On the eve of a 24 hour fundraiser walk for autism, I have been contemplating my relationship with exercise and sport, and how I got to where I am today - healthy, happy and active, despite significant early challenges.
This blog post is a departure from the last several years. Instead of talking about achievements, I will talk about challenges and overcoming them - the story of the unlikely sportsperson. That person just happens to be me. I didn't always have the strength, power or the winning edge, in fact,as a kid I could barely make the finish line, let alone win, and I was the classic nerd who was last choice for any team sport at school. So what happened? And how can this benefit others?
Let's go back to the start. My first memory of sport was Little Athletics, a great program to get school age kids into track and field. This was around the start of my primary school years, and to put it bluntly, I finished dead last in every race, well behine the next kid. After a summer or two of this, I basically quit. There was a part of me who liked the idea of being good at some sport, like the athletes on TV, but I had resigned myself to the "fact" that it would never happen.
Through most of my primary school years, I never really gave much thought to sport, it was simply something I was never good at, though surprisingly, I did enjoy school sports day, as I preferred being outside to being in the classroom, despite being a good student academically, with a number of As.
When I was 10, a friend got me interested in judo, and I decided to give it a go. Spent a couple of seasons in the club, and enjoyed it, but making progress was slow. A year later, I joined the local junior fire brigade, and started training for their competitions. Again, at that time, progress was slow, though steady.
My teenage years could be described as the time of "accidental therapies". What I didn't know, but now strongly suspect is that I actually have some level of movement issues, which weren't known or understood at the time. The first of these "accidental therapies" was, surprisingly, football, specifically Aussie Rules (now often called AFL). The year I turned 13, I decided to try playing for a local club. As a footballer, I was a disaster, but what really did work was the intense training. The coaches were old school, and I took to the hard training regimes like a duck to water. By the end of the season, I still couldn't play football to save my life, but my fitness, especially strength, speed and power had improved out of sight, so much so that my role in the fire brigade events had to change the following summer, to take advantage of my new found speed, and I became a consistent placegetter in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and triple jump at school athletics, and always picked for inter-school competitions. I also found that intense training also helped me mentally, I felt good after the footy training, and the world seemed a better place. I had an interest in developing my strength and speed further, though opportunities were limited at the time. Already, exposure to the right environments was having a huge beneficial effect.
At this time, I played cricket too, which I enjoyed, but again totally sucked at! :)
The next "accidental therapy" came a couple of years later, and I blame my younger sister! :) At the time, she was in the local gymnastics club, and would often practice at home. Being a visual person, I noticed imperfections in her practice and started helping her with her form, so she could rol and tumble with more grace. One night, while helping her, the coach dropped in and saw what was going on. She invoted me to come down to the club and become a coach. Of course, that meant _doing_ gymnastics, which I hadn't contemplated until that moment. I joined the club, became a part of the older boys' class and quickly studied to be a coach, coaching the boys. Turned out much of gymnastics suited me. I had the strength for rings, and the power for the vault. Floor was the hardest, because my late start meant I lacked flexibility, especially in the upper body. My flexibility did improve (even today at 46, it's still somewhat better than average). But the big thing that I noticed is a lot of my clumsiness has since gone. There are traces of motor coordination issues that sometimes crop up, but the bulk that I had as a kid became insignificant after gymnastics. In any case, I stayed with the club until my early 20s, when I left home. For many years, my Saturday would start with coaching the younger kids, one or two of whom were referred to the club by a paediatrician to help with coordination issues, and later working with the older, mostly teenage boys, as a coach and role model. I also had to give up the fire brigade competitions, which I had enjoyed a fair bit of success with, especially after playing football and starting with the gymnastics club.
After leaving home, I drifted away from sport for around 10 years, but remained active, mostly walking. That was until my mid 30s, when I discovered the various forms of orienteering. I had a lot of success with Amateur Radio Direction Finding (ARDF), a form of orienteering that involves using radio direction finding techniques to locate controls, instead of having them marked on the map provided, at international level. I also did reasonably well at other forms of orienteering, particularly street orienteering and rogaining. I also joined the Melbourne Frontrunners, a GLBTI running and walking group, and ran with them most Saturday mornings, and from there, ran the occasional fun run, up to and including my first marathon in 2008. This period reminded me of the psychological benefits of exercise. I enjoyed pushing myself to the limit, and with distance running, you're really competing against yourself for that PB, or to finish a new distance (the feeling of completing a marathon is well worth the pain! :) ). However, I also knew distance running wasn't where I'd be competitive on a wider scale. Running for me became a social thing, the Saturday run and coffee, and the camaraderie of running races and comparing notes after the event. After the marathon, I decided to take up gym workouts. I had tried when I was younger, had built some strength then, but not much muscle mass. However, now 40, I found both strength and muscle mass easier to come by.
In 2010, I left Melbourne and rejoining the fire brigade became a distinct possibility that was not lost on me. As it turned out, that process started only 3 weeks after moving. I got back into competition, as described elsewhere and have had a lot of success, as I have written about over the past few years in this very blog. No need to say too much more here (it's been said elsewhere in this blog), other than to say I am in a sport which suits my traits perfectly, and despite having a number of coordination issues as a kid, I've managed to find a niche that I enjoy, and have found the benefits of exercise and competitive sport have been a major contributor to my life.
I am pleased to see that I am not alone, and others on the spectrum have actually started selling training programs designed to kelp kids on the spectrum improve their coordination and self esteem. I benefitted from a number of fortunate events and choices, and I wonder what would be possible with further specialised training to meet my specific needs - despite my successes, I still have some performance limiting coordination issues that I believe I can work on. Similarly, I wonder what might have been possible, had these programs been available 40 years ago. I am sure I would have enjoyed them as a kid, as my history suggests I would, but I'll never know how much more I would have been able to take my sporting interests. I hope the kids who are benefitting from these programs come to enjoy being active and develop a passion for sport, or at the very least, for active recreation. For me, exercise has been the only antidepressant I've needed to rely on, but it's been a good one with many beneficial side effects! :)
While encouraging adults to be more active probably faces more barriers from years and decades of learned aversion to exercise and sport from negative experiences like constantly being picked last for teams (and as I said, I've been there, done that!), bullying, teasing and the like (yep, all familiar), I believe it is still worth trying to encourage adults on the spectrum to at least partake in some form of non competitive exercise, and exploring from there. I am not aware of anyone targeting adults with exercise programs, but I believe there could be some significant benefits.
Are you an adult on the spectrum reading this? Why not give exercise a try. You may need to find a mentor to help you keep the motivation up - someone who is supportive, but firm and fair. Don't under estimate the benefits of a daily half hour walk, or a few strength workouts per week. Gamers and tech heads might relate to something like nerdfitness.com.
Or are you the parent of a child on the spectrum? In this case, see if your son or daughter would like to try one of the specialised programs out there, or if there isn't an autism specific exercise program, there might be something for children who don't fit into mainstream sport, or a gymnastics class with an understanding coach and management. If the child takes to the program, fantastic! if not, you might need to find something different - non autism specific programs may have unexpected sensory issues or other things adversely affecting the child.
I hope my story has been some form of inspiration. I am far from a child prodigy, and I've had to work hard to get to where I am, but I've come to enjoy the journey and am thankful for the side benefits that have come as a result of my active life - health (both physical and mental), happiness, fitness, friendship and camaraderie, and a lifetime of self knowledge.