4 Tips to Introduce Exercise to a Child with Autism + Q&A with Coach Dave of Exercise Connection

Our favorite part of Binge Fitness week is meeting inspiring people and helping them share their stories. Today, we are focusing on David S. Geslak, BS, ACSM-HFS, CSCS-President & Founder of Exercise Connection. We are honored to get to share his story, his tips, and we were even able to snag an exclusive interview with ‘Coach Dave!”

Coach Dave began teaching exercise to children with autism and other cognitive disabilities in 2004. At the time, exercise wasn’t listed as a form of treatment. As Dave witnessed both physical and emotional breakthroughs in the students he worked with, he made it his mission to reach more children, adults and professionals. Dave soon began creating functional exercise resources, DVDs, books, and the ExerciseBuddy – Visual Exercise System (iPad App) to empower others to do the same. People took notice. In 2012, The Autism Channel offered Dave a TV Show, “Coach Dave”, and in 2014, Jessica Kingsley Publishers published Dave’s third book, The Autism Fitness Handbook.

Coach Dave is widely recognized for his affection to the autism community, dynamic presentations, and for the pioneering of visual exercise programs. In addition to giving hundreds of presentations across the United States, Coach Dave has hosted workshops to train parents and professionals on his protocols in Barbados, Egypt, Dubai and Russia. The autism and special needs community have embraced Dave’s message and are especially encouraged by his results.

Coach Dave graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in Health Promotion. He is a Certified Health Fitness Specialist from the American College of Sports Medicine and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist from the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He was previously the Fitness Coordinator for Giant Steps, a school for children with autism, and the former Board Treasurer for the Autism Society of Illinois.


Coach Dave’s Top 4 Tips to Introduce Exercise to a Child with Autism

Many people on the spectrum benefit from visual supports and they can be especially helpful when you start incorporating exercise into part of your child’s regular routine. The pictures teach and show them what is expected and assist you as the parent or professional. The “Visual Exercise System” in my book The Autism Fitness Handbook provides specific visual supports to help get you started.

Structure and routine are vital for children’s development and particularly if they are on the autism spectrum. However, when it comes to exercise, think of regular as opposed to daily. Pick a day, a time, and then get started. You might want to start out at two times a week and then gradually work up to three or four times per week. If you try to do it every single day, you are setting yourself and your child up for failure.

Exercise is a lifestyle change or a lifestyle addition. Educate your child’s teachers and therapists on what exercise can do. Share with them the research and success stories in this article and in my book to promote the value of being physically active. Exercise is not only for gym class, it can be a sensory break as well.

Be patient, be kind, be persistent. A personal trainer’s job is to instruct perfect form. The typical words used to do so are “no” and “try again.” Our kids hear “no” way too often. Exercise must be a positive experience. If you get them moving, even for three minutes, that is three minutes they did not spend plopped in front of the TV. Of course you’ll want to gradually increase the amount of time your child spends being physically active, but you have done a good job in making this start, so pat yourself on the back. Don’t focus on the form (as long as they are not being unsafe).

What initially inspired you to begin the journey of Exercise Connection?

I was a Fitness Coordinator at a school for children with autism and designed a fitness program that was making a difference.

I wanted to get the word out, and began speaking at local (Illinois) autism conferences. People were interested. I then was asked to speak at out-of-state autism conferences. By this time I had created a DVD to give parents and professionals tips and exercises. With little web presence it was selling all over the world.

Soon after I decided to leave the school (an extremely tough decision) but I knew this was my way to help more children and families.

Your job must be so rewarding- what is the best part of what you do?

In May 2015, my wife and I traveled to Moscow, Russia to give a workshop to parents and professionals on the Exercise Connection protocols and how exercise can help improve language development for individuals with autism spectrum disorder.

When presenting in other parts of the world, even with translators, it is difficult to understand if your message is well understood.

Three weeks after we got back to the US, a mother who was in my workshop, posted on Facebook a picture of her son lifting 2-lb dumbbells and her message read:

“Thank you David Geslak for inspiration. Our new morning exercises.”

This is why I do it. I want to empower others to help their children and/or students. And it’s working!

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome while building the Exercise Connection brand?

I have a business mentor and he told me if you can’t get the math to work you may have a really expensive hobby. I have had limited financial resources but I haven’t let that deter my mission.

I have had to create new revenue streams in order to build the brand. When I began in 2009, I thought I would just hire more trainers and then maybe have franchise locations. Easier said than done. This plan was expensive, had significant liability and maybe could help me reach tens of thousands in the US. I want to reach millions across the world. I had to develop a better model.

While it is never easy, I continue to learn a lot, make mistakes, but most important the Exercise Connection mission is reaching more children, adults, families and professionals impacted by autism.

How can our readers become more involved with Exercise Connection?

We don’t have any volunteer opportunities yet but we are always looking for potential new staff to teach classes or be involved in our mission. Visit exerciseconnection.com or exercisebuddy.com

What is next on the Exercise Connection journey?

In July 2015, we are releasing ExerciseBuddy, an iPad App,that address the difficult task of teaching exercise to individuals with autism. Tablets and technology are the future to helping our children learn.

We hope to have a successful launch in the Apple Store and then develop ExerciseBuddy on the various technology platforms. As we do this, we will also create ExerciseBuddy in other languages.

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