Those of you who get my weekly Banish the Bullsh*t email on a Friday (if you don’t you can sign up here) will have seen this edition a couple of weeks back where I discuss some of the things I’ve recently learned about autism. I realised two years ago that I am autistic, and I thought that explained some things about my life. I was wrong. It actually explains everything about my life. And the more I learn, the more fascinated I am, and the sadder I become for my past self, who thought she was naughty, weird, unkind, and other unpleasant things.

Today, I went to my first bootcamp circuit training with Nicola Sommerville, who is my personal trainer. I’ve been working with Nicola 1:1 for three years, but this is the first time I’ve been to one of her group training sessions. I just fancied a bit more movement this week, particularly because last night I accidentally ate all of the takeaway. (Seriously. All of it.) So I went along, and as I was going through the circuits, I realised that there was no way I would have done this before I knew I was autistic, or just a few years ago, before I knew myself.

So I wanted to write down why, because I think this may resonate with a lot of people and may help neurotypical people to understand what some neurodivergent people might need.

The Confidence

Firstly, walking into a room full of people I don’t know, apart from Nicola whom I’ve known for years, that is something I could always have done, but it wouldn’t necessarily have been easy. I know a lot of people would find that hard, but it’s easier now that I’m older. I think it’s age that has given me confidence there. Doing the actual circuits though, that brought up lots of things that autism would have made difficult.

The Rules

Nicola stands at the front and writes down what we have to do for our warm-up, and there are some things in the warm-up that I’ve never done with her in our 1:1 sessions. Years ago, I would have stood at the back, not knowing what to do, feeling hot, feeling tense, trying to watch other people to figure out what it was I had to do. Desperate to be able to follow the rules. It’s written down, it’s a warm-up, it’s what I have to do. I cannot break the rules. Autistic people hate to break the rules.

What did I do today? I walked up to Nicola and asked her to explain part of the warm-up. And then I knew what I was doing.

Going through the circuits themselves after the warm-up, I could do all of the exercises, that was fine. But Nicola made it clear that we should try to be consistent: use the same weight of wall ball each time we were doing wall balls, use the same weight of barbell each time we were doing thrusters, and try and do the same amount of the exercise each time. She said that she wanted “max effort”, which means in 1 minute you do as many of whatever exercise it is as you can.

A few interesting issues there. Firstly, I don’t do max effort, and when I’m working 1:1 Nicola knows this, because I can’t cope with anything that is open ended. I need a rule. Again, in the past, this would have worried me, bothered me. Made me hot and anxious. I wouldn’t have been sure what to do. Today, on my first go round. I did what I thought was a reasonable amount and then I wrote it down, and that was my circuit. 20 of this, 10 of that. If I did them before the minute finished, I stopped. That was against the rules, but it’s okay. I’m 43 and I know Nicola, and I can do what I want. Because the important thing was I was exercising. I knew it’s not actually that important to follow the rules to the letter, which is something that autistic people find it very, very hard to understand.

Another example of this, one of the exercises we were supposed to do is thrusters, where you hold the barbell, squat all the way down and then thrust the barbell over your head. On my third or fourth go round, I realised I was doing push-press, which is where you hold the barbell, bend your knees a bit, then push the barbell over your head. It’s easier. I had done the same amount of push-press every time I went round, so I was being consistent, and I was exercising, but it wasn’t the rules that had been set out. So I said to Nicola, “oh, I realise I’ve been doing push-press, but I was doing them consistently” (to prove that I was following the rules). And she said, “on the last go round, everyone’s doing push-press, because everyone’s legs have given out!”

This is why the world is confusing to autistic people: the rule was, you did thrusters, but apparently the unwritten rule is by the end your legs will be knackered, so you’ll probably have turned them into push-press. And that’s apparently okay. Autistic people do not understand the unwritten rules. We only understand the rules that you have set out, because we don’t really understand the world at all. So if we have a rule, we cling to it.

Then there’s all the other unwritten rules about training in a group. I always train 1:1 so I don’t know what the unwritten rules are. I probably chose the wrong station to do some of my exercises. I probably put my water bottle in the wrong place. I probably talked when I shouldn’t have done, or didn’t talk when I should have done. I didn’t care today because I’m 43. Years ago, I would have worried ‘am I doing it wrong? Am I being weird? Are people looking at me? Does that mean I’ve broken an unwritten rule I’m not aware of?’ Hot, tense, anxious.

The Technology

Finally we have the technology. When you work 1:1 with a personal trainer, they do everything for you. They reset the bike for you so it can start from zero each time you use it. They get the equipment out for you. They fix plates to your barbell. They do it all for you. Today I had to figure out how to reset the bike myself, and today I asked Nicola for help. Years ago, again, I would have probably left it, fudged it, done the best I could with it, and felt hot and tense and anxious.

The Truth

With age comes confidence and fewer f*cks given, and that is true for all women. But autism doesn’t go away with age. And for a lot of women, neurodivergent symptoms actually become more prevalent during midlife. Is that because our hormones start to fluctuate in perimenopause and everything becomes heightened? Is it because we’ve just been alive for so long that we don’t have capacity for bullsh*t anymore, and we’ve stopped trying to pretend we’re someone we’re not? I think it’s a mixture of both.

Just know that if you experience any of the things I have talked about in this blog, a) you might be autistic; b) even if you are not, you are not alone. You are not weird. There are many, many lovely people in the world who are happy to explain things to you if you just ask. And if they treat you as though you’re an idiot or belittle you, that is because they are a tw*t. Not because you are weird.

Much love to you all, and thank you always to Nicola for making strength and fitness accessible to me.

Helen Calvert
The No Bullsh*t Coach
March 2024

P.S. for more no bullsh*t, ND-friendly musings, head to my podcast, or get yourself a ticket to Happier Life Live this April!