alicia@aliciadoyle.com

Diagnosed with autism at 2 and a half years old, Jack Tindell has made great strides since he began training at the iFlextrain Fitness for Autism gym under the guidance of Coach David Igliori four years ago.

“We found out about David’s gym when we met him at a booth he had at the Aut2Run at Cal State University, Channel Islands,” recalled Laura Tindell of Simi Valley, whose son Jack is now 19 years old.

During Jack’s twice-weekly training sessions at the Newbury Park gym, he performs all different kinds of strength and cardio training, including weight lifting, heavy-bag hitting, lifting medicine balls and pulling and pushing a sled. Jack also does sit-ups, push-ups and jumping jacks as part of his full-body workout.

“Jack’s workouts have given him a desire and love of working out and doing some kind of physical activity daily. I think this will continue throughout his lifetime,” his mom said.

As a result of training with Coach David, “Jack is much more calm and relaxed, just as we all are after getting a good workout,” she said.  

“I also think he feels a great sense of accomplishment and pride in himself after a great workout,” Laura Tindell added. “It just makes him feel good, which is what we want for our kids: to be healthy, happy and feel good about themselves and others.”

Igliori’s Fitness for Autism gym is among several efforts throughout Ventura County that serve individuals on the autism spectrum.

Coach David Igliori works with Diego Peña, 10, who was born with autism.

“Ventura County boasts a number of services to support the needs of people with autism,” said Edlyn Vallejo Peña of Camarillo, Director and co-founder of the Autism and Communication Center at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.

Peña, an associate professor who conducts research on supporting students with autism, also has a 10-year-old son, Diego, who was born with autism and has been training with Coach David since June of 2017.

There are many different areas in which people with autism need support, Peña said, including sensory, communication, adaptive skills, social, behavior, fitness and adaptive recreation. 

“For instance, my son has been attending Special Equestrian Riding Therapy in Moorpark and Conejo Vallejo Therapeutic Recreation camp for many years,” Peña said. “These places have been a good fit for him because they are willing to accommodate and support his unique needs.”

Special Equestrian Riding Therapy (SERT) is a charitable organization that provides physically, mentally and emotionally challenged individuals an opportunity for growth through horsemanship. The nonprofit effort was founded in 1987 by a group of concerned individuals and parents of children with disabilities who were seeking a way to improve the quality of their children’s lives through the use of horses. SERT gives these youths the opportunity to practice skills needed to face their fears, communicate feelings, and access strengths. Through regular sessions, therapeutic horseback riding can help improve attention span, speech and other communication skills, self-confidence and self-control, as well as balance, coordination,and muscle strength. 

In Thousand Oaks, the Conejo Recreation and Park District offers a “Therapeutic Recreation” sport and leisure programs for children, teens and adults who have difficulty participating in recreation because of a disability. Participants include those with cognitive, neurological, physical, or emotional disabilities, and/or sensory impairments. Benefits may include improved social skills, enhanced self–esteem, increased independence and self-reliance, enhanced communication skills, eased fears, improved overall health, well-being, physical ability and functional ability, improved constructive use of leisure time and elimination of boredom leading to reduced stress and anxiety.

Peña added that Autism Society of Ventura County has a great directory that lists plenty of resources in Ventura, Oxnard, Camarillo, Thousand Oaks, Newbury Park, Westlake Village, Simi Valley, Moorpark, Santa Paula and Agoura. These resources include respite and companion care, supported living services, support groups, academic tutoring, recreation activities, counseling and medical providers.

She further noted that a report by the CDC was released a few weeks ago showing that diagnostic rates for children with autism in the U.S. have been steady for the last few years. 

“The rate is 1 in 68,” Peña said. “So the good news is that the rates of children diagnosed with autism are stabilizing, but the high rate of 1 in 68 means that many children continue to need intensive interventions and supports into their adult years.”

Since training with Coach David, her son Diego has become stronger and more coordinated in his movements, his mom said. 

“He is learning push-ups, sit-ups and pushing and pulling weights on the weight machine. Before we started with Coach David, Diego was not yet able to do these kinds of exercises,” Peña said. “With lots of practice and patience from Coach David over the last eight months, Diego is now able to coordinate his body to execute these kinds of exercises. Diego walks out of the gym both energized and proud of himself.”

“A gift for this type of work”

David Igliori’s initial experience with autism began when he was in a 13-year relationship with a woman who had a son on the autism spectrum.

“Her son was 8 years old when I first met him and I had no experience with autism,” recalled Igliori of Newbury Park, who has been in the fitness industry for 15 years.

“She often commented that I had a gift for this type of work,” he said.

At first, “I didn’t want to do it. Then I met with a business adviser … when I was looking to start a new business.  When I told him about fitness for autism, he looked at me with a deep stare — he was ex-marine and retired executive — and said, ‘Do the autism.’ ”

Igliori began weight training and boxing with his girlfriend’s son, a positive experience that lasted the length of their relationship, and inspired him to open Fitness for Autism in October of 2012.

“I can see the enthusiasm as they participate in the program, also the improvement in their coordination, strength and confidence,” Igliori said. “My goal is that this be a positive experience for the entire family.”

Igliori works with children ranging from 6 years old to young adults in their mid-20s. To “access” a client, he uses different styles of training to determine what captures their interest and works best for them. 

“The goal is to teach fitness as a lifestyle not a chore,” Igliori said. 

Communicating with the nonverbal

“I really do believe, based on personal experience, that individuals with limited to no speech have superior intelligence,” said Peña, who is currently writing a book on the subject.

In an excerpt from her book, Peña notes that evidence continues to mount that autistic students are often underestimated by traditional intelligence testing. 

In 2016, a team of medical researchers published one of the largest studies of so-called “minimally verbal” students. The results of the study challenge the widespread assumption that autistic students who have difficulty with speech must have low intelligence. In a sample of 1,470 minimally verbal autistic children, researchers found that 43 to 52 percent of participants scored higher on their nonverbal scores compared to their verbal scores. In contrast, participants without disabilities achieved similar scores on both parts of the intelligence tests. 

In yet another study, alternative assessments were administered to 30 minimally verbal children that focused on “autistic cognitive strengths” using “strength-informed assessments” rather than conventional instruments. 

While none of the children in the study could complete the conventional instrument to measure intelligence, at least 26 of the children were able to complete one or more alternative assessments.  On one of the assessment instruments, autistic children actually outperformed typically developing children.

“Their conclusion? Minimally verbal autistic children run the risk of being underestimated and ‘wrongly regarded as having little cognitive potential,’ ” Peña said.

Exercise is important for all of us, including those on the autism spectrum, Igliori said.

“It helps build confidence … and gives the clients an event to look forward to,” he said. “Sometimes clients may come in tired or not in good moods, but after a session they smile and are recharged. Like for all of us, exercise boosts endorphins. In addition, for my clients, it is sense of an accomplishment.”

Spencer, Collin and Taku

For 27-year-old Spencer Teplitz, who was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 years old, training with Coach David has made a big difference since he started in 2013, said his parents, Paul and Alexis Teplitz of Thousand Oaks.

“The effect that Coach David has had on Spencer is multilayered,” Alexis Teplitz said.

For instance, Spencer lives by the calendar.

“Coach David is entered on Tuesdays and Fridays on the calendar each week, which makes his sessions not only for exercise but also a social engagement,” Alexis noted.

Meetings with Coach David are also beneficial because they are conducted one-on-one. During these sessions, Spencer’s workouts include lifting weights on various fitness machines, running, agility drills, resistance-band workouts, throwing and catching medicine balls and footballs, jumping jacks and multistation course workouts.

“Coach David’s manner and patience, and his skill in teaching Spencer physical activities that he has never done before, and then improving these abilities over time, has led to tremendous gains in Spencer’s self-esteem,” Alexis said.

“That positive attitude has led to a stronger, healthier Spencer,” she said. “He enjoys and looks forward to his workouts, and this has fueled a desire for more fitness activities in other realms.”

Terri Murcia of Westlake Village has also seen a difference in her 16-year-old son, Collin, since he joined the Fitness for Autism gym about four years ago. His workouts typically consist of boxing and weight training.

“Collin absolutely loves boxing with Coach David,” said Murcia, whose son was diagnosed at age 3 on the autism spectrum. “It has boosted his self-esteem and has made him physically stronger and coordinated. If he’s had a tough day at school, he is able to turn his mood around by going to the gym. It helps calm him down and stay regulated.”

Regulating his mood is especially helpful.

“It is encouraging him to do his best and giving him a positive outlet to release stress and frustration,” Murcia said. “He really enjoys his time with Coach David and has become quite proficient at boxing.” 

Chika Johnson, whose 21-year-old son, Taku, was diagnosed with autism at 3 and a half years old, said Coach David offers many fun things for her son to do at the gym.

“And those are his favorite things to do,” said Johnson of Newbury Park, noting that her son particular enjoys throwing a football back and forth and shooting hoops.

Taku also does weight training using machines, free weights and heavy medicine balls, and also performs core training, conditioning exercises, hand-eye coordination activities and stretching.

“Some new exercises aren’t easy for him, but Coach David encourages him to try, always teaches him with correct forms, and he shows him how to do things,” Johnson said. “My son is a visual learner so it really helps him.”

Taku used to do gymnastics, which involved jumping on trampolines, tumbling, doing the pommel horse and other related exercises.

“But when he got bigger, I got a bit afraid that he might get injured with those high-impact exercises, and I thought, who can do those kinds of exercises when he gets older?” Johnson said. “That’s why I switched him to Coach David so he can do exercises for a long time, with good experienced guidance.”

Igliori said he reaps great personal satisfaction from helping clients on the autism spectrum reach their goals.

“If I can make a small bit of an impact on any of my clients that help them through life, I did my job,” he said. “My clients feed my soul. I believe they do more for me then I do for them.”

Upcoming conferences

Walking the Path Together: Together We Can

Families of children with special needs will learn about resources and strategies to help their kids at a conference on April 14 in Camarillo. “Walking the Path Together: Together We Can” is for families of children from birth to age 5 who have special needs. There will be two keynote speakers and several breakout sessions, covering topics on positive behavior support, parent/child interaction and stress reduction.

The event is on Saturday, April 14, 2018 from 7:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Ventura County Office of Education, Conference and Educational Services Center – 5100 Adolfo Road, Camarillo. The conference is presented by the Ventura County Early Start Program. Additional information and online registration is at https://tinyurl.com/y8hqfgrm.

Social Success in the 21st Century for Individuals with Autism

Families and professionals who support young people affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can get valuable insights and strategies at a conference to be held in Camarillo on April 19. Participants will gain a greater understanding of strategies to help youth with autism navigate the challenges of life in the 21st century cover topics including body language, anxiety and depression, and internet safety for youth with ASD.

The event will be held on Thursday, April 19, from 4 to 7 p.m. at the VCOE Conference and Educational Services Center – 5100 Adolfo Road, Camarillo. The conference is presented by the Ventura County Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA). Additional information and online registration is at https://tinyurl.com/y9waq9nm.