Sweat Community Member Hannah Shares Her Story For Autism Awareness Month
Our mission here at Sweat is to empower all women looking to move more and support them as they make healthy lifestyle choices, but we know there will never be a one-size-fits-all prescription for a healthy and sustainable lifestyle.
Everyone’s experience of health and fitness is unique, depending on factors such as work and family commitments, injuries, motivation, mental health challenges, access to facilities, spaces or equipment, as well as illness, disabilities or health conditions.
As passionate as we are about encouraging you to nourish your body, move daily and treat yourself with compassion, we also believe it’s so important to learn about health and fitness experiences that might be different from your own.
This Autism Awareness Month, we spoke to Hannah, a member of the Sweat Community who has high-functioning autism, about what fitness means to her and the impact it has on her daily life.
What is autism spectrum disorder?
As Autism Awareness Australia explains, autism spectrum disorder (or ASD) is a developmental condition that affects how people communicate, interact with others and make sense of the world. Autism is an incredibly diverse condition that presents differently in each person, hence why the condition is described as a “spectrum”, but a common misconception is that this spectrum is linear.
Autism Spectrum Australia says it’s more accurate to think of it as a wheel or constellation, with different aspects of life being affected in different ways for each person. These can include learning, socialising, communication, interests, sensitivity to sensory experiences, leisure and emotional regulation. One person with autism might be able to live and work with little or no support, while another may need a lot of support, depending on how significantly each area is affected.
The exact cause of autism isn’t known, but research suggests genetic, environmental and developmental factors play a role.
How is autism diagnosed?
Autism can be diagnosed at any age, usually by a psychologist or psychiatrist who has experience in assessing the condition. There is no biological test, and a diagnosis may also involve a speech pathologist, a paediatrician (for children), or other health professionals if additional assessment is required. Because autism often co-occurs with other conditions such as ADHD, anxiety or depression, assessments for these may be performed at the same time.
It’s widely accepted that gender bias may play a role in autism assessment, leading to girls and women being misdiagnosed or diagnosed later in life than their male counterparts. Recent research has highlighted how clinicians need to be better educated about how autism presents in autistic females, as autistic women and girls are missing out on adequate support due to delayed diagnoses.
Being a highly individualised condition, treatment pathways are too, but they always aim to reduce or manage the symptoms that interfere with everyday life. According to the American Psychiatric Association, treatment can include social skills training, speech, language and occupational therapy, as well as treating any co-occurring conditions such as anxiety, depression and ADHD.
Celebrating every win
According to research from 2020, physical activity has positive effects on social skills and behaviour in young children and adolescents with autism, but as each person with autism has a highly individualised set of symptoms and characteristics, programs for physical activity must be highly individualised, too.
The American College of Sports Medicine says that research continues to show that exercise may positively affect the health and other challenges of people with autism, and Sweat Community member Hannah can vouch for that.
For Hannah, leading an active lifestyle is an act of self-care that goes far beyond the physical benefits. It’s a way to prioritise her mental health, simply by focusing on one movement to the next or repeating positive affirmations to herself.
“I’m happiest when I’m active. Movement keeps me centred and allows me to cope better with sensitivities that come with autism,” she says, telling us how regular exercise helps her embrace a more positive approach to life. “It helps me to have a better outlook, get more out of talk therapy, and I’m more creative.”
Does that mean every workout is like stepping into her happy place from start to finish? Absolutely not. Although movement is such a positive force in Hannah’s life, she’s open about the fact that the challenges of neurodiversity don’t stop during exercise.
“Before working out, I’m usually on the verge of a debilitating meltdown, and during a workout I have sensory issues with my own sweat, and am bothered by things in the environment like overhead lights or loud noises. As I start to feel better, my meltdown abates and by the end of it, I feel 100 times better. I’m more centred and am able to interact with others, even if it’s in a limited amount.”
Find your footing
For other women who have autism and are looking to start their fitness journey, Hannah emphasises the importance of patience, practice, small steps and self-compassion.
“You might begin with walking for example - a great way to start - and slowly work your way up to longer distances. It might seem stupid or tedious at first, but don’t be so hard on yourself, you are worth the effort. Small changes add up to big changes over time,” she says. To this day, walking is still the form of movement that makes Hannah feel her best.
Another big part of getting started and building your fitness confidence is finding your voice to communicate to others that you need to take time for yourself.
“With autism it can be hard to assert yourself, so you might want to practice in front of a mirror to feel more confident and give yourself a much-needed boost. It can be as simple as a polite ‘no’, explaining what you need and leaving it at that.”
The motivation to continue
Despite the daily challenges that come with being a neurodiverse person, and also dealing with depression, anxiety, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and ADHD, Hannah says getting active is always worthwhile.
“Even though it’s so difficult sometimes, in the end it’s worth the effort.”
Aside from her Sweat workouts (she loves PWR with Kelsey and High Intensity with Kayla), Hannah loves walking her dog at the park where she can spend time in the sun, be immersed in nature and watch the seasons as they change. She tries to reach out to trusted friends or walking clubs to move her body and get to know people, and if she misses a day or two, she doesn’t beat herself up.
“Mental health is indeed hard, but reach out to trusted people and have face-to-face time with others, even if it’s just one person to start with. And for heaven's sake, get off your phone two hours before bedtime!” she adds.
Fitness looks and feels so different for everyone. We each have unique motivations, goals, challenges and barriers, and while encouraging one another and striving to be our best is a significant part of the magic of the Sweat Community, so is understanding the many ways in which we are different.
Hannah hopes that sharing her own experience can help all women, not just those who are neurodiverse.
If you’d like to find more information about autism, including signs and symptoms, the diagnosis process, or how to offer support, check out Autism Awareness Australia, Autism Spectrum Australia, or Autism Society.
* Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. The above information should not be used to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, sleep methods, daily activity, or fitness routine. Sweat assumes no responsibility for any personal injury or damage sustained by any recommendations, opinions, or advice given in this article.