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Putting the ‘personal’ in training for those on the autism spectrum

By ROGER MOONEY

Reid Stakelum was tired when he entered Equally Fit in Tampa in the afternoon, a result, his mom said, of staying up a little too late the night before to watch the movie “Back to the Future” at a local drive-in theater with his family.

Fatigue can be a trigger for Reid, 17, who is on the autism spectrum and receives the Gardiner Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. It puts “more stress on his body and his brain,” said Reid’s mom, Brittany. Add an hour’s worth of exercise, and Brittany was expecting an unproductive session for her son at the gym.

Reid Stakelum rides an exercise bike while trainer Mark Fleming watches. Both are on the autism spectrum.

She based that on experience. Reid had been a member at other gyms, and the trainers there, when facing a less-than-energetic Reid, often pushed him to work harder to shake off the lethargy. That method might work for some, but Brittany knows it does not work with her son.

But Mark Fleming, 32, who owns Equally Fit (formerly Puzzle Piece Fitness), is also on the spectrum. He understands Reid.

When Fleming realized Reid wasn’t physically ready for his typical Thursday afternoon workout, he made adjustments on the fly. Fleming eliminated some of the planned exercises, added more rest and recovery time and increased the weight or the repetitions of others. What had the potential to be a lost afternoon at the gym turned out to be a productive session.

“Mark totally gets it,” Brittany said. “He is totally self-aware. He was able to relate to Reid and get him to calm down. Mark made sure it ended with a positive, where in other gyms, it would have been, ‘Nope, you got to do it,’ and that doesn’t work for people with autism.”

Bringing back the ‘personal’ trainer

Fleming, who was raised in Tampa and attended private schools, has a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and a master’s in human performance from the University of Alabama. 

It was a natural progression from a youth spent playing sports, mostly basketball and football.

His first love was baseball. Family lore has it, Fleming could read a baseball box score before he could read a book. But his passion for the sport went away when a lack of hand-eye coordination prevented him from hitting a baseball. He moved on to basketball, but again encountered difficulty, because, he said, “my hands didn’t work the way they need to.”

“I had very limited physical skills,” he said. “But due to my fascination with sports, I was able to be determined enough to overcome those issues.”

In high school, Fleming played linebacker on the Cambridge Christian School’s football team despite weighing 145 pounds.

Fleming began working with a physical trainer when he was in middle school. “Traditional weight room stuff,” he said, with the emphasis on weight training.

“I greatly benefited from it,” he said, “because I gained confidence.”

But, he added, “Toward my junior year, I started to accept that I can’t do sports. What am I going to do? It took me a while to find exercise science. That parallel interest really helped me.”

Mark Fleming has a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and a master’s in human performance from the University of Alabama.

While in graduate school, Fleming said he started working in applied behavioral analysis as a behavioral assistant. He also became a volunteer coach for the Special Olympics.

He worked with children with autism in a school setting and saw those with fine motor and gross motor deficiencies go through occupational and physical therapy. On weekends, he saw the same deficiencies with the adults he coached at Special Olympics.

Many people on the spectrum have low muscle tone that can be improved with therapy but not corrected. It returns when they stop physical and occupational therapy.

Fleming learned there were few if any opportunities for these adults to stay active after they completed occupational and physical therapies.

Fleming had an idea. Already certified as a physical trainer, he decided he would work with those on the spectrum. But instead of emphasizing weight training, he would emphasize basic movements as a means of getting his clients physically active.

There is often stimming behavior – hand-flapping, rocking – but that is not exercise.

“When we’re dealing with autism, specifically, we’re dealing with a lot of sedentary behavior,” Fleming said. “Exercise helps pull kids out of that a little bit.

“A lot of these kids have gross and fine motor issues that need to be worked on. Those are where the starting points are. Let’s get these basic movement patterns down first and then we’ll get into the more complex as we go along.”

Fleming spent his first year as a physical trainer loading hurdles, resistance bands, sandbag style weights, soft medicine balls and steppers in his Honda Accord and driving to his clients, who were fanned out across the Tampa Bay area.

New client fills out a questionnaire, so Fleming can learn their objectives and their triggers. Are they sensitive to the florescent lights? He’ll turn them off. Noise? He’ll slow down an exercise if he hears a loud truck outside. Does their medication raise their body temperature when they are active? If so, Fleming will make the gym cooler during their session.

“You have to bring personal back into personal training,” Fleming said.

Bonding over Phineas and Ferb

Diane Carothers had taken her son, Mikey, to gyms that had classes designed for children. But those gyms played loud music and the lights were too bright. The trainers were loud and a little too enthusiastic for Mikey, who also used a Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up.

“I don’t think they would understand him,” Diane said.

 She learned of Fleming’s gym through a Facebook group for mothers who home-school special needs children. Like Reid Stakelum, Mikey, 13, is on the spectrum. And like Brittany Stakelum, Diane spent her first visit at Equally Fit filling out the questionnaire and answering questions about Mikey.

Diane said she immediately knew this was the gym for Mikey. The question was: Would Mikey feel the same way? The answer is yes, though it took a few visits.

Mikey and Fleming formed a bond over their shared interest in the video game Roblox and the animated TV series Phineas and Ferb. They discuss those two while Mikey rides an exercise bicycle, lifts his feet over small hurdles, lifts the sandbag style weights and performs squats and lunges.

Mikey has coordination issues. He will slouch if sitting too long. This sometimes causes him to fall out of a chair. But after attending twice-weekly classes for the past year, Diane said Mikey’s coordination has improved and he has more strength in his hands and core.

“It’s been great for my son,” Diane said. “I’ve tried to get him involved in sports, but he doesn’t do well in team sports, and he’s just not very coordinated. Having a personal trainer is great for him, and I think that might not be the case if it was just any personal trainer, but Mark is so good with him. He’s so patient and he’s low-key and he understands him. Mikey is just so comfortable with him.”

So comfortable that Mikey walks on the treadmill at home.

“The only reason he’s willing to do that is Mark encouraged him to do that,” Diane said. “He looks up to Mark as an authority on the subject whereas Mom is not.”

Equally Fit is located 40 minutes from the Carothers’ home in Port Richey. Toss in a 60-minute session to the nearly 90-minute roundtrip commute and that is quite a commitment to make twice a week.

“I do it because it’s really beneficial for Mikey,” Diane said.

Perhaps the biggest endorsement Diane can give Fleming is this: He is one of the few people she feels comfortable leaving Mikey with.

“I’ve always been the kind of mom who sort of hovers,” Diane said.

Initially, she sat in the gym’s waiting room and watched Mikey work out. Then Diane would remain in the car and watch from the parking lot.

Now, she can use that hour to run a quick errand.

“It’s a big thing because Mikey is so comfortable with Mark, and Mark is so competent and understanding that I know Mikey will be fine with him for an hour,” Diane said. “There are very few people that I can leave Mikey with for an hour without Mikey becoming uncomfortable or distressed and there are no other people that I trust to handle a situation where Mikey becomes distressed.”

Excited to work out

Brittany Stakelum knows her son, Reid, would rather stay home and read a book or play a video game. The sedentary lifestyle, she said, fits many who are on the spectrum.

“They have more to offer than that, but they haven’t been around the right people in their lives who actually believe in them and will encourage them and tell them they can do anything they want,” Brittany said. “Mark’s mission is to help my son and his other clients to live their best lives.”

Reid stretches before a workout.

Reid has a part-time job in a supermarket. He used to struggle lifting and carrying cases of water. Fleming showed him the proper way to lift by using his legs. Problem solved.

Brittany also teaches children with special needs. She called Fleming “a breath of fresh air” for his dedication to working with clients on the spectrum and his desire to help them live a life that includes a degree of activity.

Fleming knows his clients do not need the same training he received when he was in school. Fleming, after all, was on the football team.

“A lot of kids I work with aren’t into that stuff. They don’t need that,” he said.

But what they need is the right exercises to get them off the couch, to improve their coordination, flexibility and strength. To improve their confidence, too.

Reid serves as an ambassador for the gym. Fleming posts pictures of Reid’s workouts on the Equally Fit’s Facebook page. For that, Reid received a $100 American Express gift card.

“He’s trying to show each person with autism that their time means something as well.” Brittany said. “Not only is he a great personal trainer, but he’s a great businessman, and he’s a great advocate and a great role model, especially with teens.”

Reid said he enjoys doing leg lifts. He said he likes going to Equally Fit because Fleming is “patient and encouraging” and is helping Reid get stronger.

Like gyms everywhere, Fleming had to close his for a few months during the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. He continued to work virtually with some clients. Others found it difficult to complete the exercises without being in the same room with Fleming.

Reid found himself slipping back to his sedentary lifestyle. He could not wait for the gym to reopen.

“Reid is actually excited to go,” Brittany said, “and I don’t ever remember my son being excited to work out.”

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

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Paola Hernandez

We need a Fleming in Orlando ASAP!

I wish there was a group of adults on the spectrum that are matched with teens on the spectrum. Like little brothers or little sisters

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