Chad Hooker coaches young adults and children with autism. His gym, called Puzzle Piece Athletics, focuses on inclusive, customized exercise and CrossFit training for neuro-diverse kids.

Hooker, a trainer for the last decade and CrossFit buff, had never worked with autistic kids until his friend introduced him to a child with autism. The child was nonverbal but within 6 months he started speaking and saying little sentences. He saw the effects it was having and says it snowballed from there.

CrossFit training is known for its tough and intense functional movements, but Chad holds the kids he works with to the same standards as neuro-typical kids. He trains them to do box jumps and squat pushups. Except he understands that there may be a few distractions, or bumps in the program. But parents of the children who attend his programs say that they are effective because of Hooker’s high expectations and belief that these kids can do what anyone else can do.

Some of the difficulties for people with autism can be trouble with communication and interaction with other people, repetitive behaviors, and difficulty processing sensory information. (1) But one parent says that since working with Hooker, her child is more personable with people. He also can tolerate more noise than before.

Not much research has been done on exercise in children with autism, especially in a gym setting, but there is some research that shows the benefits of exercise. Autistic children who jogged for 8 to 10 minutes had less self-stimulation following exercise, which is the most reported improvement. (2) Experts believe that exercise may produce similar sensations as the stereotypical self-stimulation behaviors. (2) Children with autism can engage in body rocking, arm flapping, and spinning, which helps balance internal states. Because exercise uses similar movements, it may meet the need for this stimulation and allow for a productive outlet. (2)

Another commonly reported outcome after simple exercise is an increase in on-task behavior. (2) Children with autism did basic exercises like arm circles, toe touches, leg bicycling, and sit-ups. The result was an increase in on-task behavior, a decrease in off-task behavior, self-stimulation, and inappropriate vocalizations. (3)

Working out at the gym is a daily part of life for some, but it isn’t necessarily that simple for someone with autism. Given the noise, lights, and crowd, a gym could be a significant challenge for an autistic young adult. Hooker has no formal training in working with autistic children, but he has learned to pick up cues as well as give his own. He’s also learned that patience is his best friend. He knows when to back off and when it’s time to get back on task.

Hooker has worked with children in athletics for years. But his special touch with autistic children has made him in high demand. He now has a large client roster and a team of coaches that work together, and people keep reaching out to him. Requests to work with Chad have come from as far as the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates, and we can see why!


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