As the mom of a child with disabilities, I am grateful for the insights and advice I get from adults with disabilities. They get it. Which is exactly why Mark Fleming—a trainer who has autism—recently opened Puzzle Piece Fitness in Tampa, Florida. And it's why people like Rachel Barcellona, a young woman with epilepsy and autism who wants to get in shape for the upcoming Miss Florida competition, has been training with him.
Rachel trains with Mark
Mark, 30, has a bachelors in exercise science and a masters degree in human performance from the University of Alabama. "Growing up, my 'special interest' was sports," he told the website Family-Friendly Tampa Bay. "I constantly hear how I was able to read the box scores in the paper before I could even read. However I also had numerous fine- and motor-skill deficits that should of prveented me from playing the sports I loved so much, but thankfully had parents that not only allowed me to play but pushed me to play." Fleming ran an in-home training business before he decided to get a location.
On his website, Mark notes a number of potential benefits of exercise for people with autism, including helping with communication, sleep and sensory issues; reducing stress and time spent in "self-stimulatory activites"; and offsetting depression. Outside of school phys ed, he's noted, many individuals with autism have few opportunities to stay active and healthy.
Check out this video of Mark in action:
Gyms for people with autism are relatively rare, let alone ones run by people with autism or other disabilities. The few I've read about include ASD Fitness Center in Orange, Connecticut, opened by two parents of a child with autism; there is no bright lighting or music, and mufflers under the floor tone down echoes. Puzzle Piece Athletics in Dublin, California specializes in Crossfit training for kids with autism. One mom started a national chain of gyms for kids with autism, We Rock The Spectrum. Around the country, there seem to be a small number of gyms and programs that cater to people with other disabilities and injuries.
Still, there's a bigger issue at hand here: More gyms in general need to be inclusive and offer adaptive equipment to people with disabilities. One small study conducted several years ago in Mississippi found that while 10 gyms in and around Hattiesburg had elevators, and most had accessible parking and ramps, only 20 percent had adaptive equipment and none had staff trained to help people in wheelchairs work out. It likely reflected the general state of accommodations at gyms around the country, and I'm guessing not all that much has changed.
For people with autism, a smaller, quieter gym with personal attention can be just what they need, and Mark is standing by. "How [people with disabilities] live isn't as great because...they're just sitting at home and not doing anything," Mark told Channel 10 News. "This hopefully can help them improve their life that way and maybe even help them get a job, become more social, just all the aspects that just getting active can help with."
Photos of gym: Screengrabs, 10 News video/Photo of Mark: puzzlefit.com