A trip to the gym may not seem like a big deal for most people. But for people with disabilities, like autism, it can be extremely difficult — especially when there aren’t trainers available who know and understand how to help. California personal trainer Chad Hooker, though, is working to change that with a new gym that can make a big difference.
It all started when someone asked Hooker if he’d be willing to work with the son of a friend, who is autistic. Hooker, who had been a personal trainer for five years, had never worked with anyone on the autism spectrum, but agreed to try anwyay. It went so well, that Hooker was inspired to create Puzzle Piece Athletics, where trainers like Hooker work with children and young adults with autism and other disabilities through personalized exercise programs.
Now, five years later, Hooker works with around 50 clients, and is hoping to expand his program to more locations around the country. And he believes that anyone, no matter their abilities or special needs, can accomplish a goal. “With positive motivation, connection and a little bit of love, you can get them to do anything,” Hooker told WTHR. “They are very, very capable.” And word of what he’s doing even reaches people all over the world. “I’ve been hit up from Abu Dhabi. I’ve been hit up from Australia, the Netherlands,” he said. “It’s not just the United States that needs a program like this.”
For autistic people, many gyms can be too overwhelming. The bright lights and colors everywhere, loud music, and large exercise classes can be intimidating. Autism-friendly gyms, for example, will focus on things like small classes, no bright lights or colors, and even mufflers underneath the floors to keep things quiet and calm. These kinds of gyms — as well as programs like Hooker’s — are very much needed, as autistic people are at higher risk of obesity, and can struggle with things like coordination and motor skills. These needs often go ignored, but this is thankfully changing. Neurodiversity is becoming more understood, and with it, people of all needs and abilities are finding places where they belong, and are wanted and accepted.
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