Other People's Words

Autism Women’s Network interview with Eric Chessen, founder of Autism Fitness

Posted in Uncategorized by Tera on January 1, 2010

Here’s a transcript of Autism Women’s Network’s interview with Eric Chessen, founder of Autism Fitness.


Tricia Kenney: Hello, everyone, and welcome to AWN radio. It is Saturday, June 26, 2010. I’m Tricia Kenney, and today we’ll be talking with Eric Chessen, the founder and creator of Autism Fitness.

Before we get started, I would like to bring to everyone’s attention that there is a petition brought about by Laura Paxton, and it’s concerning the DSM-V and one of the identifying factors of autism. It’s something that pertains to girls and is pretty common in girls with ASDs. I will be posting the link to go ahead and sign the petition if you are interested in doing so. That’ll be right up in the chat room, so be sure to join us next week. We will be having Dr. Shana Nichols on, and she is the author of Girls Growing Up on the Spectrum. She’s also the director of the ASPIRE Center for Learning and Development, so that should be a good show with lots girl talk.

Let’s go ahead and get started with Eric. Hi, Eric. How are you?

Eric Chessen: Hi,Tricia. Fantastic, actually. I can’t say enough good things about Dr. Shana Nichols. She and I have been working on a fantastic research project together that we can probably get into into later. She’s fantastic.

Tricia Kenney: Yeah, we’re really, really looking forward to it and all the insight and research that she’s done. First of all, tell us a little bit about Autism Fitness and how it got started.

Eric Chessen: Sure. It’s almost a decade [ago] now that I started my program that would become Autism Fitness. Starting from my personal history, I was an overweight kid and caught a lot of social grief for it in in middle school and high school. Definitely not the happiest times for me. And then I got really into fitness and nutrition later in high school and into college, and it was really a life metamorphosis for me and became a lifestyle. It’s something that I took with me both from a conceptual standpoint and from an emotional standpoint as well.

I became a personal trainer, a certified fitness trainer, and I’d always loved working with young populations. I’d worked in sports camps and summer camps, and along the way I had worked with a couple young people on the spectrum. I was fascinated by it. I loved working with the kids but never thought about it from a career standpoint. And then I was in a graduate program for a little while that I eventually wound up leaving to pursue Autism Fitness.

But I had a colleague who was working in a research program in New York City with teenagers on the autism spectrum, and she said: “I know you have a fitness background; I know you from this program. You have a little bit of information and training in behavior analysis. Would you be interested in developing some programs for our research project?” And I said: “All right. That’s something that I might consider doing.” So I began working in the program and developing fitness programs.

The amazing thing that occurred was the teenagers were really responding well. By “responding well,” I mean they were becoming more active. They were moving better. There was definitely some social interaction when we were doing it. They were beginning to enjoy movement, and it was crossing over into their daily life skills as well—giving them another leisure activity rather than sitting and watching television or doing something that was passive.

So here I am now, thinking: “Wow. This is an entirely new realm for me.” I’m trying to perform my due diligence: What else is out there? Who else is doing fitness for autism? All I found were a couple of fleeting articles saying: “Well, exercise is good for special needs populations.” And I said: “Well, that’s just great,” and I thought to myself: “This seems so important, and here I am working with only a handful of young individuals. If this stuff is so cool and so necessary as I know fitness to be, from my own experience and obviously from all the research and anecdotal evidence out there, and nobody is really providing this in a meaningful way for the population from what I could see, well, I guess that’s what I’m doing with the rest of my career.”

That started about a decade ago, and since then, I’ve written about this a lot lately in articles for various publications and websites. The first five years of my career was mostly convincing people that exercise was important for special needs populations and for the population in general. And now with so much media attention on what they are calling the “youth obesity epidemic” and also all the information on exercise and fitness being good for all populations, that’s a little less of my battle, which I’m very, very thankful for. It was frustrating and it’s also tiresome to get up in front of people and say: “Exercise is important.” Now it’s more of a question of: “How do we do it? How do you implement fitness programs and exercise programs for the autism population?” That’s the stuff that I love to do. From my experience and what I’ve noticed, there’s been a shift from “Why is this important?” to “Okay, we understand this is important. How do we do it?”

Tricia Kenney: Right. It’s a really big issue because society is pretty conflicted when it comes to this. Everybody’s saying: “Yes, we know we need this,” yet everybody’s cutting back funding for anything related to fitness in schools, especially in elementary school.

Eric Chessen: Absolutely. When you see funding cutbacks, the first things you see to go are the two creative outlets—art and movement. When you look at them, those are the two best expressive forms, not only for stress reduction but also having an energy outlet. Both in the mainstream and he special needs populations, unfortunately, we’re going to see a lot of problems from all three realms: physical, cognitive and emotional or self-regulatory when we take these things away.

The biggest problem is, we compartmentalize everything. Science is just science and math is just math and physical fitness is only for kids who play sports. If we broaden our definition of what an athlete is and say anybody who moves on a regular basis is an athlete, then why aren’t we providing good physical fitness curriculums for every population? If that is not satisfied, we are going to see a lot of problems in the next couple years and over the next few generations.

The thing about what I’m doing with Autism Fitness, I realize that it might be a case of hindsight also. People may discover some of the things I’ve written or some of the videos I’ve created or some of the work I’ve done 30 years from now and say: “Where was this stuff 30 years ago?” But I have a very hard time accepting that there’s a generation right now that is going to miss out on this, simply because people don’t have access to good fitness because the funding isn’t there. This does not have to be an expensive process. It just needs passion, it needs follow-though and it needs consistency.

Tricia Kenney: I agree. When you were doing your research and starting this up, did you find that there were any sort of core deficits that went across the board with autism?

Eric Chessen: Oh, sure. In fact, I wound up going back and getting a Master’s degree in exercise physiology several years ago and I did a complete literature review. Every single study that I found on autism and gross motor deficits, and by “gross motor” we mean the big movements—bending, pulling, pushing, raising things overhead, crawling, all the big type of activities that we can do with our bodies—there’s a deficit in the autism population. For a while, my detective work was: Is this physiological or is this cognitive? It’s usually a split, meaning: Do they not have the physical ability to perform the activity? Or do they not understand the direction?

A lot of what I see when there’s a problem teaching exercise is someone says: “Do an overhead throw with a ball,” and the child has no idea what “throw the ball” means. From a conceptual standpoint, they haven’t matched up, they haven’t made that contingency between someone saying: “Throw the ball” and the actual activity. That’s where it becomes an issue of: Is it more cognitive or is it more physiological? I think in most cases it’s a combination of the two, but there are definitely, definitely physical deficits in the autism population, and this is across the board. This is in low-functioning individuals with a co-morbid diagnosis of mental retardation, up to some of the Asperger’s athletes and some of my ADHD athletes as well. There are all these gross motor deficits.

I don’t keep anything I do a secret. It’s not as though I have a secret plan of exercises. It’s the way they’re implemented, because most of the work that I do with my athletes is remedial. We have to bring up a lot of these deficits in order to get on to some really higher-order stuff. So the more people are doing this stuff, the more classroom teachers are implementing it on a daily basis, the more we’re having in-home fitness programs, the better it is for people who want to incorporate fitness programs for the autism population from a professional standpoint.

Tricia Kenney: And we as parents and as autistic adults will tell you we understand the need for physical movement and how that really helps us work through a lot of stuff. When the kids are not getting this in school, it makes learning more difficult. It makes just maintaining themselves throughout the school day much more difficult. I don’t know how many parents have gone into schools and said: “You need to incorporate more physical stuff with my kid. The whole day will be so much easier for everyone if my child can move more and have that incorporated into their day often. It really helps that cognitive stuff sink in.” It’s frustrating, because everybody’s like: “Oh, we can’t waste our whole day doing that.

Eric Chessen: Right, exactly. And it’s not a question of wasting a whole day. Again, it comes back to what I mentioned in the beginning. We recognize it’s important, but how do we do it? What works about my programs is I have the backgrounds both in autism and in behavior therapy as well as fitness, and here’s what I come across most: You have people who are or have been involved with the special needs population and they want to incorporate exercise, but they don’t necessarily have the technical tools or a full understanding of what exercise actually is or what an appropriate program would look like. On the other side, I’ve met a lot of people in the fitness industry—whether they are coaches or PE professionals—who understand movement and who understand fitness and exercise, but they don’t necessarily have a lot of experience with the cognitive and behavioral issues inherent to autism.

I always say my role is kind of as a bridge between those two realms, because I have the backgrounds in both fields. I can create programs that are appropriate. We don’t have to do exercise for an hour straight through every day for it to be effective. One of my favorite things to do with classroom teachers is say: “Look, have your kids get up every half hour or every 40 minutes.” We have enough research showing that the absolute best of us—and I fit nowhere near that 98 percentile—can only concentrate for about 35-40 minutes.

If we have kids get up, which they are naturally supposed to do, and move around for five minutes and then get back into their desks, number one, we see a huge reduction in stereotypy, in maladaptive behaviors. Number two, they’re concentrating better, and number three, they are also engaging in those movement patterns that are so very important. We don’t necessarily develop the foundational movement patterns. We lose them. If you ever watch young children, toddlers, playing, they can squat perfectly, they’re crawling perfectly, they’re climbing. It’s just over time and with misuse or non-use that we lose these abilities that inherently make us human. If we don’t have them or if there’s a deficit, we have to really work at reprogramming them.

I’m using some technical terms, but this is really all play. This is all fun. This is throwing around balls and jumping and skipping and crawling. This is all fun stuff. If it’s not fun, which is the case for a lot of my athletes on the autism spectrum—a lot of times, exercise and movement are not fun to start out with, which is why over time we pair it with reinforcement. We use a lot of praise. We pair it with other things that they like, whether it be music or favorite books. We make it work for that individual or for that group. For me, who believes and understands exercise at such a very minute and such a special level because of my personal experience and because of where my career’s taken me, there are some kids I’m just amazed at the turnaround within a couple weeks or a couple months, or even over several years. All the sudden this becomes part of their lifestyle. So it can work for every individual. We just have to make it adaptive. That’s really what adaptive fitness is and should be.

Tricia Kenney: I was gonna ask if you ever try to incorporate interpretive dance or something.

Eric Chessen: Oh, sure. The goals are always very similar. We’re looking at a couple different movement patterns that we wanna get. How we incorporate it, that’s the creative side. So when we talk about art and movement, there are amazing similarities between the two. Once we understand exercise and we have a little education on movement, there’s so many different ways to get to the same goal.

We just have to pick, for example, bending knees. There are five or six different exercises or activities we can use to facilitate that bending the knees, that squatting position that is so important for developing trunk strength and leg strength and stability. These are really important aspects of physical performance and daily life.

There are so many different ways to do it. It doesn’t have to be just one way. We can pick and choose, as long as it’s appropriate for that individual. If we want to throw in some dance stuff? Yeah, absolutely. I have plenty of people who say: “Can we do yoga?” or some different other activity. We have to be careful about labeling. What’s the goal? If I want them to be able to jump and then to throw a ball and then to be active, ultimately we wanna build what look like play skills.

When I say “play,” I don’t mean just young populations. We should all be playing. Fitness should be play. There’s a lot of intertwining. It doesn’t mean it’s not necessarily challenging, but we’ve erased the term “play” and now “play” is just for young kids and serves no purpose. It serves a huge purpose cognitively and emotionally. The more we can develop fitness programs and movement programs that work for each individual, the more they will be apt to engage in these activities on a regular basis and the more they will become part of that lifestyle—especially in the home.

Tricia Kenney: The benefits working in those areas, it’s not just that they’ll be stronger or in shape. It effects handwriting; it effects your gait, how you walk. I know that’s a big issue in the autism population. A lot of us maybe walk a little bit differently. Is this something that can be corrected or worked on later on in life?

Eric Chessen: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. It’s interesting, too, because I’m certainly not just working with young populations. My oldest athletes right now are in their twenties. Some of my favorite groups to work with are adolescents and teens from about 13 through 17. A lot of these kids or young adults missed the big movement into early intervention. I think these are some of the kids who need to move the most. A lot of the time we see maladaptive behaviors and we see less functional verbal communication, and so forth.

And also with teenagers, you have hormones going wild. You need to compensate for that by giving them functional activities and something just to blow off steam. You always have to look at the individual first. I have a certain degree of respect for my athletes, where I look at: “Okay. What’s their personality like first? What’s their age? Is this an age-appropriate thing or is this a personality thing? Is this a diagnosis thing?” A lot of times, the determining factor is age. A 17 year old slamming the door in their parents’ face is not necessarily a symptom of autism. It’s a symptom of being 17 years old. So a lot of these things, we have to account for.

But going back to directly answering your questions in terms of increasing the function of the gait pattern: Oh, we can certainly correct these things through movement and activity. And when it’s on a regular basis and when it’s consistent and when we’re generalizing a lot of different activities that facilitate the same goal. So, for example, if we’re doing a lunging movement and then a squatting movement and then a short jumping, we’re getting all that hip flexibility and we’re generalizing it across a wide variety of different activities, that’s certainly going to have some beneficial impact on that gait pattern. That’s really important.

And that’s the fun way of correcting it. In that very clinical situation, where you’re just having them literally and figuratively going through the motions, it’s passive. But if we’re doing it in this active, engaged way, number one, we’re also turning on the central nervous system a lot more. Number two, they become much more aware and cognizant of their own movement. Kinesthetic awareness is a huge issue with kids on the spectrum: “Where is my body in relation to space? Where are you? Where am I? How do I move around?” That’s where we see a lot of this clumsiness and instability. It’s that awareness. We can focus on all this through fitness and play. It can be fun, but it can still be effective.

Tricia Kenney: It is so frustrating when your child is just trying to move through their day and they’re tripping or bumping into stuff, and they get so frustrated with themselves. You just feel bad for them, and you’re like: “I’m sorry.” And they’re like: “Why do I do that?” It’s like: “I wish I had an answer for you. I’m sorry.” You just feel so bad for them. Even as an adult, just clumsiness issues for myself, it’s like: “Why do I always get caught on stuff? Why do I always reach for a cup to drink and I end up spilling it in the bed?” Things like that just stay with you forever.

Eric Chessen: Oh, sure. And the travesty of that is the mainstream idea, what we’re being sold on as far as fitness, where people drive to a gym so that they can walk on a treadmill. Fitness is our ability to negotiate through the day successfully. If it’s a kinesthetic awareness issue, why is that not part of our fitness program? That’s the other side, the fitness industry as a marketing engine. I won’t say “as a whole,” because I know some amazing, amazing trainers and minds in the fitness industry who are just doing extraordinary things with different populations with elite athletes down to toddlers, just doing amazing work.

But I think the general society view of fitness is very, very warped. And that’s because, obviously, magazines and television are trying to sell an image. In most of my workshops I start out by saying: “You are being lied to and there is mythology going on on a constant basis. That’s why people get so frustrated and get so overwhelmed when they wanna start a fitness program, because they think you can either do one of three things: You can walk on a treadmill or you can run for miles and miles on concrete or you can go on a machine and push a bunch of weights.”

I’ll tell you right now that those are probably three of the most ineffective ways to create real fitness. For people who don’t have the time, necessarily, to search for alternate ways to become fit and different modalities, it can be very frustrating. Ironically enough, most of the research that has been done on young people on the spectrum with fitness has been: “Well, we got these 15 year olds to walk on a treadmill for half an hour.” Here I am, thinking: “Great. What if they have gait pattern abnormalities? What if they have poor gait pattern? How is that helping them?” We’re only continuing to exacerbate or to cause more problems that they already have. That’s why we need this overhaul in terms of what we perceive or what we know as physical culture and physical fitness. It’s a lot more fun; it’s a lot more dynamic; there’s a lot more creativity to it than what we see on a regular basis, or what’s being sold to us on a regular basis.

Tricia Kenney: As a parent, what you’re really told a lot is: “Well, your kid needs to sign up for Little League or soccer or basketball.” I know parents who have their kids in at least three different sports all year long. It’s just like: Oh, my God, that’s exhausting.

Eric Chessen: The conversation that I have the most in interviews or when I’m writing or during my workshops….What I have to demystify the most is: Sports do not equal fitness. People look at sports as the top of the pyramid. That’s the ultimate in physical fitness. What sports are, actually, is a branch on a tree. The roots and trunk of that tree are general movement and fitness. The easiest way to injure a child is to have them do one activity or one sport over and over and over. It’s the same movement patterns.

As we’ve seen with professional athletes, just because you’re good at baseball does not make you good at football. Just because you’re good at football does not make you good at tennis. They are very specific activities, and they’re not for every kid.

Plus, if we’re looking from a long-term developmental standpoint, how many people really stick with [sports they played as kids?] I had a group of about 150 people in Pennsylvania months and months ago. I was doing one of my autism fitness initiative seminars there, and I said: “How many played sports in high school?” I would say about a quarter of the room raised their hand. I said: “How many of you played them in college?” We’re down to about 10 people. “How many of you continue to play those same sports today?” I think I had two hands that went up, which is actually two more than I usually get.

The point is, sports are not bad. It’s just that we’re looking at an activity that is, number one, very, very specific and doesn’t really generalize to daily life skills. People say: “Well, they play baseball. How come they have balance problems?” Because if you look at a baseball game, you’re standing and then you get up at bat once or twice, you take a couple swings, and then you’re standing again. And then you’re sitting in the dugout.

That’s fine. Again, I have nothing against sports. But, number one, team sports are very difficult for a number of kids on the spectrum. Number two, everybody who’s listening right now, if you take nothing else away from this conversation, sports are not the be all-end all of physical fitness. If your child does not play sports, it’s not a big deal. Now, people marketing the sports programs will tell you it’s a big deal and that they can instill confidence and self-esteem and socialization. Yes, if the child already wants to play that sport and becomes adept at it. But it’s not going to enhance all those other general motor skills. Again, it’s not against sports. It’s the reality of sports versus general fitness.

I can show you lists and lists and lists of professional athletes, very high level of elite Olympic and professional athletes, who get hurt a lot. They either have overuse injuries from doing the same movements over and over, or because they have a lot of imbalances. Just because you’re an elite level athlete doesn’t mean that you don’t have these imbalances also. So it’s not necessarily an issue of: “If we don’t play sports, then all is lost.” We need to move; we need to play.

Tricia Kenney: That seems to be the options a lot of people weigh in their head. They’re like: “Well, my kid is into computers and video games. They don’t like sports.” So there is no fitness, and they’re just sitting there gaining weight and being unhealthy and not working on any of the things that trouble them. There is an option other than having to like sports.

Eric Chessen: Sure, sure. Absolutely. It’s funny: people ask me, “What do you like? Are you a baseball fan? Football fan?” Honestly, I couldn’t care less. I’m too busy being active, and when I’m not being active, I’m always looking for new things to do and reading up on different exercise stuff. If your child does not like sports or shows no interest, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s something that is being marketed very heavily, but what we really need is a lot more programs that focus on play, and a lot more programs that focus on general fitness.

If we wanna do a program that incorporates swimming and yoga and all these other more specialized or specifically labeled activities, fine. I have nothing against it. But we have to satisfy those prerequisites and that foundation first. You wouldn’t take a group of first-graders and say: “Okay, kids! We’re doing astrophysics today.” That would be ridiculous. But yet we put young kids into the situation of: “Well, if you put them in a football uniform, they must be football players.”

At the same time, if you give them a calculator and a set of pencils, they can go ahead and come up with some chemical equations? It’s very strange. We don’t do it academically, but we do it with physical movement. There’s this assumption that kids naturally move well. But like anything else, we have to continue teaching and developing those physical skills.

That’s the problem: when we go straight to sports, we miss a whole bunch. We miss our arithmetic, our subtraction, our division, our multiplication. Those are the foundations of mathematics. It’s the same thing with bending and pushing and pulling and crawling and hopping—all of these play skills, and can be done at a very simple level or a very challenging level.

My friends and I, every Saturday we go out and we exercise in a field or we find a parking lot and we carry around a lot of weight. We were picking up 200-pound medicine balls before and carrying them around. This is what we do; it’s play at a very challenging and extreme level, but we would never be able to do that if we hadn’t satisfied the prerequisites and done simpler things five years ago.

Tricia Kenney: Right. Build that foundation first, with everything in life.

Eric Chessen: Exactly. Everybody is on the same human continuum. It’s just a question of where we are on that continuum. When we talk about movement, I’m working on the same movement patterns with myself that I’m working on with my athletes on the autism spectrum. It’s just a question of how we need to progress or regress the activities so we can be successful at them. That’s what’s gonna cross over into life skills, self-esteem, and the ability to know that we’re good at something on a daily basis. At the end, what’s really important in life? Being happy and knowing that we can conquer the challenges that come to us on a daily basis, or being able to get to the eleventh level on a video game? Really, we have to balance things out. That’s the reality of it.

Tricia Kenney: Tell us about your DVDs. Is there just one set? How do we pick and choose?

Eric Chessen: Sure. I have two right now. Actually, I think we’re still putting the second one up on the site. The Beyond Boundaries Vol. 1 DVD is a lot of the activities that I use with my athletes. People ask if it’s a follow-along DVD for kids, but that would be tough, knowing the population. It’s basically for instructors, parents, educators to get a sense of what movements to use, what exercise activities [to use], and how to break them down to a simple level: prompting, how to guide the athletes so they can complete the activities successfully. There are various different mobility and flexibility and interactive activities on there.

The second DVD, which is called Foundations breaks that down even simpler, when we have athletes who may have some behavior issues, many maladaptive behaviors, whether it’s escape behaviors—they run away—or are really nervous or anxious about starting a fitness program. It demonstrates how to pair different activities with reinforcements. We show how to use a token board, a lot on behavior-specific praise, being cognizant.

It’s important when we praise our athletes…First of all, we never wanna go into: “No, don’t do it that way. Do it this way.” There are a thousand ways that we can do something incorrectly. I do things incorrectly on a daily basis. Rather than focus on: “No, don’t do it this way,” focus on what they’re doing correctly. I can always pick out something.

This comes down to good coaching, too, because I run into coaches who are already doing this. They can’t explain it in technical terms; they’ll say: “This is just how I coach. But they’re getting great results, because they’re showing the athlete and giving feedback to the athlete on exactly what they’re doing correctly. So rather than “Great job!” it’s “Great job bending your knees when you squat.” “Great job looking forward. Great job getting the ball behind your head when you do an overhead throw.”

These type of specific cues tell the athlete what they’re doing correctly. So, for example, I have plenty of athletes who will do three jumps in a row and then pick their nose. If I turn around and say: “Great job,” they may chain in that picking. So now every time they jump, it’s three jumps and then picking their nose.” I want them to jump and that’s great, but I don’t necessarily want them to pick their nose at the end of the jump. So it’s: “Great job jumping. I like the way your feet landed.” So we’re excluding the nose-picking, but we’re not really highlighting it, either. That seems to be very successful.

So that’s what I’ve done with the DVD series. Then I also have the e-book on there also, which is a downloadable online book. I demonstrate a ton of different exercises that I use, and progressions, and it also has interactive partner activities and a lot of the newer stuff that I’ve been incorporating as well. I’m always trying stuff out. My athletes who I’ve been working with for some time get to be my guinea pigs for all kinds of new activities, which usually turns out pretty well.

Tricia Kenney: I saw that you were doing a bike-riding thing.

Eric Chessen: Yes. Bike-riding is huge. I just did a bike-riding workshop in New York City at one of the parks there. I had written an article, because I had a lot of parents who were contacting me, now that it’s spring and summer about their children’s problems getting onto and riding a bike. Really, it’s a process as any other. You need to start very simply, and a lot of it is also the big issue—and it’s a delicate one—between the parent or the instructor holding on to the handles and then letting go. That’s the big thing. The child will get on to the bike, they will pedal, but they will not go unless your hands are on there. A lot of that comes down to very, very delicate cuing.

During that workshop in the city, we had one athlete who was on the bike. He would pedal for a mile if you let him, but you had to be holding on to that bike. What I figured out was, a lot of it was him checking in the peripheral—just having the visual of someone next to him. He wanted to make sure you were next to him.

Tricia Kenney: I imagine that there’s a lot of anxiety. Nobody wants to fall and get hurt.

Eric Chessen: Yeah. Oh, sure. Absolutely. So we started out holding the handlebars. We would have five or ten seconds holding the handlebars, and then a second of the instructor just letting go, to demonstrate that he could pedal once or twice on his own. Then we would touch the handlebars, and after about five or ten minutes, he was comfortable with his mom letting go of those handlebars.

So it’s this progression, and it didn’t take that long. We just had to figure out what was the right progression for him. In the first two to three minutes, yes, it was scary and there was a little resistance. But then he realized: “Okay, I can pedal once or twice on my own and then that hand is coming right back.” That may take a week, it may take two weeks. I never say that this is stuff that happens overnight. Really, anything worthwhile is going to take some time. That’s just the truth about anything. The same thing with fitness.

A lot of the e-mails that I get from parents are: “Well, we tried three different sports groups and he or she really didn’t like it, so I don’t know if fitness is for them.” So, again, we’re taking three specific activities, and often very stigmatising activities, also, because you’ve got a group of screaming kids running around. That’s not failure. You just haven’t found the right activities yet.

That’s why I always come back to the general fitness stuff and the family-based fitness. Look, if we’re moving on a daily basis or on a regular basis, there’s no problem. Sports can come later, or not at all. Honestly, as a professional, from the standpoint of someone who has been in the fitness community for over a decade right now, it doesn’t matter if kids play a team or organized sport or not. It really doesn’t. In fact, the creative aspects of fitness and just being able to go out in a field and jump and hop and climb stuff or move around on the playground is far more valuable, both from a physical perspective and from a cognitive and emotional perspective: “Look what I just made up. I jumped onto the balance beam and now I’m climbing across the monkey bars.” I would say that’s ten times more valuable than any team or organized sport.

Again, it’s not to belittle organized sports. It’s just to say that there’s a lot more out there. The problem is that it’s out there—it’s not in the immediate foreground for most people. What’s in the immediate foreground is: “Hey! Sign your kid up for three weeks of special needs karate.” Which, if it works, is fine. If you get a great coach or a great sensei, wonderful. I’m glad it works. But most of the time, from my experience, that is not the case, unfortunately.

Tricia Kenney: Something I really like about this is it gives parents interaction time with their children. Children crave that anyway, and so it makes a little bit more bonding time and gets parents out there, too. Often, we’re just like: “Oh, go outside and play.”

Eric Chessen: I believe in definitely at least a 2-to-1 active to passive activity ratio. If we’re sitting around watching TV or a video together, then we’re together but it’s parallel activity. When we have that real interactive activity—picking up a medicine ball, picking up a rope and swinging it together. I’m not talking about an hour. I’m talking about a minute or two minutes.

I just wrote an article for Autism Speaks’s blog talking about how after ten years of working with families, [I’ve noticed] that there are basically two types of families. There are active families that are already engaged in sports or fitness and want to know how to motivate their children on the autism spectrum to become involved and to move. They already understand and appreciate the value, and they want tools to incorporate their child.

Then there are more inactive families, and here we see a lot of anxiety also about parents becoming involved in fitness. Maybe they exercised 10 or 20 years ago and then fell out, or maybe they’ve never been active. That’s certainly the case that we had with a lot of the parents in our Get Fresh research project, which we’re doing here on Long Island. We have adolescents on the spectrum and their parents coming in to this program. Most have been inactive, and it’s a program that develops healthy living skills.

I’m in the fortunate position of running the fitness program, but then we also talk about healthy eating and how we can incorporate these into our lifestyle and home. It’s been successful, not only for our adolescents, but for the parents, also. We’re giving them the opportunity to see how easy it can be, and taking away a lot of the intimidating factors about fitness. You don’t necessarily have to go into a gym.

I myself can’t walk into a gym now, just because of all the silliness that I see in gyms. I would much rather have my few pieces of equipment at home and be able to exercise whenever I want or when my friends come over. I think having a home-based fitness program is really the way to go. Then you have access to it whenever you want, whenever the time is: whether it’s Saturday morning at 10:00 or whether it’s 8:30 at night. You don’t necessarily have to drive anywhere. It doesn’t have to become a production. You have a couple pieces of equipment at home. You have some some sandbells, some rope, a couple medicine balls and you’re good. Really

Tricia Kenney: Also, you don’t have to rely on the school then. If your school has cut the gym program and your children are not getting anything during the school day, you can take it into your own hands at that point.

Eric Chessen: Sure, absolutely. Again, that’s the unfortunate situation that we are in right now. That’s the reality. Until my crusade is over and every special needs education program in the country has a functional and truly adaptive physical education program, which is certainly for the most part not the case right now, and if they do, it’s once or twice a week. That is really ridiculous. We really need to move once or twice a week?

We haven’t caught up to technology. We have all the technology to be passive: we have computers, we have TV, we have self-cleaning ovens. Everything can do its own job, but our bodies haven’t caught up to that. So until we’re all floating heads in jars, we still have to move around a little bit. Once or twice a week to begin with is fine, but we really wanna facilitate that every day.

Again, it doesn’t have to be an hour every day. It can be five minutes here, it can be ten minutes there, a minute to begin with. That’s fine. But we wanna start somewhere, even if it’s 30 seconds—throw the ball back and forth two times, and then go around. But you get in 20 of those throws back and forth throughout the day, and what happens is kids and even young adults start to incorporate that into their lives. They pick up the ball, and then they initiate the activity. I’ve seen it happen over and over and over.

Tricia Kenney: Another thing, too, I wanted to ask about is: What about if your child or yourself are in a wheelchair? Can these things carry over? Do you have any specific instruction for someone who’s wheelchair-bound?

Eric Chessen: Oh, absolutely. I’ve worked with a couple athletes with cerebral palsy also, and again, we wanna start: What are their abilities now? What are their needs, and how do we create a program? My assessment tool that I actually developed purely out of necessity, I call it the PAC profile, which stands for Physical, Adaptive and Cognitive. Actually, I have a big workshop coming up in Austin, Texas at the end of July. It’s gonna be my biggest workshop that I’ve done. It’s gonna be a big two day seminar. For the first time, I’m going to teach everybody how to use the PAC profile, whether at home, in a classroom, in a fitness situation to assess and then create an appropriate program for any individual.

With my wheelchair-bound athletes whom I’ve worked with over the years, we’re looking at being able to extend the extremities—get the arms out, certainly. Work a lot on the upper back and that thoractic spine area, which is all the upper back. Whatever they can move, we want to move. Whatever moves poorly right now, we want to increase that. So we’re always looking at: What can we do now, and how can we optimize that movement pattern? We can work with any athlete of any ability level at any starting points and get successes and make major changes over a short period of time and then for the lifetime, also. Fitness is something that we should carry on throughout our entire lives. What we’re doing is starting small, and then we’re building this into a lifestyle.

In July, when I do the Autism Fitness Initiative in Austin, a lot of what we’re going to be focusing on is: How do we develop a program? What are our tools? What do we need to assess? How do we deal with specific behaviors? How do we create a program that is really going to work for each individual?

Tricia Kenney: Are those things specifically on the DVDs now, or would somebody need to contact you specifically to figure that out?

Eric Chessen: I’m actually working on a program with the PAC profile now. That’s going to be separate. I would say the best way now and the best way in general is just to experience it in a live setting. We do a lot of hands-on when I do the seminars, and people get a real feel for [the concepts]. The DVDs are great, because people can have the visual for it, and they can see: “Okay, these are some of the activities that I can use.” In the live workshops, people can create their own progressions and regressions, and we can go through scenarios: What happens if this? What happens if that?

But I’m really excited about the workshop in July. That’s really going to be the first time that I’m doing an entire curriculum on the PAC profile, and of course, we’re then going to go into a lot of the different exercises and if you had an hour, how would you develop a fitness program for a group or for an individual? That’s another thing. In PE programs or in group situations, how do you break things down? How do you make something that works for a variety of different abilities and behaviors and cognitive functioning? Those are a lot of the concepts that I go into.

The PAC profile, I’m working on a really cool program with that I would say if people are really interested in that, whether they are educators or professionals, I would say definitely try to make it to Austin in July. As much as Texas in July doesn’t really seem appealing, we will have air conditioning.

Tricia Kenney: [Laughter] Yeah. Just rush from the airport.

Eric Chessen: Exactly, exactly.

Tricia Kenney: Are you able to incorporate this in a lot of schools? Have any schools been picking up on this?

Eric Chessen: More so now. It starts with parents. A lot of the time, parents begin to speak to the administrators of classroom teachers or people who are involved. I’ve spoken with a lot of SEPTA groups (Special Education Parent Teacher Associations). The parents want this stuff. Once they learn about it, they realize: “Oh, this is something that we really need to incorporate. How can we do this?”

So what I’ve begun doing more now, and a lot of what Autism Fitness’s focus is, is getting this stuff into schools. My goal is having physical fitness programs accessible to every individual on the spectrum. In order to do that, it can’t just be me here in New York doing it. It has to be accessible in the schools. Also, we wanna develop the home-based programs as well.

I’m also working on an Autism Fitness certification program right now. In fact, the Autism Fitness initiative workshop that I’m doing in Austin is going to be the first step of that certification process. But really, there need to be other people involved. Now I do have more schools that have come on board and said: “We want you to develop this PE program,” which I’m more than happy to do. I love training educators, because they get it, too, and they say: “Wow, this is really cool stuff. This is much better than trying to teach them to shoot a basketball for six months straight.” I say: “Yeah, I know. That’s why I’m here. I’m giving you an alternative, and it’s an alternative that works.”

Tricia Kenney: Have you been going at all to these autism conferences that are just all over the country?

Eric Chessen: Yep. Actually, good segue: I’ll be in Texas twice in July. I’ll be in Dallas on July 9. I’m going to be presenting at the Autism Society of America conference on fitness. It’s nice for me, but at the same time, I would like to see more. If ever there’s a presentation on fitness at any of these conventions, it’s because I’m presenting. But I think as people become more aware…We see a lot on nutrition now, which is great. Now we just need the movement component of it. I do speak at some national conferences. Again, I’ll be in Dallas on July 9, presenting at ASA. From there, of course, I’m on teleseminars. I love doing interviews, especially with Autism Women’s Network.

Tricia Kenney: Thank you.

Eric Chessen: I’m scattered all over the place. I think the information is valuable enough that whoever can hear it should hear it. I know that there are parents and educators out there who have never heard about any of this stuff, for whom it may be the catalyst to really think about this and wanna get involved. Those are the people who I want involved in the Autism Fitness certification program, and in helping me to develop these programs all over the country. It can’t just be one person running the whole show: then it doesn’t get to all the kids who really need it.
Tricia Kenney: We have a big conference coming up here in October in St. Louis, so if you wanna come on down, it’d be great to have you there.

Eric Chessen: I’d be delighted.

Tricia Kenney: I don’t know what arrangements you’d need to make. It’s not from AWN.It’s the St. Louis Autism/Asperger’s Conference It can be a really, really big convention. I think it’d be nice if they incorporated something like this, because I doubt that there’s gonna be anything even close.

Eric Chessen: Sure. Actually, St. Louis would be great, because I’ve decided that 2010 is my Barbecue Tour. I get to do Dallas, I get to do Austin, I may be doing Kansas City. If I get St. Louis in there, then I get all four different types of barbecue in the United States.


Tricia Kenney: Then you’ll really be needing your fitness.

Eric Chessen: Exactly. Oh, it’s all protein.

Tricia Kenney: We did have a question. Somebody wanted to know a little bit more about the project that your doing with Shana Nichols?

Eric Chessen: Oh, sure. The research project is called Get FRESH. We’ve had three groups of between 7 and 9 adolescents, age 13 through 15 on the autism spectrum. Our first group were what we categorized after our screenings as our midrange functioning adolescents. That was a 12-week program, where each week we did 35 minutes of fitness and then we did a healthy living concept or curriculum. We went through What is healthy living? to Making Healthy Snacks and What Foods do We Eat? We went through sleep, we went through stress reduction, through relaxation techniques—every conceivable aspect of healthy living.

We also have the parents involved. It was amazing for me, because we have adolescents who historically don’t necessarily get along with their parents until late teens again. Obviously, they’re going through dramatic changes, emotionally and cognitively and physically. If I wasn’t already convinced of my own work and of the power of fitness [this would have convinced me]. We had a video up each week on the website, an at-home fitness assignment or a play assignment for parents and the adolescents to do together. We did the videos and I said: “There’s no way these kids are gonna sit there with Mom and Dad and watch these and then do them. They’ll do it here and they’re having fun—that’s great.” When we accidentally put up a video a day later than it was supposed to, they were really upset. They said: “Where’s the video? We wanna see the video!” I said: “Wow! They’re actually going home with Mom and Dad, and they want to do the exercises!” Even for me, I was blown away by it.

Tricia Kenney: Wow.

Eric Chessen: That was our midrange group. We finished up, and now on Tuesdays, we’re working with some of our lower-functioning individuals. Now on Thursdays, we have our higher-functioning individuals. It’s just a fantastic program. Not only are we incorporating the fitness and the healthy living in the program each week, but then they’re going home and taking it upon themselves to incorporate a lot of these things in the house, which is the whole goal of the program. It’s been one of my best experiences so far in my career. The more we can replicate these type of programs, whether they be in therapeutic settings or whether they be in educational settings or, again, in the home, the outcomes we’re going to have for every one of these kids,whether we’re talking about 4 years old or 14 years old or 24 years old.

Tricia Kenney: Awesome. That is just wonderful. It’s great to hear that you’re seeing such wonderful results, and I hope more parents will hear this and they’ll get involved and they’ll see that it’s not a Jane Fonda workout. You don’t have to sweat to the oldies or anything like that. [Laughter] This is something that could really benefit your child’s confidence and their stature and their writing and their cognitive skills. All these things [are] wrapped up into that same package.

Eric Chessen: Oh, yeah, because it all crosses over. Everything feeds into everything else. There’s so much crossover. Yes, I’m biased from where my career’s taken me, obviously, but I really think that fitness is the cornerstone towards so much success in other areas of life. I’ve seen it happen for so many of my athletes and so many people that I’ve consulted with and spoken with, also, to know that it’s not just a fluke and it’s not just for kids who wanna be active. It’s for everybody, and there’s a way to incorporate it for every child and every young adult.

Tricia Kenney: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for being with us today, Eric. We’re about out of time, and I really do appreciate all you’ve shared with us, and your enthusiasm and everything you’ve brought to the autism community. I did wanna say that the DVDs are not $500. They’re only $40, something like that. It’s very affordable, something that you can bring into your home that will benefit your family and your loved ones on the spectrum. Please do check it out at Autism Fitness. We will talk to you again soon, Eric. Take good care, and thanks again for being here.

Eric Chessen: Absolutely. And if anybody’s interested in the workshop coming up in Austin, again, it’s gonna be an extremely comprehensive program—great for parents or educators or people who want to start developing a fitness program for special needs populations. You can e-mail me about that through AutismFitness.com We only have about 30 spots left for that. It’s gonna be a small group. If anybody’s in Dallas for the ASA, I will be speaking there, also.

Tricia Kenney: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much. I hope you listen in with our show with Shana on Monday.

Eric Chessen: I will; I absolutely will. Thank you very much, Tricia.

Tricia Kenney: All right. Take care.

Eric Chessen: Bye.

Tricia Kenney: Bye-bye.

[Eric hangs up].

Tricia Kenney: The show with Shana Nichols will be on Monday at 11:00 AM, so I hope you can join us for that. Take care, everyone. Bye-bye.



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