there's an entire generation of young people with autism who are more at risk than their neurotypical peers for lifestyle-related medical issues. Even when parents are concerned about weight gain (which is nearly always due to either one or a combination of poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, and certain medications), they may not realize how important daily physical activity is and how much it can benefit other areas of life.
The latest challenge is convincing fitness professionals that this is a viable population to train. About a year ago I started offering a distance mentoring program mostly aimed at fitness professionals who wanted to start working, or were already working with the ASD population and wanted to build more of their business around it. Whether you focus on it or not, if you work with youth populations, it is highly likely that you will have a kid on the spectrum in your program.

11. Overall what is your fitness/training philosophy for Autism Fitness?
Love this question. The only two guarantees I provide for my clients is that my athletes will start moving better and, eventually, will find some aspect of exercise/movement reinforcing. Build foundational skills first in all three areas of functioning (Physical, Adaptive, and Cognitive), and build on those.
I consider myself a bridge between the autism (those with ASD, parents, educators, and professionals) and the fitness communities. The mission of Autism Fitness is to bring them together more often and with the best possible methods.

12.  Are there any resources out there that you'd recommend for more info on fitness and training for youth with, not only, Autism but other disabilities?

The reason I started Autism Fitness was because I really couldn't find anything else that either promoted or provided methods and information regarding fitness and special needs. Through, my blog,, and my E-books, seminars, and distance mentoring, I'm trying to change that.

Well there you have it!  We'd like to thank Eric again for this interview, and what great information he gave us today.  Do us a favor and check out Eric's website that are linked about, and go one farther, and link this interview to anyone you know who works with kids with disabilities.  This is such valuable information, and the more hands it is in, the better!  So that is your challenge on this wonderful Monday!  Spread the word, and as always Go Get 'Em!

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