When I feel sensory overload coming on, it’s an uncomfortable, physically overwhelming sensation. My brain tries to combat the input coming in from the world around me, and immediately I have a fight-or-flight feeling.
If possible, I try to get out first and explain what happened later. If I stay too long, I might cry, hyperventilate, or feel as if I can’t function properly because of a meltdown. These feelings also describe how I’ve felt when going to the gym.
My athletic career was incredibly short-lived. I started doing physical activity because I needed to work on my motor skills, a common challenge for children on the autism spectrum.
My stint included briefly riding horses until my arm got caught in the reins and the broken bone led to emergency surgery, passing out on the first day of high school rowing team camp because of the heat, and historically being picked last in PE class.
After that, I never dared to join an intramural sport in college or law school — until before my final year of law school. At 22, I was drained, and it dawned on me that I needed to become more physically active. So when a friend suggested I work out with her sometime, I agreed.
This brought me to the campus gym, where I was immediately overwhelmed — not by the people who were arguably more fit and stronger than I was but by the harsh fluorescent light, the crowds of sweaty students waiting to use the machines or socializing, the massive amounts of equipment, and the vast room where people moved about, their sneakers squeaking at every turn.
Wellness may promote becoming your best, strongest self, mentally and physically, but people with disabilities are often systemically excluded — even through something as simple as the harshness of the light.
This exclusivity often starts with experiences similar to mine of getting picked last in gym class.
Rather than be excluded by others again, we dismiss ourselves or simply aren’t invited back, knowing that society has taught people to see disability as broken, weaker, or less than. Because of this portrayal, it wrongly falls on those with immeasurable physical strength to demand inclusion for others.
But fitness and movement should be fun and available to anyone who wants to participate.
Mark Fleming owns Puzzle Piece Fitness LLC, a gym offering personal training to people on the autism spectrum. As an autistic entrepreneur and personal trainer, he’s especially aware of the effect traditional gyms may have on people on the spectrum.
“My eyes would constantly be darting around the typical gym, as there was so much movement going on,” Fleming explains. “Then the sound of every machine and light topping that really put me in a hyper-vigilant state. The input of my senses was never overbearing but just enough for my brain to put everything in high alert.”
My reaction to these sensory inputs was more extreme than Fleming’s: Instead of entering a highly alert state, given the perfect storm of circumstances, I would experience sensory overload.
When I tried a cardio and strength hybrid class at Barry’s Bootcamp, I was greeted by red lights in a dark room, sweat, and thumping bass-driven music. A trainer with a mic told us to move faster or complete one more rep with the dumbbells.
It was like being in a nightclub, and all I could think about was the ugly fluorescent lights of the campus gym. Sure, there were courtesy earplugs, but those didn’t cover the piercing beats in my ears.
On top of how difficult it was to focus on the workout, I didn’t feel energized enough to run. There’s no adrenaline boost in wanting to sprint out the door (thus disrespecting my class and instructor) or feeling depleted and sweaty from being in survival mode as my ears continue to ring.
I had hoped that increasingly ubiquitous boutique fitness studios would be less overwhelming to my senses. I felt at peace when yoga instructors didn’t unexpectedly touch me or use strongly scented incense, or when a reformer Pilates class had only four or five students and the instructor had a soothing voice that traveled in a quiet space.
Mikhaela Ackerman, an autistic yoga instructor who also blogs at Edge of the Playground, tells me that these atmospheres can’t be found everywhere. “Strong scents and heated yoga is often not accessible and causes sensory issues,” she says, noting that even small local or independent studios can be overwhelming and not sensory-friendly.
I soon realized that putting a spin bike in my apartment was the answer I’d been looking for. (I love spinning because the movements feel like voluntary dance movements, a socially acceptable and encouraged form of stimming.) But not everyone can or should bring the gym into their home.
As much as I enjoy working out at home, I also love being part of a community with a “we’re all in this together” mentality. Having someone who can make sure I’m exercising effectively and safely is also a plus.
When I went to a local spin studio during law school, instructors and riders alike asked about my studies and cheered me on when I was studying for the bar exam.
That community was a respite during the grueling study days leading up to the exam. It was wonderful to share with my fitness community that I’d passed the bar. This sense of community — or the desire to find it — is why I’ll continue to venture out and risk sensory overload at gyms.
But disabled and autistic people shouldn’t have to feel like they’re risking themselves to go to the gym, take yoga classes, or find a fitness community.
They should be able to enter a space like the one Ackerman specifically creates in her classes. Using low lights and weighted blankets or sandbags “[helps] make a neurodiverse student feel more grounded,” she says. So does “avoiding the use of heavy incense or essential oils.”
And they should be able to find training programs like Fleming’s, which are tailored to be inclusive, comforting, and as positive as possible for his autistic clients.
While we — fitness enthusiasts, couch potatoes, experts, athletes, and nonathletes alike — can make sure everyone feels welcome, big gyms need to go beyond using disability as a way to market their studios or fundraise for organizations that work with us. Small studios need to go beyond segregated adaptive fitness initiatives and start acting from a mindset of inclusion.
That starts with having studio and gym personnel who are disabled themselves, like Fleming and Ackerman, serve as leaders, not last picks.