Starting Strength and autism Starting Strength and autism

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Thread: Starting Strength and autism

  1. #1
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    Default Starting Strength and autism

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    Hi all,

    I have a new client who is the mother of a 14 year old boy with autism. She wants him to get big and strong, great.

    I have plenty of experience in coaching strength, more or less founded on the SS method from a movement pattern and programming and really general philosophy of strength perspective, and I have some experience in cross training strength for teenage male basketball players, but I have no experience in dealing with people with autism.

    During the meeting with the two of them I was very tempted to just wash my hands of the whole situation, but they were referred to me by another coach who wouldn't touch them, and I know that the boy will struggle to find a coach if I don't take him on, and I really believe he will benefit from strength training, so I intend to just do the best I can. I took him aside for ten minutes and started coaching the squat with him, just to see if he can take coaching. It wasn't a long time and it was a little bit squirrely, but basically I got the feeling he can take instruction.

    I've started doing some online research into general practice regarding dealing with/tutoring autistic children, but really if anybody has any experience specifically coaching autistic people in barbell training, and has any tips, I would be grateful to hear them.

    Thanks, hope you're all keeping well and staying strong during the end times.

    Jake

    JN Fitness Luxembourg.

  2. #2
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    Since autism does not change his anatomy or muscular physiology, just coach the boy like you would anybody else. Both of you will learn something.

  3. #3
    Brodie Butland is offline Starting Strength Coach
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    Read this:
    Expanded Use of Tactile Cues | Nicholas Racculia

    To be clear, your particular trainee is likely very different from some of Dr. Racculia's trainees. However, Dr. Racculia's article resonated with me very strongly given my experience with my own developmentally disabled, autistic aunt (RIP and much love), in that tactile communication could often be more effective and/or less frustrating for her in everyday communication than verbal communication. I suspect you'll also find that expanded use of creative tactile cues will prove more effective in this particular instance, though it'll probably take you a bit of trial and error to figure out what works best. But then again, that's one of the most rewarding parts of coaching...and I'm candidly a bit jealous of your opportunity here to markedly change a life that others may have written off as a lost cause.

  4. #4
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mark Rippetoe View Post
    Since autism does not change his anatomy or muscular physiology, just coach the boy like you would anybody else. Both of you will learn something.
    Thank you for responding sir, I was thinking more in terms of experience in dealing with the general behavioral aspects of gym-based coaching a person with autism. Ways to think about the gym environment, the structure of the session, communication, things like that. I'm really in the dark, although you're absolutely right both in that I am intending to coach him mechanically exactly as I would anyone else of his age and current ability, and also that I'll be learning.

    I have done some more research since my post and I have some ideas about visual aids. From the time I already spent with him I can see that at a minimum I'm going to have to learn to describe a hell of a lot less, and demonstrate a lot more, he seemed to respond well to 'look, copy' a lot better than 'listen, do', even with aspects of the squat that in the past I've found people respond well to verbal cues with. He's definitely a visual learner.

    If anybody is interested I will use this thread to post any information that comes up that I think might be useful for others strength coaching people with autism.

    I hope you're staying COVID free, Mr. Rippetoe, it's a real crisis out there.

  5. #5
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jake Norman View Post
    Thank you for responding sir, I was thinking more in terms of experience in dealing with the general behavioral aspects of gym-based coaching a person with autism. Ways to think about the gym environment, the structure of the session, communication, things like that. I'm really in the dark, although you're absolutely right both in that I am intending to coach him mechanically exactly as I would anyone else of his age and current ability, and also that I'll be learning.
    The best thing you can do for this kid's life is to treat him like a normal kid without autism. Expect the same things from him that you would from other kids his age. He needs to learn how to function in society, and I can't think of a better way to teach him than by handing him the best tool he can have for controlling the outcome of his efforts, along with exposing him to a normal social situation at the same time.

    I hope you're staying COVID free, Mr. Rippetoe, it's a real crisis out there.
    It's not a real crisis at all, Jake. Get your head out of your ass. COVID19 Factors We Should Consider/Current Events

  6. #6
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    I coach Special Olympians in powerlifting and the shotput specifically and have been a secondary support to coaches in other sports with these folks. Also, last year I found out after the fact that I had a high functioning autistic teen in my Jujitsu class. My take on the issues you face are several.

    First off, be glad you know you are dealing with a learning disability. I didn't find out that the teen in Jujitsu was on the autistic spectrum until a couple of months later. He was . . . challenging. Although he was intelligent and high functioning, it was not an easy task communicating the concepts of even easy techniques to him. His concept of language, body, and spatial relations were nothing I had dealt with before. And not good social skills. Enough so that I had considered getting him out of the class. When I found out his situation it flipped a light switch for me. I had let HIS issues become MY problem. So I dialed up my patience filters to the max and realized I had to teach (and I am not exaggerating here) him what bending his elbow actually meant. That was just ONE of the basic fundamentals I had to get on common ground with him about. He was coming along reasonably well before the Kung Flu stopped everything. He also had a low frustration tolerance and having to repeat a technique when he didn't get it right. Every subject is different, and there isn't a lot of information to go on with your teen, but be prepared for that kind of response.

    As for the Special Olympians I coach, they are in their 20's and while not as intelligent as the teen above, they are all high functioning enough to have jobs. Teaching and coaching lifting is much easier, it seems to me, because the movements are far less complex. Add to that, these men and women have been mainstreamed for some time and have better social skills. The tendency is to treat and think of them as adolescents given their communication skills and appearance, but I refuse to treat them as anything but the adults they are. They merit (I just have a case of the ass from an overuse and misapplication of the word "deserve") that level of respect. Even so, I have had to teach them fundamental anatomical terms so I can better communicate what I want them to do in performance of the lifts. Without establishing those basics, it would be pointlessly frustrating for both them and me to work together. Again, patience is key and communication is vital.

    I have had to make certain to carefully regulate their loading. Once we got to know each other they wanted to please me and earn praise for their efforts. Keep that in mind too. I know of an Olympian or two who has injured themselves trying to please their coach or parent when deadlifting. IMO, from being overtaxed too much and too soon.

    You may have already tapped this resource, but Special Olympics has a lot of coaching information for sports in general. Their lifting specific information is not stellar and does not deal with anything like I just related. Their other information covers the generalizations for this population reasonably well, but not in the depth I would like. But then this is after having learned just the little I know now after 18 months of work with them. I got certified as a Special Olympics powerlifting coach last year in a 3 1/2 hour course. It wasn't bad or rife with misinformation, just too short to be good IMO. Still, what they have is better than nothing.

    If you have other questions or want some clarification let me know.

  7. #7
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    In addition to the Nicholas Racculia article, here is another one about the same group at Iron City Athletic Club (as noted, it is with regard to cerebral palsy, not autism)--hopefully, useful:

    Iron City Athletic Club: A Model of a Barbell Gym

  8. #8
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    Hi Jake.
    As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I just wanted to confirm the good advice Rip and the others gave you and add that "autism" is really a very broad spectrum, "social awkwardness" probably being the lowest common denominator. You'll just have to get to know this boy, knowing "autism" won't make you know him - coach him like normal.
    And maybe sometime a clarifying dialogue (about special needs or behaviour on his end, not the training part) will be needed, maybe not.

  9. #9
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    I just wanted to thank everyone for their suggestions and advice, give a quick update, and possibly rant a little bit.

    Firstly thank you all. Brodie the tactile cues article was really helpful. I independently 'discovered' precisely the same "foot to foot" cue as is mentioned there. The article overall helped with just having the confidence to lean on tactile cues much more than I am used to as a coach. This process is showing me I rely heavily on detailed descriptive verbal cues, generally. That is completely ineffective with this trainee and I've already found that I'm talking a little less with my 'regular' clients, as I've been adapting to this trainee's needs. I'm just a verbose person by nature and I enjoy explaining they why as well as the how, but it's not always helpful and in this case would be actively counterproductive.

    The Iron City article was really eye opening. Firstly it put in perspective just how little I'm really doing here, compared to the coaches there. "It's a non-stop ninety minutes of form correction, tactile cues, and encouragement." This really resonated. I always 'psyche up' before I coach any client, because in my mind, they are paying for my time and attention and I'd be stealing from them if I wasn't 100% laser focused on them for the full time they're with me, but with this trainee in particular I'm finding that I really have to get my mind right. You know what makes it easy though, is he's just a great kid, and even though he struggles to communicate it sometimes, it's obvious that he's excited and engaged about his training. Where it says "we train lifters who happen to have special needs, not special needs people who happen to train," said Marie Kunkel. They are just like everyone else, and accommodations that need to be made will arise in the course of training, just as they do for all lifters" really hit home for me today, in particular, and I'll get onto why when I start ranting, probably. One thing I've found hard about that article though is the part about charity. I got a message a couple of days after I first met the boy and his mother, before his first session, saying she couldn't afford it and that would have been that, but I decided (it wasn't really a decision, I didn't feel like I could do anything else) to take him on gratis. I don't like the idea that I'm doing charity work, or that he's a charity case. I don't particularly like the general idea of not charging for my time, because I do believe in the value of what I do. This trainee often turns up in tattered clothes, and I think his mother might have some kind of difficulties herself because I'm giving her simple stuff to do while she's at the gym, to keep her occupied and get her burning calories (she's obese) but she seems to struggle with simple instructions, as well. Anyway, I don't think of him as a charity case, I suppose I'm telling myself that the learning value to me of coaching him is at least worth the time, but now, after reading that article, I have been forced to consider whether I'm reinforcing a sense of dependence. It's a partly cultural thing, as well, I suppose.

    I have emailed the national special olympics folks here to ask them if there are any local training resources I can access, a course would be really helpful, I think, but I'm still waiting to hear back.

    So, to update; things are going well! Two steps forward one step back, even more than with most young folks, in terms of learning the movement patterns, but there's definitely a trend in the right direction. There are some sticking points on the squat, in particular, and things like getting him to understand balancing the bar in his grip, for the bench press. I was thinking that I might just record the bulk of a full session and post relevant clips, or the full video, and link it here, but I'm not sure what the best way to do that would be. I don't do social media advertising, I usually only take video in sessions for use in that session or immediately after to analyse issues a client is having. But I would definitely welcome pointers and I can't think of a better way to get advice specific to my coaching style and this trainee. But, you know, he's getting the movements slowly but surely, and the weight is going up consistently, from an intentionally conservative start. I have taught him to load and strip the bars himself, he's learning where things go, which is great. I'm trying to teach him to understand about the weight going up, to count his weight, but that seems beyond his capabilities at present so I'm just kind of describing what I'm doing casually out loud as I hand him the plates 'so this is a 2.5, this is another 2.5, the bar is 20 so we're doing 25 today'. (If never miscounting weight was a hard prerequisite to lifting I'd be out of the game, I rarely get through my own training session without misloading the bar)

    As for the rant; I did have a frustrating moment today. As I mentioned, this trainee was referred to me by another coach at my gym, who I have it from the mother literally rolled his eyes and said 'no no no' when she told him about the boy's difficulties. He called me (mentioning only that there were some potential clients in the gym who spoke English and I should meet them, not saying anything about why he didn't want to coach the boy) and I came in specifically, met them, and we went from there. Anyway, this same coach, who basically fobbed them off on me, tapped me on the shoulder in the middle of coaching the boy's squat today, (I've coached him three days a week for two weeks now) and said 'you know, he should not squat'. I could see where this was going, and it got my back up right away. I said, pretty abruptly 'why not?' and he replied, looking anywhere but in my eye, 'well...he is not normal'. This is the guy who called me up to come into the gym and take these clients on because he didn't want them. The thing that really fucked me off about it, though, is my reaction. Obviously I tried to stay professional and just politely, if tersely, said 'he's doing fine, I'm going to crack on now' and tried to ignore him, but you know, it was in the back of my mind for the rest of my session. I started second guessing myself. Am I pushing the kid too hard by coaching him on the barbell? I have adult 'normal' clients who have taken longer to master the low bar squat so I really don't think so. But I felt this other coaches' eyes on me (instead of the client he was supposed to be coaching) for the rest of the session, and I think I let it come out in being a little bit less patient than I have made it my habit to be, with the kid. I didn't snap or yell or anything, of course, but I think my frustration was visible at times because we had to do a lot of retreading ground on the squat and I'm thinking about what the other coach said in the back of my mind. We were having a...hard to describe.....back hyperextension, rolling the butt back rather than driving the hips back, letting the thoracic vertebrae hyperextend...kind of issue, and it was really hard to nail down because the trainee kept alternating between that, and then getting way too horizontal with his back angle, and at one point I honestly ran out of ideas of how to demonstrate the difference I was looking for. I felt like a piece of shit, not having more patience. Anyway in the end I had him film me doing it, then filmed him doing it, and we watched the videos together and between that, and some stick figure doodles, and just repeatedly demoing the movement over and over, I actually got his best working set so far out of him. I don't know what the lesson in all of this is and I really am just ranting, but as far as I'm concerned this kid can squat just fine and he's progressing just fine.

    It was a bit of a challenge even getting to this point, the mother had issues with her membership that I had to pick up and deal with from the gym side, and back office folks were really unhelpful and just not at all mindful of the specific circumstances, I felt, and I have to chase her between sessions to make sure she shows up (she's tried to bail twice because she doesn't like her own workouts but the boy's doctor has said she has to be there if he's going to be in the gym). But it's worth it. It's really just like coaching anyone else; challenging but the payoff is huge, when you see progress, it's just the dial is turned up a bit.

    Apologies for the excessive rant. Nobody in this situation speaks English as a first language except for me and I just needed to get that off my chest somewhere!

    I'll keep this thread updated as the trainee progresses, and thanks again to all of you who gave advice and suggestions, it's been really helpful to me. If anyone can suggest the optimal way to get video from my phone to this thread I'd appreciate that.

  10. #10
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    starting strength coach development program
    You're doing a great job, Jake. Ignore the morons and continue to do the right thing.

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