Redefining Autism through Fitness

The first page of the CrossFit Level 1 manual reads: “From the beginning, the aim of CrossFit has been to forge broad, general, and inclusive fitness.” Currently, 1 in 44 children are diagnosed with Autism, and 5.4 million adults are predicted to have Autism. For CrossFit to be truly inclusive and for CrossFit coaches to meet this growing need, coaching capacity must be increased.

Enter adaptive exercise scientists at Indiana University. The lab has been working to bring inclusive fitness to CrossFit gyms worldwide, and their latest project is to promote Autism awareness and give coaches more tools to work with Autistic athletes. This project features 3 Autistic authors writing for the curriculum and 10 Autistic people/people with autism serving as outside readers.

The seminar is led by Autistic coach and athlete, Julien Pineau. Julien reflected on the certification saying: “Autism has been seen for too long as a disability instead of a function. Like all functions it can turn into a disorder when out of balance, but the way forward is not to ‘fix’ the autistic population but rather work toward equilibrium between mind and body. The system is an active inference model and that balance [between] prediction versus observational is crucial. The way to lessen the disorder part is to help the body as much as the mind. And this is what we’re working on.”

Working alongside Pineau is adaptive coach, Mike Ramirez. Currently, Mike’s gym, Divergent Fitness, has over 80 adaptive athletes with many being autistic athletes across the lifespan and spectrum. Mike spoke on the importance of the certification saying: “The autism population has been underserved for far too long. The biggest challenge they have is the relationship between the brain and body. The only way to strengthen that connection is to involve the right type of movement. This course will help create better coaches that will serve this community from the movement side. It will change autism forever.”

Online learning modules feature other seminar staff, including Kristen Arnold. Speaking on a personal note, Kristen related to her experience with her son who has down syndrome and autism. “I want him to be able to go into a gym just like anybody else and lift weights and workout alongside typically developing peers and develop that community that is important to all of us that are in CrossFit. If I can train coaches to work with people like my son, that would be a dream come true.”

From a scientific perspective, there are currently gaps in the exercise science literature on Autism, and researchers plan to use athletes and adaptive programs from this certification to close these knowledge gaps. This certification features exercise scientist and neuroscientist, Dr. Melissa Pangelinan. Dr. Pangelinan spoke on the certification saying: “Our goal is that coaches can implement these best practices in group and individual sessions to ensure CrossFit programming quality and consistency for Autistic athletes. In doing this, we can directly compare our results with studies of other exercise modalities (e.g., swimming, cycling, HIT) and demonstrate that CrossFit is as safe and potentially more effective in improving physical and mental health in Autistic athletes.”

The first in-person certification will be held December 3rd-4th at CrossFit Bloomington (IN). The seminar will have one day of lecture and learning and one day of working with Autistic athletes in the local community. An online asynchronous learning module will also be available in December. Interested parties for the in-person or online section can follow the link below to register.

All questions can be directed to Janette Hynes at [email protected].

Link to register:

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