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Full Spectrum Fitness Serves the Main Line’s Autistic Community

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Photo by Tessa Marie Images

At his Bala Cynwyd studio, Pete Phillips helps people on the autism spectrum get fit and further develop their independence.

A physical education teacher at Overbrook School for the Blind, Pete Phillips has been teaching sports to special needs kids for a decade. But that wasn’t enough.

“I want to teach the skills they need to get through the day and become more independent,” Phillips says. “I realized that independence was the focus, and it all clicked.”

At Phillips’ Full Spectrum Fitness in Bala Cynwyd, the goals are a little different. “We’re not trying to build a body, we’re trying to build stability,” says Phillips, who opened for business this past June.

All on the autism spectrum, his clients begin with an assessment to determine their current level of physical, cognitive and behavioral functioning. “How are they going to best learn?” says Phillips.

Once that’s been determined, it’s on to the exercises. Squats, ball throws, rope swings, mountain climbers, bear walks and shoulder presses are just a few. Typically, Phillips sees each client for a 50-minute session at least once a week.

Connecting with people on the autism spectrum can be quite difficult, as social anxiety and emotional distance come with the territory. To encourage his students, Phillips uses a system of reinforcement and rewards. One client wouldn’t go near the sandbell weights, so Phillips had him simply touch the sandbag to earn a break. From there, he worked with the client to hold the sandbell for longer periods of time. Right now, he’s at two to three minutes.

Another physically gifted client was quite capable of holding eight-pound weights for shoulder presses, but he refused to do so. So Phillips let him pick the exercise—only he had to do it if he chose it. That gave the client ownership.

Other strategies involve using a familiar item for motivation. Phillips gets clients to bear walk to their stuffed animals, offering a reward upon completion. But it can get tricky. “I need to determine if they’re physically unable to perform, or if it’s a function of not wanting to do it,” he says.

Liz Greco’s 13-year-old twins, Billy and Dylan, have autism and ADHD. Both are Full Spectrum clients. The Havertown resident discovered Phillips through a Facebook group. For years, she’d had trouble getting her sons to exercise regularly. Phillips changed that. “They’re both big boys, and they’re not motivated by much,” says Greco.

That’s not an issue at Full Spectrum. The twins do several exercises together at their weekly sessions, including tossing a weighted ball back and forth and swinging a rope between the two of them.

Suzette Keidel’s 23-year-old son, Jon, has autism and cerebral palsy. During the pandemic, he’s been largely confined to their Aston home. When she discovered Full Spectrum in July, Keidel was won over by the one-on-one format.

Jon is there two to three times a week, stepping over hurdles on his own—something he used to need full assistance to accomplish. He also pulls down on an elastic band to strengthen his hips and wrists.

Phillips’ favorite success stories are about clients who develop enough agility to excel outside his studio. Greco’s twins now walk and ride their bikes for longer periods of time, and she’s seen an increase in their overall endurance. Before working with Phillips, Jon needed full assistance to stand. That’s no longer does the case. The few steps in front of the Keidel home also used to be a problem. Now he can negotiate them with little issue. “He went from having to hold on with two hands to doing it independently,” Keidel says.

Jon can even do a pushup. “We were blown away,” says Keidel. “He’s just making amazing progress.”