Jackie Schuld Art Therapy Blog

How Neurodivergent Acceptance Can Improve our Lived Experiences

I recently met with a neurodivergent (ND) trainer who specializes in creating fitness plans for ND people to feel mentally better. I did not seek this trainer out, because I did not know such a trainer existed. The trainer came across my Linked-In network as a suggested connection.


Autistic Art Therapist Jackie Schuld shares an illustration of a bear dressing up as a rabbit.
"Trying to Fit In" Illustration by Jackie Schuld

In the past, I’ve had extremely negative experiences with trainers that left me feeling like I was too sensitive, not good enough, and just needed to try harder. I’d do workouts that were physically taxing and left my body feeling horrendously sore for days. When I’d speak with the trainer, I’d be told to just stretch more. And yet, that never helped. I felt more and more like I just must be doing something wrong.


As I’ve come into my own understanding and acceptance of being autistic, I am now re-envisioning many of these experiences. I now see that I had unique needs that my trainer was not equipped to respect or meet.


So I decided to meet this ND trainer to see what training might look like from a ND lens.


He started by asking about me. When I explained that I am not interested in dieting, weighing myself, or measuring my size, he didn’t bat an eye. He automatically respected and accepted my desires. There were no further questions or examinations on the matter.


It was refreshing. I was used to having to defend my preferences. My previous trainer insisted on weighing me and taking my body measurements to track my “progress.”


Since then, I’ve embraced a body neutral perspective, where I no longer try to force my body into a particular weight or size. I no longer desire to tie my worth to my size (though it’s admittedly hard to let go of sometimes).


I discussed with my ND trainer how I’m trying to leave “healthism” and orthorexia behind to redefine what health means for me. He immediately understood and offered to send me other ways to measure the impacts of fitness that don’t include my weight or size.


It was so nice to be heard, understood, and then even catered to.


We also discussed how in the past I fell into extremes - either doing nothing or “punishing” my body in extreme workouts. I’ve struggled to find a middle ground of what feels good for my body. He immediately related and talked about how he helps people to find a space where they can meet short term goals and long term goals without grueling workouts. I appreciated that he didn’t try to convince me that I just needed to “commit more” or “try harder.” Instead, he insisted it is about tailoring a plan to my needs.


In the past, I felt little mental benefit from working out. I could maybe feel an uptick of energy and a little bit better about myself since I did what I “should,” but not much else. My ND trainer provided some personal examples of how it helped him, which helped me to see that maybe my fitness could be an alternative when my energy tanks are low and I go for naps or sugar.


Instead of rushing headfirst into extremes though, he suggested we could try replacing one nap a week with a workout to see. It was refreshing for someone to reign me in - instead of jumping to extremes, such as replacing all my naps at once.


Toward the end of our call, he shared about a questionnaire I would complete so he could design a fitness routine for me. I asked if there would be some portions to explain about my body. I explained that many autistic people experience connective tissue challenges (such as Ehler Danlos Syndrome) and that my body is extremely tight. I’ve learned with time that stretching does not help. Instead, strengthening seems to have a better impact.


He responded, “This is exactly what I want to know.” In the past, even though I didn’t know I was autistic, I knew long periods of stretching didn’t feel good. I knew there was something about my body that caused it to not respond well. When I explained this to my trainer, he insisted that I just needed to stretch for longer and more frequent periods of time.


So What’s the Real Difference?


One, I didn’t trust my lived experience in the past. I was willing to contort myself to fit what was expected of me. Learning I am autistic has helped me to shift to trusting and honoring my needs.


Second, many neurotypical people have difficulty understanding or seeing outside of neurotypical norms. Finding a neurodiverse trainer was like finding someone who already understood me and was willing to listen to me. He naturally expected me to have needs outside of standard norms. He automatically accepted my words at face value. I understand that neurotypical people are capable of this, but there is something different present when you know someone has a shared lived experience.


I haven’t even begun my fitness routine and I’m already feeling energized. It feels good to be seen, heard, and understood. His neurodiverse perspective and my neurodiverse self-acceptance have dramatically changed my experience with fitness.

 

Thank you for reading. If you’d like to read more, sign up for my FUNletter. If you would like to explore your autistic identity with an autistic therapist, you can learn more about my therapy services here.

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