Calgary exercise program builds confidence for adults with autism

WATCH ABOVE: Calgary Olympian Hailey Wickenheiser is helping to bring exercise and sport to young adults on the autism spectrum. Global’s Heather Yourex-West reports.

CALGARY – Every Wednesday afternoon, you’ll find 25-year-old Natalie Beekhuizen taking part in a circuit style workout at the University of Calgary. She performs the drills with ease but she says she wasn’t always so comfortable in the gym.

“I was really nervous when I first began,” Beekhuizen said.

As a young adult on the autism spectrum, Beekhuizen admits even simple exercises were once intimidating but with the help of a unique program developed by Olympic hockey player Hayley Wickenheiser, Beekhuizen has become an active person, willing to try all kinds of new things.

Stepping Out was a program I created along with Dr. Margaret Clark out of the Ability Hub about five years ago,” Wickenheiser said. “A lot of young kids when they leave high school, there’s not a lot of structured programming for kids with autism, so they’re left in parents’ basements to fend for themselves.”

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Stepping Out began as a small research project with just five participants, Now, under the administration of the Autism, Aspergers Friendship Society, dozens of young adults take part in the weekly workouts.

“We meet every Wednesday,” said Alex Naylor, Stepping Out program coordinator, “Usually we meet and debrief at the beginning, hear about everyone’s week. It’s a really nice community.”

Wickenheiser is now studying the impact of the program, measuring how high intensity exercise changes the brain for young adults on the autism spectrum but she says she’s also seen many benefits first hand. Beekhuizen and her mother agree.

“I’ve learned how to run and I’ve learned how to jump and I’ve learned how to do yoga movements,” Beekhuizen said.

For Beekhuizen’s mother, Karen, the changes have been much more profound.

“It has transformed our family, when we go on vacation to an all inclusive type resort. If they have yoga classes or zumba dancing, we now participate,” Karen Beekhuizen explained. “It’s also been an opportunity for Natalie to make friends because those can be hard to establish.”

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