Family Opens Gym for People on the Autism Spectrum

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When Adam and Dedra Leapley’s son was about 15, an active lifestyle was difficult to maintain.

Like with many others on the autism spectrum, places like gyms and organized sporting events could often be overstimulating and uncomfortable. The Leapleys tried to hire a personal trainer but struggled to find a perfect match — until they met a trainer whose sister was also on the spectrum. Their son, now able to connect with someone who better understood him, began to find joy in fitness, and his healthier lifestyle seemed to help in all areas of his life.

“It was like a transformation,” Adam Leapley recalls. “It was eye-opening for me.”

Thrilled with the positive impact of exercise, the Leapleys asked themselves, Why isn’t there a fitness center for people with autism spectrum disorder? 

Their answer was to open their own. In June 2014, ASD Fitness Center, a 5,000-square foot facility, opened in Orange, Connecticut.

ASD fitness center logo
Photo courtesy of ASD Fitness Center
Organizers cut ribbon on opening day of ASD Fitness Center
Photo courtesy of ASD Fitness Center

The ASD Fitness Center offers small group classes and one-on-one sessions for people ages 5 and up on the spectrum, and their families. Most members are between the ages 10 to 17, but adults on the spectrum also attend. Its eight trainers all have backgrounds in working with people on the spectrum, which Leapley says is key to their success. They provide personalized individual fitness programs (IFP) with options to add nutrition and life skill goals (like riding a bike). Group classes include adaptive yoga, hip-hop, karate and circuit cardio. The gym itself has sectioned workout stations to provide privacy. Its walls are beige, there’s no bright lighting, music, and mufflers under the floor help tone down echoing sounds. They also passed on the typical “speckled” gym floors (usually chosen to hide dirt) and just clean more regularly.

“We try to keep it as calm and comfortable as possible,” Leapley told The Mighty.

lower body station at ASD Fitness Center
Lower body station at ASD Fitness Center
student takes adaptive karate
Young gym member taking adaptive karate at ASD Fitness Center

Right now, 84 families are members; Leapley anticipates that number capping at about 110-120, based on available resources and space. Some members travel up to an hour to work out. Leapley’s son, now 20, works at the gym; and they hope to hire more people on the spectrum.

To make all this possible, Leapley, who’s also an investment manager, gets help from an advisory board that includes pediatricians, professors, therapists, special educators, fitness CEOs and more. He credits Dr. Fred Volkmar, of the Child Study Center at Yale University School of Medicine, for taking interest when the fitness center was merely an idea.

A few gyms around the country exist for toddlers and young children on the spectrum; others offer programs, sessions or special events for older children and teens with autism, but as far as Leapley knows, the ASD Fitness Center is the first of its kind in the U.S.

He says the next step is getting into schools and training educators in adaptive physical education (PE). Though schools are required by law to accommodate students with special needs, unfortunately, Leapley says these efforts often aren’t executed well. Trainers from his gym are working to help educators understand how to motivate students on the spectrum in comfortable, appropriate ways so these students can be included and get daily exercise at school.

“Our goal is to reach out to as many people as possible,” Leapely told The Mighty.

For more information, visit the ASD Fitness Center’s website and Facebook page.

h/t Hartford Courant

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Book Follows Autistic 6-Year-Old's Journey in International Art World

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Iris Grace made headlines at the age of 3 when the Internet took note of her incredible paintings. She caught our attention again in 2014 when photos and videos of her therapy cat Thula went viral. Now, at 6 years old, Iris is in the news yet again, thanks to a famous client purchasing one of her original paintings.

Iris, who has autism, has sold nearly two dozen pieces to private art collectors across the world over the last two years, her mother, Arabella Carter-Johnson, told The Mighty. Angelina Jolie recently bought one, according to Iris’ website, and Carter-Johnson just published a book chronicling the balance between her daughter’s journey on the international art scene and life at home.

Carter-Johnson told The Mighty she wanted to show others what it is like to parent a child with autism, but also to show that “there can be a future … a bright one.” The book, simple titled “Iris Grace,” features images of Iris’ paintings, images of her in action and diary entries from Carter-Johnson.

Iris Grace Carter-Johnson painting

Original Art by Iris Graceon
“Dancing in Snowflakes” by Iris Grace

Carter-Johnson explained that her daughter knows about the reach her artwork has, but the family tries not to make too much of a fuss about it. “Iris knows people have bought some of her pieces for their homes so they can enjoy them every day, but we do protect her from the media,” Carter-Johnson told The Mighty. “There are a great many paintings that we would never sell, as they mean so much to her.”

Carter Johnson says she’s seen Iris’ confidence soar over the last few years, and she also credits her daughter’s progress to the introduction of her therapy cat, who was introduced to the family two years ago.

Iris Grace Carter-Johnson painting

Under The Sea by Iris Grace
“Under The Sea” by Iris Grace

Though she has sold original paintings to art collectors in South America, Asia, Europe and the United States, Iris hasn’t had an official exhibition, and her mom isn’t pushing it. For now, Iris’ parents want her to continue using painting as a way to share her voice with the world. “If we stretch ourselves too far, we will lose what we have worked so hard on, which is following Iris’s lead,” Carter-Johnson told The Mighty. “That’s what this was always and will always be about. That’s what the paintings mean, they are a way for Iris to express herself and for us to connect.”

Iris Grace Carter-Johnson

Trumpet by Iris Grace
“Trumpet” by Iris Grace

“She is happy when she paints, sometimes elated, excited, then at other times it calms her,” Carter-Johnson told The Mighty. “For me, I hope this book spreads a message of hope and how different is brilliant.”

“Iris Grace” was published in hardcover by Penguin Books on Feb. 25.

Thula Mtwana by Iris Grace Carter-Johnson

Iris Grace Carter-Johnson painting

Thula, Iris Grace Carter-Johnson's therapy cat

Iris Grace Book Cover

Dance to the Oboe by Iris Grace
“Dance to the Oboe” by Iris Grace

For more information about Iris Grace and her art, visit her website, Facebook page and you can order her book on Book Depository.  

All images courtesy of Arabella Carter-Johnson.

h/t Bored Panda

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Students Take Action After Learning About Lack of Resources for Peers With Autism

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When students at East Hartford High School in Connecticut were given an assignment to create a project to better a community for their Human Rights and Law class, they chose to raise money to purchase new iPads for their peers with autism.

The teens recently learned iPads can assist nonverbal students in developing language and life skills, but they were shocked to learn their school offered just two iPads for 19 students with autism to use.

Every human deserves an education,” student Alina Figueroa told the Hartford Courant. “I was so surprised when I learned they didn’t have enough iPads.”

East Hartford High special education teacher Julie Rowland explained how helpful the devices can be. “[An iPad] promotes language, it promotes behavior, it really helps them with those life skills,” she told the paper. “You can enlarge things for the kids who don’t have an easy time seeing, you can change subjects quickly without having to print things out or plan too much. The possibilities are endless because it’s portable.”

On the project’s Go Fund Me page, the class wrote, “[We] want to make positive change for people in our community.”

So far the class has raised $655 of its $1,500 goal.

Students felt the project connected real world issues, like access to education, to their community in East Hartford and allowed them to do something impactful in their own hallways.

Posted by Hartford Courant on Monday, February 29, 2016

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To the Person in a Relationship With Someone on the Autism Spectrum

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It’s not that you did anything wrong. It’s not that we’re in a mindless routine in our relationship. It’s not that we haven’t talked much or spent real time together. It’s not that I’m miffed by miscommunication. I’m not falling out of love with you.

It’s my overtaxed and overstimulated nervous system. It’s that the intoxicating newness quietly died away over time. It’s that I am in a shut-down mode and can’t connect myself to reality. It’s that I could use destress downtime and want to fully utilize it. I am having a hard time comprehending and expressing emotions and feelings again.

Emotions are a foreign concept. They’re one of the most confusing, and scary, concepts for me to fathom. That’s not to say I don’t have natural reactions and sensations in my body; I very well do. More so I do not innately understand them. Like autism and anything else in the world, there is a wide extending continuum on which emotions range. The depths, obscurities and forms vary between people, situations and moments. All that makes sense. But emotions are arbitrary and abstract – that’s the baffling part.

If anything I learned emotions contextually. I cannot pinpoint or break down what exact emotion a sensation is in my body sometimes, to say, “yes, that is what this particular sensation is and this is why I’m feeling it.” Frequently the depth is so great that it’s exhausting and terrifying. To let myself truly, fully feel something I don’t understand sometimes seems as though it’s going to break me. Throw in the myriad of everyday occurrences, my and other’s reactions, and various physical and external stimuli, it becomes too much. My autism production line to filter, process and absorb can easily get overworked.

It’s affected all kinds of relationships throughout my life. Emotions have held me back and deprived me, but it has also given me continual opportunities and experiences to learn more, to practice. It has given me both unnerving frustration and deep fulfillment. Most relationships are fairly steady, smooth, and the interaction frequency can be adjusted to some degree. The biggest testing is romantically.

Beginning romance is easily understood. There’s clearer distinction of what you’re feeling, freshness of attention, minimal pressure and a general acceptance of shyness and imperfection. As that wanes and disappears I resort to my default. The infatuation stage loses its hold of being the height of my attention span. I become more “me.”

“Easy” emotions dissolve into ambiguous ones. They don’t have as clear of meaning. I don’t know how to act. Avoidance starts, physical contact gets to be too much. My overall disconnect rises because I’m reaching interpersonal space and stimuli thresholds easily again. For the longest time I didn’t recognize how that affected my interactions with partners. It’s easy to see why most of them never lasted more than a few months. It was hard to give and be in the relationship when there’s equally important things that needed my time, energy, and focus, in school, work and family.

My relationship now is the longest I’ve ever had. And it’s hard, love. It is for anyone. The difference this time around is I decided to stick through those struggles and the foreignness. To share myself wholly with you in all ways. To bare my skin and let all of me, disabilities included, be unreservedly shown. To learn, experience and grow with you. That even though the majority of the time I have no idea what is going on internally and it’s immensely overwhelming, I still deeply feel and love you. I know sometimes you might not see or believe it. There are the moments where it’s tougher because I’m more rigid, or ornery because I don’t know what’s going on inside. I waver between expressing myself and not giving anything. But I do want to be with you. I want to explore the depths of what’s possible in all ways and slowly stretch my constraints, to know that I’m not going to break if I let myself understand and embrace my feelings, simply because they’re alien.

I may never fully understand emotions, mine included. But now I know that’s OK. It doesn’t limit or make my experiences any less. It doesn’t make who I am or my connections and interactions with you or others any less. I know I have and always had strong, immense natural energy that flows in my body and I might not be able to put a name or label to them, but I do feel.

So believe me when I say I love you. Sometimes it’s hard to.

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5 Things I Would Like to Hear About My Twin Brother With Autism

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her brother dan on a swing Every day, people ask me what it’s like to have a twin brother on the autism spectrum. I understand many people are just curious, but sometimes the questions and comments can be a little too much to hear; I don’t always mind hearing them myself, but it bothers me when people make insensitive comments in front of my twin brother, as if he isn’t there. He is more than capable of paying attention to conversations and then thinking about them later.

Here are five questions or comments people have asked or made in the past:

1. What was said: “Wow, you’re twins? You must feel lucky you weren’t the one who ended up having autism.”

What I would rather hear: “That’s really fascinating that you are twins! You must teach each other a lot of things.”

People have actually made the first comment in front of him, as if he wouldn’t understand. I know this would be hurtful to hear. By instead saying we could learn a lot from each other, that would remind him he is important and has a lot to offer. After hearing this, I would obviously be bragging about how good he is at swimming and his iPad games, as well as his knowledge of movies, Disney and art. I would also make that person be aware of how silly and sweet my brother is.

2. What was said: “He doesn’t even look like he has autism.”

What I would rather hear: “He looks like a handsome and sweet guy with an awesome smile!”

This is better to hear because, first of all, what does having autism look like? If you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism. No child or adult is exactly alike. Hearing positive things, rather than a random stigma, about a family member is a terrific feeling.

3. What was said: “What is his specific savant skill? Kids with autism are all really good at at least one thing, right?”

What I would rather hear: “What types of things is he interested in? What does he enjoy doing?”

This is better to hear because not every person with autism has a savant-like skill, and that can be tricky, as a family member, to have to explain. By asking what his interests are, it shows you want to know more about him and understand autism is different for everyone on the spectrum.

4. What was said: “Do you think he will ever drive a car, have a girlfriend or be independent in any way?”

What I would rather hear: “I bet he will have a bright future, full of many independent tasks and good people.”

This is better to hear because no one knows what the future holds. Trying to guess what it will be like from today’s moments is not an accurate depiction of what it will be like, nor is it fair to Dan or anyone else. When I’m asked about it, I usually just respond with, “I really hope so.” It’s a nice feeling when others are hopeful along with me and they feel confidence that he will do well.

5. What was said: “Does he melt down a lot?”

What I would rather hear: “When he is upset, in what ways does he personally try and cope with that feeling? What can we do to help?”

This is better to hear because even those of us who do not have autism have our own individual ways of coping with anger, sadness or frustration. My brother would probably feel embarrassed if I went into details about his meltdowns and stimulatory behaviors to people who don’t really know him well enough to have seen them for themselves. This question also shows the person is trying to understand how an individual with autism may react to certain situations or try to make himself or herself comfortable. This concern can be discussed in a way that will educate the curious person on what makes an individual with autism feel more comfortable in a situation where they are feeling sensory overload, without completely belittling the person.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us one thing your loved ones might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness. What would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.
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If I Could Take It Away...

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If I could take it away…

If I could take it away, maybe your life would be easier.

If I could take it away, maybe you wouldn’t have to struggle so much.

If I could take it away, maybe you could be able to talk.

If I could take it away, maybe you could say, “I love you, mama.”

If I could take it away, maybe you wouldn’t be so frustrated.

If I could take it away, maybe you would make friends easier.

If I could take it away, maybe you would sleep more than a couple of hours a night.

If I could take it away, maybe you wouldn’t have your sensory issues.

If I could take it away, maybe you wouldn’t get so overwhelmed by your surroundings.

If I could take it away, maybe you wouldn’t have food issues.

If I could take it away, you wouldn’t be you.

If I could take it away, I wouldn’t.

If I could take it away, I really wouldn’t because I love you for who you are. Autism is a part of you, a part of your personality, a part of your character, and I’d never change you.

Baby boy, you are perfect.

Boy in striped blue and white hoodie standing outdoors

Follow this journey on Gym Bunny Mummy.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness, and what would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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