Theo Thurston training somebody with Asperger's

Specialized personal training helps children overcome challenges

“Hello, Mr. Theo.”

Three words, a handshake, and solid eye contact start a personal training session with Theo Thurston at Georgetown Fitness. It’s not just any normal training session. Theo’s sessions have the potential to change the life of a child with Asperger’s Disorder.

Asperger’s is a developmental disorder along the autism spectrum. Those affected by it often have delays in motor development, difficulty in social situations, and problems in communicating with others. Symptoms vary widely among children and adults with Asperger’s. Theo has spent the last seven years learning about these amazing individuals, and he knows firsthand how personal training can change a life.

Sixteen years ago, Theo’s life was filled with stress. “I had a full-time publishing business that I owned with about 14 salespeople and 10 employees. I wore a suit to work,” Theo says. “Personal training changed my life.”

His wife gave him a book called Body for Life by Bill Phillips. Theo read the book and started following its 12-week regimen. Halfway through, he noticed that he had changed “from being a skinny person to being a guy who put on muscle. I really liked the way I felt,” Theo explains. Other people noticed the results, too. They wanted Theo to help them get stronger.

Theo Thurston holds an 8-lb ball

Photo by Rebecca L. Bennett

Theo sold his publishing business and went into personal training full-time. One of his clients, Marie Ray, is a psychotherapist who counsels children with Asperger’s. One day, she had an idea for some of her clients. “She told me, ‘What I want you to do is train them for an hour before they come for their counseling session so they’ll be able to focus better,’” Theo remembers.

But taking on new clients with these challenges meant that Theo had to change his approach and training expectations as well as discover methods for helping them. Theo researched, talked to experts in the field, and devised methods for training the children. In 2009, Theo created Aspergers Strong, a personal training program specifically designed for children with Asperger’s.

In these training sessions, Theo has different but no less important expectations than those he has for other clients. “I learned that to stay focused on a particular task and to do it a certain way is not really easy for the children,” Theo explains. “What I’ve discovered is that instead of expecting ‘X, Y, Z’ perfection, not getting it, and being disappointed, I can introduce ‘X, Y, Z,’ and then I have a buffer zone where I know it’s not going to be perfect, but I’ll take what I can get. I’m looking for the gems inside every movement they’re doing.”

Each twice-weekly 45-minute training session begins with a handshake, eye contact, and saying hello. What follows is a carefully crafted weight and cardio circuit routine. “The whole idea behind the training is to create new neurological pathways in the brains based on repetition of physical exercise in a certain angle and certain rhythm,” Theo explains.

One of Theo Thurston's clients working out

Progress in the gym isn’t limited to muscular and cardiovascular improvements. Theo has seen results in areas specific to the challenges common for people with Asperger’s. At first, for example, the children couldn’t “hold their feet in position” or “verbalize the reps.” But later, “they could walk up to the squat rack with confidence, put their feet in the right position, do the exercise properly, and say the rep,” Theo says.

Improvements were happening outside the gym, too. “It’s a partnership between me and the parents. It’s not just what I do in the gym, but it’s what they do in terms of helping their children with nutrition, reminding them not to slouch, and other things,” Theo explains.

Looking toward the future, Theo wants to share his program with others. He’s pairing with Marie Ray to write a book about Aspergers Strong and hopes other trainers and occupational therapists will come on board.

For now, Theo works with a handful of children and teens, not only creating new neurological pathways in the brain through exercise but also giving them what he experienced when he started working out years ago. Like “anybody else that goes from not working out to working out and training, they get stronger and more confident,” Theo says.


For more information on Aspergers Strong, visit www.aspiestrong.com.

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