The Ability in Disability

By Justin Vantreese | Published on September 24, 2020 | 7 Minute Read

At this point in time, autism is my entire life. This is by my choosing, but more so by God’s plan. I graduated from college at the end of 2010 with a degree in exercise science. I had plans to just train typical people in some capacity...I don’t think I had any grasp on what autism truly was either. I had known very few people with disabilities of any sort growing up, and never really saw/interacted with them much in all my years of school.

In 2012, I met a mother who had a son with autism. His name was Chad. She was looking for someone to support him in the community, as well as get him in better shape physically in the gym. I agreed to take this on. I got a crash course in all things autism very quickly. Chad had challenges I had to get used to. He was non-verbal and needed a communication device to speak. He was also very rigid with what he liked to do. He was prone to meltdowns and could be aggressive. Needless to say, he was not too thrilled to start a workout routine. He had never really done structured exercise in his life. These were all things that I had to learn how to manage quickly. His diet was also very rigid. The vast majority of his diet was hot dogs, chicken nuggets, and fries. He also drank probably 5-10 cokes a day. I was told by several people that it would be a small miracle if Chad ever tried a fruit or vegetable.

Fast forward maybe six months, and Chad was doing really well. He was on a regular exercise routine of running/walking on the treadmill, riding a stationary bike, and doing some strength training. He ended up losing 30 pounds. He was able to run several 5k races since his training was going so well. He also eventually started trying different foods with me after months of working on it. Now he eats fruits, vegetables, and drinks water more than soda. He probably has a better diet than 95% of people I know. I had a lot of success working with Chad.

"At this point in time, autism is my entire life. This is by my choosing, but more so by God’s plan."

What I came to find out was that all the special needs parents know each other. If you do something well with one person, all the other families hear about it. I had many other parents inquire about me working and I said yes to all of them. At this point, I’ve trained about 20 guys and girls with autism one-on-one. I currently train 10 guys in the gym every week. I’ve had 3 guys lose 30 pounds or more each. I help teach a group fitness class for all of them once a week as well. I’ve seen how diet and exercise can absolutely transform people as far as cognitive functioning, mood stabilization, focus, awareness, etc. Most of my clients and other people I see on a regular basis have improved so much since I met them. I’ve also been blessed to participate in all types of different special needs-related activities.

I’ve coached Special Olympics here in Georgia for the past 7 years. I’ve coached tennis, basketball, bowling, softball, and volleyball. I’ve made so many great relationships through the Special Olympics. I’ve also been blessed to take part in things like Night to Shine, the Polar Plunge, etc every year. In 2015, I started the Instagram page @autism_ability. I began just posting some of the workouts my clients were doing in the gym. I also started posting stories from around the world that I thought were encouraging. The page really took off and now I have close to 70,000 followers. It has been a blessing and I have made even more friendships online in the special needs community.

Needless to say, my entire life is based around autism. It is definitely my calling and the population I truly enjoy helping. I love teaching skills and see people work toward more and more independence and a better quality of life. Lord willing, I hope to serve people with special needs for a long, long time to come.

-Justin Vantreese


About the Author

Justin Vantreese is a personal trainer and Special Olympics Coach whose clients all have special needs. He lives in Woodstock, Ga.