How a man on the Spectrum learns to live

Posts tagged ‘Fitness’

Let’s Keep Moving!

"I've Got to Keep on Moving!"-Matthew Wilder

“I’ve Got to Keep on Moving!”-Matthew Wilder

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned how being active has alleviated the worst parts of my Asperger’s Syndrome and helped me eliminate the need for prescription anti-anxiety and anti-depression drugs. I’m very happy to say that I’m not only maintaining this lifestyle, but I’ve found new ways to keep myself healthy and vital. It’s a gradual process because I still need to take small steps to change my established routines, but I have a variety of activities that don’t feel like chores at all.

I believe it all starts with perspective. Some people still don’t realize how Aspies can be very sensitive to disruptions in routine. Generally, the lower functioning the person, the more likely they will act out in nonverbal, hard-to-understand ways. Even though I have High-Functioning Autism, I’ve still had my moments of vocal protest.

Can you imagine being so sensitive to disruptions in your surroundings that you become gripped by paralyzing fear and heart-pounding stress? Think of a high-stress, no-relief day with no end in sight and no way to communicate how you feel! This is what can happen to someone living with Autism on a daily basis!

Fortunately, with years of counseling, specialized therapy, and a strong support system, I developed coping skills like using different activities that not only boost my physical health, but also improve my mental health and well-being. I feel like physical fitness starts with improving the body and evolves into strengthening the mind and soul. Everyone including those on the Spectrum can benefit from variety, it just takes time to find out what works best.

Some activities I learned to enjoy with time, and others I took an instant liking to. I’ve written about the different exercise tapes and DVDs that got me started on my fitness journey. Since then, I’ve also utilized my membership at a local gym. One of my favorite activities is playing the Dance Dance Revolution arcade game and the different dancing games for Xbox 360 and Kinect. They give me a fun workout and an adrenaline rush that lifts my spirits to new heights! I’ve talked about this extensively in a previous post entitled “You Should Be Dancing

In the past two years I’ve developed an interest in hiking, which used to be out of character for me, I didn’t really consider myself an outdoor person. There is such a centering, affirming quality to hiking. Looking for different trails and walking a path in the midst of nature is a great way to clear my mind. When I focus on where I plant my feet, I’m reminded of the spiritual strength that comes from walking meditation. I regain a clear perspective on life, and that’s worth feeling tired at the end.

At the gym, I take advantage of the special classes that are offered. I’ve found the most energy, excitement, and sweat equity in cycling and kickboxing. Doing the early classes helps my day to start off in a positive way, and that’s something, considering that I never used to be a morning person!

I participate in several runs for charity each year: perfect opportunities to test my fitness level in the real world. I’ve also discovered farmer’s markets, museums, parks, and outdoor festivals are great not only for walking, but for socializing as well. It may not seem like much, but I enjoy living in the moment.

I’ve come a long way from the boy who was afraid of P.E. and ate junk food to hide his insecurities. I’m more alive and youthful than I was in high school! Now, what kind of activities keep you in motion? How long have you enjoyed them, and do they lift your spirits? Everyone’s at a different place in their journeys, and I’m just glad to be in the place I am today with the ability to keep moving!

Today’s musical inspiration is a fun little ditty from the 1980s by Matthew Wilder: “Break My Stride

Behind the Armor

The life-size Iron Man armors at San Diego Comic-Con 2010. (Photo taken by me.)

The life-size Iron Man armors at San Diego Comic-Con 2010. (Photo taken by me.)

Who knew that pop culture could play a big part in my “Aspie” life?  I remember the first time I saw an iconic character on film; it really stuck with me.  The truth is that I’ve had more than my share of insightful moments in pop culture and I could continue speaking about them unabated, but that would turn most “normal” people off.  My point is that there are fictional characters that I’ve been able to relate to in some way.  One of the most famous in the “geek-centered” world of comic books, video games, and superheroes is one whose humanity made me look at myself in a whole new way.

The character I’m talking about is Anthony Edward Stark, better known as Iron Man.  Of course, the first thing I noticed was that he shared the same first name as me.  Now there may be a tendency for some men to turn into fan-boys when talking about someone as famous and possessing of swagger as Tony Stark, but my admiration for him comes from the way he became more human & less egotistical after the incident that made him into Iron Man.  When I read about his origins in the different permutations written in different decades, I could see the meaning between the lines.  I first learned about Iron Man when I was in high school; as I was embracing my geeky side I looked into his story a bit more.

He used to be the ambitious, brilliant, but self-centered head of Stark Industries, founded by his father.  While visiting a war zone he is the only survivor of an enemy ambush that kills his escort of American soldiers. Tony is taken prisoner by the enemy, who force him to build a deadly weapon with his knowledge.  He discovers, with the help of an imprisoned professor, that the explosion that killed the Americans has left pieces of shrapnel in his chest that threaten to pierce his heart.  The professor helps Tony construct a life-saving device that enables him to finish his creation: the first prototype of the Iron Man armor.  Even though the professor sacrifices himself in the process, his death enables Tony to destroy the enemy and escape back to American-held territory.

From then on Tony becomes an advocate for science that brings health and abundance to the world.  It is then that he discovers that this brave new world has both challenges and rewards.  While battling villains around the world and within his own life, he begins to slide into a state of denial about what he uses to cope with pressure.  For me this was a pivotal moment in his story: he was a textbook alcoholic leaning on liquor, desperately hoping to forget the pressures of his life.  Only the intervention of his closest friends and family enables him to get the help he needs to gain control of his addiction.

It was this story about Tony Stark’s insecurities that made me respect his character even more.  As I grew older I speculated about him having Asperger’s Syndrome.  He has an almost genius level intelligence and a natural skill for electronics and engineering.  These talents cannot disguise his tendency towards addictive behavior and a sharp tongue in social situations.  How he gained his well-deserved reputation as a womanizer is still a puzzle to me, but what really changed my perspective was the story arc of the early 1980s entitled “Demon in a Bottle”.

Several different events would push Tony towards drinking liquor very often.  When he slumps into his desk chair, pouring over scrapbooks and newspapers, the look of bitter reflection over a life that he once held together is a look I’ve seen my own mirror.  Just to know that there are factors in life that cannot be controlled is enough to make someone used to being in charge of their own life feel like caving into pressure.  That feeling can be even more pronounced in people on the Autism Spectrum.  You know the feeling you get when your life is so out of your hands you feel powerless?  That is a constant, nagging problem that can take hold of someone on the Spectrum and last for long time without support.  When the moment came for Tony Stark to be confronted with his alcoholism, it was done in such an honest and personal way that I’ve read it over and over again.

When his girlfriend tells him about how she lost her first husband in a car accident after months of him abusing prescription pills Tony says that he’s sorry for what happened. She rebuffs Tony and tells him that she doesn’t need his pity, she just needs him to listen.  He was going down a dark path; the same one that led to the death of her husband, only Tony’s choice of a slow death was alcohol instead of prescription drugs.  He may have been carrying the weight of the world, but he had forgotten about his closest friends and employees who could help him carry that weight.  All he had to do was to remember that he could lean on the people he loved instead of using liquor as a crutch.  It was a moment that stays with me today: Tony Stark made the decision to put away the alcohol and be vulnerable for once in his life.

Every time I read that story arc, it is a sobering reminder of my own humanity.  When I look at Tony Stark’s face as the pressures of his life and the words of his girlfriend collide in his mind, I can feel the desperation as he holds the half-full glass of liquor in one trembling hand.  Even as setbacks start to jeopardize his journey to sobriety, Tony becomes strong enough to put down the bottle and begin climbing out of the hole that his addiction had dug for him.

Watching the agony and terror overtake him as he stands at a crossroads is reminiscent of the times when I could not seem to find hope in my worst moments.  It’s a sickening feeling when you realize how out-of-control an addiction has made your life.  My own problems with poor diet and video games were definitely addictions; it took a lot of courage and insight to admit that I inherited the gene of addiction that runs in my family.  For someone on the Spectrum, it’s easy to be self-absorbed while not necessarily being self-aware.

Seeing Robert Downey Jr. cast as Tony Stark in the Iron Man and Avengers movies was a well thought-out move.  Using a skilled and versatile actor with his own real-life struggles was a great way of keeping Iron Man relevant and bringing new life to the franchise.  Apart from enjoying the movies, I was impressed at how human Tony was when played by Robert Downey Jr.

The power and humanity of Iron Man has had a significant impact on my own self-awareness.  It’s taken me a long time to open up to my friends and family about my own struggles, but the strength I gained from doing so made the effort worth it.  I feel like “Aspies” such as myself are forced to put on an armor of our own making to protect ourselves from a world that doesn’t understand.  However, it takes real courage and vulnerability to be open and honest so that the world can see the person behind the armor.

Small Victories

Medal heartI’ve heard people say that a person’s many great accomplishments will earn them great renown and build the legacy that will remain after they’ve passed on.  That is something that has inspired me to do whatever I can to make my own mark on the world.  Even though it’s a core value I’ve learned to adopt, I’ve always felt like it’s not the whole story.

Giving it some thought, I realized that there’s a lot of space in between the events in a person’s timeline.  I asked myself, “I wonder what else happened in their life between these big milestones?”  Not that I want to pry, I just wondered what else they had done, and what it meant to them?  What were their victories and defeats?  What kind of regrets and successes did they have in their personal life?  Soon, I discovered that the more I thought about other people, the more I began to look at myself.

I remember a lot of the smaller, more personal details of my life.  However, after I started writing this blog they took on an entirely different meaning.  There was a time when I wanted to go back and change some of the more negative events, but I’ve realized that even they contributed to making me the man I am today.  After much prayer and meditation I have learned to accept what has happened and embrace it.  There are lots of things that I’m proud of.  They may not always be significant to anyone else, but for me they proved that I’ve got a lot to live for and a lot to gain confidence from.

P.E. in elementary school was a source of frequent embarrassment for me.  Imagine having the lack of coordination that comes from being a “misfit” in school and being completely unaware of it!  There was one day when things shifted, and that was when I was playing a round of Four-Square Dodgeball.  I was playing with particularly strong focus that day.  Somehow, I was able to tag out this boy who was one of the best players at the game and take his position as server.  Two minutes later, recess was over and I walked away with my head held high.  Not bad for an uncoordinated Aspie, wouldn’t you say?

As a high school freshman, I was eager to sign up for choir because of how much I love music.  On impulse I decided to audition for the small but elite vocal jazz ensemble.  Before I knew it, my choir teacher told me that I had passed the audition and was accepted into this group that was usually reserved for experienced upperclassmen.  I believe that my teacher saw something in me that I didn’t know I had.  From that point on, I was in the jazz ensemble every year, and I enjoyed every moment of it because of the amazing fact that I had been accepted.  This culminated in my receiving of the music department’s Senior MVP Award.

In recent years, I’ve surprised myself with personal athletic victories.  2009 was the year I ran my first ever marathon.  I have also run in the Susan G. Komen 5K Race for the Cure for eleven years now and my time has improved, year by year.  By far, the most fulfilling event I have ever done was the 60-mile Komen 3-Day Walk For the Cure in honor of my grandmother who passed away from breast cancer.

These events are just a handful of the small victories that have given me confidence.  They may not mean much to anyone else, but to me they are things that I take pride in, knowing that I made them happen.  To think that a man on the Autism Spectrum could do everything I’ve done and still remember how they felt is something special in itself.  I also feel like no matter what happens, nothing can take away what I’ve done for myself.  Have you done anything in your life that made you feel this way?  What still makes you proud of yourself today?

Let’s Get Physical

Hello again!

First of all, I’m not talking about that song by Olivia Newton-John that came out after her famous appearance in Grease!  I’m talking about the role that physical exercise has played in my life with Asperger’s.

Here are my questions: what role has health and fitness played in your life?  Did you ever dread going to P.E. in school?  Were you frequently picked last in team sports?  Did you ever want to play with others but were afraid to because you didn’t know how?

Well to answer that, yes, I did have those less-than-fulfilling experiences during school P.E. classes.  Today I’m proud to be in the shape I’m in and I’ve been growing from strength to strength with knowledge I have gained from consistent healthy eating and exercise.  But it wasn’t always this way; indeed my story is probably one that is told by many an awkward kid who tried desperately to get through one day of school.

I was probably in 2nd grade when I started feeling out-of-place during team activities.  This was due to the fact that children on the Spectrum are prone to having difficulty with balance and coordination; I was no exception.  It’s also a fact that Spectrum children can be prone to having low muscle tone.  Needless to say, I’ve always had problems with a “soft” body that takes a long time to show results from frequent exercise.

These problems became more evident as I grew older.  Until about Spring in sixth grade, I was frequently picked last for teams, and that only added to the lowering of my self-esteem.  Being so unsure about what was different about me only made things worse.

I did have a few small victories here and there.  There were a few times where I was the last kid standing during dodgeball.  One time when I played four-square, I defeated a boy named Russell, who was the kid who stayed in the prime position the longest time until I unseated him with one well-placed serve.

Going into middle school, my head was filled with too many examples of kids on TV who got run over by overly enthusiastic coaches during P.E.  Thankfully, the reports of those types of teachers were very exaggerated.  I was also surprised to get my first taste of the strong mentor figure; the kind of coach who sees potential in every student and brings it out of them.  I feel like this is one of reasons why I developed a healthy respect for fitness trainers.

Entering high school and then community college, I began to really blossom in certain areas.  Unfortunately, this was also the time that my physical and mental health problems became worse.

I was put on more anxiety and depression medication, and there were too many days that I purchased unhealthy junk food from the commons.  To make matters worse, I did not know what I wanted to do with my life, so I had to take more prescriptions to stop the tumult inside my head.  Adding insult to injury, the biggest drawback was that weight gain was a side effect.

When I was finally brave enough to weigh myself, I had reached a peak of 250 pounds.  Now I’m six feet, one inch tall, and I should have looked strong, but husky.  The problem was the extra weight was all fat with very little muscle.  At that point, my self-esteem & self-image had reached an all time low.

It was in the Spring of 2003 when I had my first awakening.  I had just turned 21 and I knew that something was making me feel left out of life.  To this day, I don’t know what happened, but I had an epiphany.

When it happened, I began looking at exercise videos that I could enjoy doing at home.  The first one that stood out to me was the original Tae Bo, created by Billy Blanks.  I purchased the two-pack of tapes right away and began to learn the moves and stretches.  Before I knew it, by the beginning of June, I was on my feet learning to defend myself and getting healthier in the process.

Believe it or not, by the time Christmas rolled around, I was down to 210 pounds, which meant I had lost 40 pounds in just over six months!  I’ve taken pride in that achievement every day, because I used fitness and better food choices to do it right, and it’s a lifestyle that’s worked wonders for me since then.

It was in 2005 that another part of my transformation took place.  To tell you the truth, when I said I was born a geek, I really meant it.  For years I had no clue about making a good 1st impression, and my self-awareness about my appearance was almost nil.

By the grace of God, Mom introduced me to a hairstylist named Alberto.  He taught me how to style my hair and purchase certain products.  I also had to buy a whole new wardrobe because of my continued weight loss.  Ever since I met Alberto, I’ve been more conscious about how I present myself and my sense of style has matured, but I’ve kept a youthful polish to it.

For the past few years, I have continued to evolve inside and out.  As far as workouts go, I’ve kept myself busy with a lot of different activities.  Ever since 2001, I’ve run the 5k Race for the Cure every November.  Breast Cancer awareness is something very close to my heart, but I’ll explain it more at a later date.

I’ve had a gym membership for six years now, and I even ran my first marathon in 2009!  A great personal victory for myself, if I can do that, I can do even more!  Through it all, I’ve become a better version of myself.  I was able to strengthen my mind and body with diet and exercise.  I no longer take medications, and I’ve even done a few internal  cleanses to purge myself of toxins, in a healthy way of course.

I’ve come a long way from being a kid who was picked last for team sports.  The worst of my health problems are over, and health and fitness are a top priority in my life.  I encourage anyone on the Spectrum or those who know somebody on the Spectrum to just get moving!  Exercise can make a world of difference to your self-esteem and self-worth.  You are worth it!

I look forward to continuing on this journey and passing on my knowledge to my own children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren!  With all I’ve learned about living a full and healthy life, I wouldn’t be surprised if I lived that long!