“It may take some individuals longer to do certain things and that is okay. Be kind.” Mark Fleming
Ron Sandison interviews physical fitness trainer Mark Fleming
How old were you when you were diagnosed with autism?
I was originally diagnosed with PDD–NOS at the age of 3 then after intensive OT, PT, and speech therapy along with a move to another city in the fourth grade got re-evaluated around age 11 and diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.
What were some sports you loved as a child?
My favorite sports to watch growing up were basketball and football. I was caught reading box scores for baseball and basketball games before I could read.
What high school sports did you participate in?
I played Varsity football, track, and soccer. I also swam varsity in middle school.
How did these sports help you to develop social skills and friendships?
Since sports take concentration and socialization to succeed, if I wanted to win communicating was not that hard which made it easier outside of sports. So a lot of my friends tended to be teammates in the various sports I played.
It took stress off of trying to communicate having to concentrate on what I was doing in sports.
What was your undergraduate degree? Why did you go through four degree changes?
I majored in Exercise Science. I shifted so much because I could not find something that I was interested enough in to succeed. Before I got into Exercise Science, I had a 2.1 GPA then it jumped to a 2.6 in less than two years’ time after getting into my field. Which is not easy when you already have around 100 credit hours.
What was your greatest challenge having autism in college?
I would say socializing and executive functioning. I came from a house where my only real chore was to take the trash out. Living even with roommates you take on a lot more responsibilities that if you are not prepared can be daunting to do when the list piles up. I was very fortunate to meet some good friends at the beginning of my collegiate career but after freshman year I rarely made new friends.
What are some of your sensory issues? How did you at age twenty seven discover you had them?
Sight, sound, touch, and smell are the big ones for me. It is not that they are heightened or dampened but yet they are constant. Growing up I never talked about these issues as I assumed everyone had them and they were not brought up with my diagnosis, so as a not very sociable person, I never talked about them.
I found out at 27 that I had sensory issues while interning for an ABA company. This happened at lunchtime when the therapists planned to have a movie played for the kids but as set up was getting going a little girl was being rambunctious. No one could figure out what was going on with her. But then I asked if anyone could hear the feedback from the TV turned on. Turns out the girl could not take the sound of the static feedback from the TV and calmed down as soon as it was turned off. I then questioned other sensory stuff with my parents and found most of the things were in fact not as common as I thought.
What was your experience like working as a Behavior Analysis?
Interesting. I found out that I worked really well with individuals with autism and other disabilities. I learned that advocating for the needs of a child with special needs was truly a tough job and that parents who fight for their kids should be commended because it is not easy. However I also learned my heart wasn’t in it for that field even though I was pretty good at helping the kids I worked with.
What was your major in graduate school and how did this equip you for opening a gym?
I majored in Human Performance. I was able to take business classes alongside of adapted physical education and regular exercise science classes that kept it a well-rounded education no matter where I was going to land.
How did you become interested in physical training?
I’ve always been interested in being around sports, even though after high school, I could no longer pursue the dream of being a pro-athlete. So after finding exercise science, I thought it would be really cool to train top level athletes. Fortunately, I saw a greater need for my talents than multi-millionaire athletes.
What inspired you to open your own gym?
Seeing the muscular deficiencies in the kids I worked with in ABA and then seeing them in the older adults I coached at Special Olympics. This told me there was a physical activity gap that was not being filled. So I started an in home training business that flourished to a full schedule in its first year and thus made me realize to expand and grow to help more individuals I would need a centralized location.
How did your parents help you in starting a gym?
I would say with advice on how to go about with everything. You can learn about business in school but they rarely teach you all the things I had to learn on the fly and having my parents there to consult with really helped me through some jams.
What has been greatest struggle as an entrepreneur?
Dealing with the constant change. As a social type service, I constantly have to properly communicate with numerous people throughout the day regarding cancellations, reschedules, consultation, and with dissatisfied clients. As someone with autism, I do not mind change but constant change can put me in an area where I may need some time to adjust to properly understand how to handle the extra time or the short notices.
What were some of your early jobs and how did your sensory issues effect you in the workforce?
The most relevant job to talk about was a stocker at a food market. It was not the right situation as I got hired just as the manager above me exited and new ones came in unaware of my lack of training. For the first couple of weeks, I constantly got a headache from working the bread isle and just thought the whole time, it was from lack of working previously in my life. After this died down, I was written up for lack of due diligence with my duties. Even though I was in the back room training for the majority of my shift and no one was there to cover for me. I eventual quit due to fear of being fired and losing hours.
How has your puzzle piece tattoo helped you with advocating?
It helped me originally in college as when I was asked about it, I was caught off guard and thus could not explain away. I was able to tell people about my diagnosis.
How many clients do you have at the gym and what have these clients taught you?
I have 16 right now, while working with 27 this past year and around 40 since I started working with individuals with disabilities. I have learned things like: how many people just want a listening ear, that real connection creates the best results, and that when given the chance and opportunity all individuals want to improve their current position in life.
How have you learned to adapt to change in the workplace?
Just take it day by day and to keep a list of things in my mind to do if things change and I have an unexpected gap in my work day.
What are some key skills for working with individuals with autism and disabilities?
Be patient. It may take some individuals longer to do certain things and that is okay. Be kind. No one is purposefully trying to be rude and more times than not they are just trying to make a connection. Listen. Just because you may be a professional at something does not make you the professional on someone. We are each different and how we perceive things.
How did you meet your girlfriend Rachel? And what dating advice can you provide?
We originally met in-person at a PBS-WEDU taping of a town hall meeting on autism. After that we kept seeing each other at events and eventually starting hanging out until we decided to start dating this past April.
Be patient. One thing I am grateful for is that Rachel is patient with me even when I am not being very smart. We decided that we would be patient with each other from the get go because we both understood that there would be times that we would not communicate properly to one another and that it was not a bad thing if it happened.
What are your goals with the gym and how can you accomplish them?
To hopefully expand somehow. Either by: employing another trainer, trainer others around the world, and/or creating online programs for people.
Mark Fleming is the sole owner and operator of Equally Fit in Tampa, Florida. He holds both a bachelors and master’s degrees from the University of Alabama in Exercise Science and Human Performance. He holds a personal training certification from the American Council on Exercise and has numerous specialty certifications.
Link to Website: https://www.equally-fit.com/
Ron Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of America. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom published by Charisma House. He has memorized over 10,000 Scriptures including 22 complete books of the New Testament and over 5,000 quotes.
He frequently guest speaks at colleges, conferences, autism centers, and churches. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with a baby daughter, Makayla Marie born on March 20, 2016. You can contact Ron at his website www.spectruminclusion.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org