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Personal Training With Autistic Clients: Tips & Guidance

Personal Training Autistic Clients

When personal training autistic clients, you need to know how to make workouts suitable and successful for each individual client. This guide will be split into three parts, covering:

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What You Need To Know Before Training Autistic Clients

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability present from early childhood that can impact:

  • Social Skills
  • Communication
  • Relationships
  • Self-Regulation

According to the National Autistic Society, one in 100 people are on the autisitc spectrum. As there are around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK, this is a niche area of personal training to expand into.

For those on the spectrum, symptoms range from mild to severe. Some individuals with autism require no help while others need substantial care.

exercise for autism spectrum disorder

This means you need to know how to effectively train them and help them with difficulties they may experience during your sessions.

Although it differs greatly between individuals, various difficulties autistic people may share include:

  • Repetitive & Restrictive Behaviour
  • Social Communication & Social Interaction Challenges
  • Highly Focused Interests or Hobbies
  • Over-or Under-Sensitivity to Light, Sound, Taste, or Touch
  • Extreme Anxiety
  • Meltdowns & Shutdowns

Not every potential client with autism will experience these same behaviours. Different traits will also vary in intensity between clients.

 

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7 Tips For Providing Effective Personal Training For Autistic Clients

If you’re looking to be a personal trainer for clients with autism, you need to know how to help them both during and after sessions.

#1 - Identify A Client’s Autism Symptoms When You First Meet 

personal trainer for autistic child

When it comes to being a personal trainer for clients with autism, a popular quote to keep in mind by Dr Stephen Shore is ‘When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism’.

This reflects the diversity of autism and how you as a personal trainer need to take each client on an individual basis.

So you know exactly what you’re dealing with when a particular client enters the gym, have them (or their guardian if necessary) outline their symptoms in a PAR-Q form. This stands for ‘Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire’ and is designed to determine the safety of exercise for a client.

Some people with autism, especially if it’s severe, may react negatively to environmental stimuli such as:

  • Music coming from another room
  • Flickering light bulbs
  • Shouting from other gym goers
  • Noisy gym machines

This means you’ll have to take extra care to eliminate distressing or distracting things around the gym before and during sessions.

personal trainer for autistic child

It can be difficult to control everything around the studio or gym, especially during workouts. However, it’s crucial to eliminate these distractions if possible and make the environment as comfortable as you can.

To ensure you have enough time to get the area ready for personal training clients with autism, you need to leave a larger window of time when starting a new session. 

Between a previous session ending and a new one beginning, you should give yourself an extra five or ten minutes to inspect the area and fix or change anything potentially disruptive. This could involve lowering music or tidying up the area to make the changeover process easier.

#2 - Adapt Workouts When Personal Training Autistic Clients

personal trainer for autistic child

Although preparation and planning makes for a successful workout, you must also be ready to adapt and let go of any expectations you think are ‘set in stone’.

You’ll find that personal training clients with autism may not always cooperate with activities that follow a strict time, such as a circuit. This means you should have alternative ways to keep workouts interesting and fun, especially if they’re younger. 

For example, you could use flashcards to pick the number of reps or have them engage in activities that are less rigid, such as simply kicking a ball around before starting or continuing the workout. 

Although this may not be the session you had in mind, when personal training autistic clients you need to be able to change the workout, sometimes right in the middle of it, if you feel they aren’t responding well. This may even be with activities they usually enjoy.

Exercise for clients with autism won’t always be enjoyable and will be a challenge for you. It’s important to be flexible, both with your workouts and also what you define as a successful session. 

Even if a workout doesn’t go exactly how you planned, if a client is engaging in fun activities that keep them fit you should still consider this a success.

#3 - Make Workouts Predictable & Consistent

personal training autistic client

Although this may sound slightly contradictory to our point above, some people with autism actually experience less anxiety when activities or events are structured in ways they can familiarise themselves with. 

Strict routines can reduce some autistic people’s anxiety as they know what is going to happen. It can also help them to learn things more effectively.

As a personal trainer for clients with autism, ways you can keep these routines as strict as possible for some clients are:

  • Location: For each session, you should keep it in the same room or area of the gym so the client remains in a familiar place. If you need to move to a different area for a particular session, make sure to inform your clients about this in advance to eliminate any surprises when they arrive. Being a mobile personal trainer is even better as you can travel to clients instead.
  • Schedule: When personal training clients with autism, schedule them into time slots you know are available for the long term. You should endeavour to keep these session times as consistent as possible, only changing if you have no other choice.
  • Expectation Building: At the beginning of each session, you should introduce the client to the session and what will be involved. Being clear about expectations and instructions can help them feel more comfortable and safe as they have an idea of what to expect.
  • Sequence: Setting clients patterns in their workouts makes them more consistent and they’ll likely respond better to sessions. It also makes their behaviour more predictable, meaning you’ll face less challenges.

While consistency may be frustrating for a personal trainer who usually enjoys having clients try a range of exercises, this predictability will help sessions run a lot more smoothly. It’s also more likely these clients will return.

#4 - Make Repetitive Behaviours Part Of Your Workouts

personal training autistic client

It’s common for some people with autism to engage in repetitive behaviours to either calm themselves when they’re anxious or stressed. 

Repetitive behaviours may include:

  • Rocking
  • Jumping
  • Spinning
  • Hand Flapping 

Behaviours may also be repeated simply because they enjoy it so it’s important as a personal trainer to know this difference. 

Some of these behaviours can actually be used to shape the workout and keep clients with autism interested.

You can add certain ticks to your autism exercise programme, tailoring it to their tendencies.

For example, if you have autistic personal training clients who find it difficult to stay still, include lunges and long jumps into their workouts and in-between sets. This is much better than fighting it and insisting they remain stationary to perform exercises they aren’t interested in.

This is likely to keep them interested and enjoying their session. The last thing you want is to become someone who constantly tells them ‘no’ and forces them to perform exercises they find boring.

 

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#5 - Provide Specific Feedback & Praise

autism personal trainer

When personal training autistic clients, you should clearly communicate what you’re giving feedback about. While phrases such as ‘good job’ or ‘great work’ are positive compliments, some autistic clients may not fully understand what exactly is being praised.

Specific feedback is important, especially if you’re a personal trainer for an autistic child. This is because they may not understand how your praise aligns with the instructions you gave them.

Examples of clear, focused praise include:

  • ‘Good work bringing your knees up high’
  • ‘Well done finishing your run without stopping’
  • ‘Great job keeping your back straight during squats’

Giving this feedback in relation to the exact action you’re praising helps them understand what exactly they did well and how they can continue improving.

If they are welcome to physical contact, you may find a high five can also be an effective form of communication.

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Looking to break into other niches in the fitness industry and use your expertise to help more clients? Check out these articles:

#6 - Focus On Fun, Not Just Fitness

autism personal trainer

Most people understand that if they want to achieve a specific goal, it’s likely they will have to do certain things they dislike or make them uncomfortable to achieve long-term success. However, those with autism may find it difficult or even impossible to understand this way of thinking.

This is why you need to take more of a light-hearted approach to fitness when it comes to fitness for clients with autism. 

While they still need to be challenged, losing weight or building muscle shouldn’t always be the main priority. You also shouldn’t be acting like a drill sergeant, as this is a sign of a bad personal trainer anyway.

Now, we understand this may be an odd thing to read as a personal trainer. However, it’s important for these clients to enjoy their gym experience more than typical clients who are solely coming to you for the purpose of losing weight or building strength.

Fun sessions will lead these personal training clients with autism to associate the gym and exercise with something positive- they’ll be much more cooperative with their guardians and you as their trainer to arrive at the session and make it a success.

While sessions need to be altered for any client with autism, this is especially important if you’re a personal trainer for an autistic child. When dealing with young clients, you should put more of an emphasis on play rather than rigid exercise.

Simple exercises that young people with autism will likely respond well to include:

These simple and lighthearted activities are great for providing stress relief and enjoyment. Just remember, there’s a sweet spot to reach here; the session can’t be all fun and games, else you may not be providing your client with the progression they want.

#7 - Set Clients With Autism Up For Success

personal trainer autism

Although there should be a focus on fun, this doesn’t mean workouts have to be completely devoid of challenge. However, you need to find the right balance between challenging them just enough while ensuring they will feel successful at the end of the session.

The last thing you want to do is give them an exercise they’re not ready to perform. If certain clients feel they can’t perform an exercise successfully, they may quickly lose interest and give up or refuse to return to sessions.

In this situation, it’s better to marginally underestimate their ability so you don’t run the risk of them being disheartened and associating fitness with negative feelings.

At the end of the session, it’s a good idea to provide them with a performance review to reinforce any praise given through the session. Even if they end a session feeling like it wasn’t a success, congratulating them is likely to make them feel better and want to continue.

 

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The Skills You'll Need To Be A Successful Autism Personal Trainer

Although most of the qualities listed below are general skills required to become a personal trainer, these must be prioritised if you’re looking to begin personal training autistic clients.

#1 - Be Patient With Autistic Personal Training Clients

personal trainer autism

For anyone who wants to become a personal trainer, patience is one of the most important skills to have. This is especially crucial for clients with autism spectrum disorder.

If you’re hoping to become an autism exercise specialist, it’s likely you already know how challenging it can be. You’ll need to display much more patience than with typical clients, especially as sessions won’t always go to plan.

Autism and fitness aren’t always compatible and it’s unlikely sessions will be focused on serious fitness goals. Autism exercise programmes will be different to what you’re used to, meaning there will be an adjustment.

While you may become impatient with a lack of clear improvement after weeks of training, it’s crucial you remain calm around a client. 

If they’re enjoying your workouts and are getting some level of physical activity, this is a success for the both of you, even if it takes slightly longer to help them reach their goals.

Although it’s unlikely to be something you’re used to, if they’re having fun, relax and enjoy the session too. It may even be a welcome change from your usual workouts!

#2 - Adapt Communication For Clients With Autism

personal trainer autism

As autism differs between individuals, it’s likely you’ll have to adapt your communication depending on the client you’re working with.

Fitness for clients with autism can be difficult as they may not respond well to verbal instructions or have difficulty interpreting your instructions. This means you have to come up with creative ways to help them understand more clearly.

Examples of non-verbal instructions you can use to help include:

  • Holding up coloured card with the number of reps written on
  • Use floor arrows to point them in the right direction when running
  • Have pictures of the exercise being performed which they can refer to

Using non-verbal forms of communication doesn’t mean you have to let the visual cues do the talking for you. The best way is to combine different forms of communication when instructing so they understand what you want from them.

 

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#3 - Be Attentive When Training Autistic Clients

autism exercise programs

Many autistic clients are likely to tell you when they don’t feel comfortable or aren’t enjoying an aspect of the workout. However, sometimes they may become quieter and withdrawn, meaning you’ll need to pay close attention to any signs and act accordingly.

Although signs of sensory overload can be largely non-verbal, a lot can be communicated through body language.

These signs of anxiety may include:

  • Seeking reassurance through repetitive questioning
  • Pacing
  • Rocking 
  • Becoming very still

Being attentive and noticing these signs when personal training autistic clients means you can stop this reaction from worsening, forcing you to end the session. 

Strategies to consider to prevent situations escalating include:

  • Diversion - Kick a ball around or walk around for a little bit
  • Distraction - Change exercises or move to a quieter area of the gym
  • Removing potential triggers - Assess the environment for any distressing stimuli
  • Staying calm yourself 

When personal training autistic children and adults, it’s important to notice the signs if they’re uncomfortable or anxious. 

This will help you in future sessions as you can begin to associate certain stimuli or triggers with particular clients and adjust the area or session to make them more comfortable.

#4 - Be Sensitive To Clients With Autism

exercise for autism spectrum disorder

Just as those with autism find it difficult to understand other people’s way of thinking, it’s often the same the other way around. Certain behaviours personal training clients with autism may show can be hard to make sense of for those without autism.

Regardless of whether you understand it or not, you must be sensitive to their mindset. Things that may not seem like a big deal to some people can bring extreme anxiety to clients with autism spectrum disorder.

While you can try and eliminate stressful stimuli, unexpected occurrences may happen which can trigger ‘meltdowns’ or negative reactions. This is different for individuals depending on age and the extent of their autism but can range from being withdrawn to shouting or crying.

When personal training autistic clients, there’s always a risk this can happen meaning you need to be sensitive to their behaviour and help them as best you can if situations like this arise.

Don’t judge a person if they have a meltdown or become withdrawn, simply help them by: 

  • Giving them time - it can take a while to recover from sensory overload
  • Calmly asking if they’re OK - only once they’ve had adequate recovery time
  • Making space - create a quiet area for them with no music or people. Tell people not to stare and to continue their workouts

While there isn’t a lot you can do when a meltdown happens other than help calm clients down, you should pinpoint what triggered it and fight to minimise these triggers during future sessions.

#5 - Effectively Manage Time

exercise for autism spectrum disorder

When it comes to exercise for autistic adults and children, you need to keep in mind not every session will run smoothly. If a client begins to lose interest, you may need to take multiple breaks or engage in fun activities to raise their morale. 

This will mean sessions are likely to go over the scheduled time. With this in mind, you should leave adequate time between sessions. 

You should have ten to fifteen minutes to ensure there is enough available time between sessions to give a client breaktimes or activity changes if they need it.

Having sessions back to back could lead to larger problems in the gym, especially with other clients. If one session runs overtime, this will likely mean the rest of them will too, which can be frustrating if clients have other commitments during their day.

If you’re on a tight schedule and your personal training client with autism is taking longer than usual to complete workouts as they’re disinterested, you may become stressed or frustrated as you’re continually checking the time.

Leaving enough spare time before and after workouts will make for a calmer environment. It also gives you time at the end of a previous session to eliminate any distractions in the area before starting.

Before You Go!

Now you know about personal training autistic clients, it’s time to go ahead and put our tips to the test by providing the best possible workouts!

Our range of Level 4 Personal Training Courses can build upon your knowledge, helping you to successfully train clients with a range of conditions. 

Find out more by downloading our full course prospectus or simply enter your details below!

Written by James Brady

Fitness Writer & Enthusiast

James graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Manchester. His desire to find a place where he could combine his passion for writing and love of fitness is what brought him to OriGym. He believes his passion for daily exercise, especially running, is imperative in keeping him motivated and productive. As a result, he has a particular interest in the psychology of health and fitness and the relationship between physical and mental health. Outside of work, James enjoys reading, swimming, writing short stories, watching classic movies and has a keen interest in journalism and filmmaking.

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