Helping Community Members Impacted by Autism through Fitness

February 2, 2023 by
Photo Credit: Preslie Hirsch
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On November 17th, 2009, parents Rudy and Becky Thoms’ world changed when their son, Landon, one of three kids in the family, was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In the years following, the family endured many obstacles together before being able to enroll Landon in Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), which is incredibly expensive, time consuming and challenging to get covered by insurance. 

Inspired by their son who is non-verbal, the North Carolina couple co-founded AMRAP 4 Autism in 2013, a community fitness event that generates awareness and proceeds for the Autism Strong Foundation — directly providing therapy to those who need it to work on communicating, learning and even speaking. To date, the nationwide organization has raised over two million dollars.

“14,000 hours of therapy were paid for by our organization in 2022 and we’ve allotted 41,500 hours for 2023,” said Steve Hartle, National Brand Ambassador for Autism Strong, 10-year affiliate owner and CrossFit Games athlete. “As a little tiny foundation, we’ve been extremely powerful in this area, and we know we can make a huge difference everywhere.” 

Photo Credit: Preslie Hirsch

Everywhere is right, as the mission continues to expand — reaching the southwest for the first time on January 28th. CrossFit Magna in Phoenix, Arizona was the first gym in the desert state to host the charity workout. When a gym signs on to run the event, AMRAP 4 Autism provides the affiliate with the programming (and scaling options), as well as banners, coach t-shirts, digital marketing materials, a custom fundraising website and even email copy to send to members; making the process as easy and effective as possible. 

“Landon was born at 32 weeks, our founder’s son, and so 32-minute AMRAP has always been the constant. Outside of that, the movements have changed, the numbers and reps schemes have changed,” Hartle said. “This year, 44 is a big number because based on (recent) CDC stats, it’s one in 44 children that are impacted by autism in some capacity.”

CrossFit Magna member Alexis Whittington participated in the workout last weekend, as the cause hits incredibly close to home. 

“Our journey with (daughter) Charlotte has been a long one. Ever since she was probably about 18 months, I started kind of having those feelings of like, something is going on here, something’s not quite right, and feeling pretty devastated in those moments,” she explained. “I’ve had so many sleepless nights and shed so many tears over the fear of this, and I don’t have many of those anymore, which is great. I think a lot of that comes from gaining information over the years, which I really had to fight for so early on.”

It took years of tests, trial and error before Charlotte, now 10-years-old, was diagnosed with autism.

“I think they call it masking, when you’re hiding your autism, trying to fit in. She masked really, really well, and she could hold it together for like an hour or two hours while she’s being technically evaluated so she just wasn’t ever diagnosed,” Whittington said. “…I did cry (once finally diagnosed), but it was out of relief.” 

“It was like, finally. I have been wondering and looking. It’s not necessarily that I need or want or enforcing a diagnosis, but I needed and I wanted a pathway, a pathway to help my child be as successful as she can be and to help her understand what she’s feeling and what she’s going through in a much more clear way.”

Whittington expressed that parents should advocate for their child and listen to their gut instinct, because autism doesn’t look the same on everyone. 

Photo Credit: Preslie Hirsch

“I think something that I read a long time ago, and that really stuck with me, is if you meet one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. It’s a spectrum, it really is. It’s not like your child is going to fit into some box now and you’d be like, oh, so this is how they are. Your child doesn’t change. You know your child the best. So don’t feel like getting a diagnosis all of a sudden changes who they are,” Whittington suggests. “Charlotte hasn’t changed since her diagnosis. She’s the same kid as she’s always been, and I think a lot of people just don’t realize what autism can look like. I think we all have an idea in our head of what it looks like, which sometimes it is very specific. But like I said before, it’s a spectrum.”

And now, empowered with knowledge and resources, the Whittington family can forge a path forward. 

Whittington said she tells Charlotte, “Everybody is different. Your grandma is 4-foot-10, your mom is 6-feet tall. You can see that difference,” she explained. “But there’s a lot of differences on the inside of people that you cannot see, and it doesn’t mean that anybody is more or less — we are all the same, even with all of our differences.” 

Given the high prevalence of autism, it’s likely someone in your gym community is impacted as well. To donate, volunteer or host an AMRAP 4 Autism workout, visit or reach out to Hartle at [email protected].

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