Some thoughts and feelings about competitive CrossFit and being a late-diagnosed autistic athlete

Remember last week when I posted about my decision to stick with weightlifting as my primary sport instead of returning to CrossFit? Well, lol, I published that post on Tuesday evening, totally forgetting that this year’s CrossFit Games began the next day. (The Games are the Super Bowl of CrossFit.) And until I started watching this year’s Games, I’d totally forgotten how much I love the sport of CrossFit. I mean, I’ve known the whole time how much I love doing CrossFit. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy watching the elite and professional CrossFit athletes compete. IT’S SO HYPE!!!

Tbh, I didn’t intend to watch the Games at all, let alone as closely and fervently as I did (because the rush hasn’t yet worn off, I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit that I spent five entire days glued to three screens, watching the events on live TV while also scrolling related posts on social media on my phone and constantly refreshing the leaderboard on my laptop). I stopped following the sport in 2017, and until I began working 1:1 with a gymnastics coach at a local CrossFit gym in May, I hadn’t been around it much/consistently in years. (I’ve trained mostly out of literal garage gyms, strength and conditioning gyms, and powerlifting gyms since 2014.)

CrossFit—as a culture and as a methodology—has a bad rap. That first part is not without reason. CrossFit culture, especially at the corporate/HQ level, is something with which I take SEVERAL issues, and’ve always had a hard time getting behind.

As a training methodology and a sport, CrossFit has my support. I love CrossFit workouts (the intensity and diversity of movements and implements is a big draw for me), and I love the energy and vibes of CrossFit and CrossFit-ish gyms—in my experience, they’re more welcoming, more inclusive, more community-oriented, less intimidating, and less judgmental than traditional globo/commercial gyms (Gold’s, 24 Hour Fitness, etc.).

(CrossFit gyms are franchises. To use the CrossFit name and brand, gyms have to pay CFHQ an annual fee to affiliate. In the US, that fee is $3,000 a year. In 2020, thousands of affiliates worldwide de-affiliated after the founder and then-CEO published racist posts on social media following the murder of George Floyd. Also: sexual harassment allegations. See my notes above about having a hard time getting behind CFHQ culture. (There are signs CFHQ culture is changing. Different conversation for a different day.)

Many gyms that program CrossFit workouts but that don’t license the CrossFit name call themselves “strength and conditioning” or “functional fitness” gyms. They’re often staffed by coaches who hold CrossFit coaching certifications, follow the CrossFit season, and are community-oriented in the same way that CrossFit affiliates are. Essentially, they’re CrossFit gyms in everything but name. In my experience, this is often an “on principle” decision. These are the gyms I mean when I say “CrossFit-ish gyms.”)

Watching the Games this year was THRILLING. Across divisions, the athletes put on A Show. In the three main divisions—individual men, individual women, and team—it was a battle to the end. (The other divisions included teenagers, masters athletes, and disabled athletes.) I loved every second of it. I loved that my kids loved it. And I was surprised how much I still know about the sport (and the athletes who competed this year) considering I’ve not followed it for so many years and so much has changed—I was surprised I could answer most of the questions my kids and co-parents (with whom I was staying, and whose TV and living room I commandeered for three entire days (thanks, fam!)) threw my way. Honestly, I didn’t realize how invested in this sport I still am until I turned on the Games.

Which is why watching it was also a little…sad? Wistful?

When I started CrossFit—in early 2013—it wasn’t what it is now. It was still in the process of becoming. Back then, my goals for myself in the sport felt within reach. “Back then” felt like a golden era of the sport, both in the moment and all these years later. It was at the tail end of a time when it felt like you could be any Joe off the street, even one with little or no athletic background (like yours truly), and make it to the Games—or close.

Now? Lol, no.

Today, CrossFit is a bonafide sport. One that people begin training for as children. Both the Games and the qualification process to end up there have age group divisions that begin at 14 years of age. And many of the teens who compete in those age groups have already been doing CrossFit for years. (This year’s second-place female finisher, Mal O’Brien, is 18 years old. She’s the youngest athlete to win the Open, and to podium at the Games. Another top female contender this year, 17-year-old Emma Lawson, decided to compete with the adults instead of her age group. Out of 40 athletes in the individual female division, she placed 6th overall. Which: incredible.)

A common experience among those of us who learned we’re autistic as adults is grieving what could’ve been—who we could’ve been—had we known this essential piece of information about ourselves earlier. How might our lives now be different had we known then that we’re autistic?

Since learning I’m autistic and how being autistic affects my health and athleticism, I’ve wondered a lot about what could’ve been—where I might be and who I might be as an athlete—had I known I was autistic a decade ago, when I started this sport. Watching the Games last weekend amplified that feeling.

CrossFit has always been about performance for me. It has never been “just a workout.” From the beginning, my goal has been to be the best. I started competing in local events mere months after my first CrossFit workout. And I continued to compete for the next two years or so, sometimes as an individual, mostly as part of a team.

Photo of me and my three teammates standing on the National Mall. The four of us are standing close together in workout clothes, our arms outstretched to the side and in the air. We're all smiling. Behind us are other athletes and, in the distance, the Washington Monument.
In the early days of my CrossFit “career,” competing as a member of a 4-person team in Washington, DC.

In CrossFit, workouts are done either “RX” or “scaled.” “RX” means “as prescribed.” Doing a workout RX means doing the workout without any modifications to the weight or the movement(s). Doing a workout scaled means doing the workout with modifications to the weight or the movement(s). Since the start, I’ve been stuck between the scaled and RX divisions—stronger and more skilled in many bodyweight exercises and non-barbell weighted exercises than in barbell-based strength exercises. Good at things like running, rowing, box jumps, wall balls, farmers carries, etc. Not so great at things involving a barbell—squats, deads, bench, presses, the Olympic lifts, etc. (Also not so great at skilled gymnastics stuff, like muscle-up, pull-ups, dips, handstand stuff, etc.)

For a long time—for years—I kept at it. Day after day I showed up and put in the work. After the initial wave of PRs that newbies to the sport ride, I began to plateau. I could not get stronger (I couldn’t put weight on my body or the bar), or improve in skill-based exercises. Frustrated, I stopped competing. Determined to figure it out, I continued training; I kept trying. I got serious about many things, including nutrition and accessory and mobility work, and I started paying for custom programming—workouts tailored to my goals and the things I needed to work on to meet those goals—and private coaching. None of it helped. Not really. Eventually, I started to regress. Then, I ended up injured.

Had I known back then what I know now—that I’m autistic, and that being autistic means my brain and body work differently—would I have had a shot? Would knowing I was autistic earlier have helped? Would I have been taken seriously by coaches and clinicians when I told them that things didn’t feel right? Would I have the injuries that I have? Where would I be if I’d had the context and language to understand and describe my experiences a decade ago? To advocate for myself in a meaningful way?

Where would I be if there was an accurate understanding, especially among people who work with athletes in the course of their training, of what autism is and how it impacts health, wellness, and athleticism? If clinicians (and coaches, for that matter) gave people the benefit of the doubt and believed them to be experts of their own experiences, instead of routinely dismissing and invalidating them. If there was less ableism and toxic positivity in the world of fitness. I think that things would be different—in general, and for my athletic career specifically. And I think they’d be different for the better.

Then again, maybe not. Maybe having that information earlier wouldn’t have helped me much, or at all. Maybe it would’ve worked against me. The general population’s understanding of autism and treatment of autistic people isn’t that great today, in 2022. It was worse a decade ago. Ditto in the medical and fitness communities, and re: relevant research. Maybe coaches would’ve refused to work with me had I told them I was autistic. Maybe I would’ve rejected my diagnosis and pushed myself harder, injuring myself more severely or even permanently. Maybe I would’ve internalized my diagnosis negatively and stopped training and trying altogether. Who knows.

I don’t think it’s helpful to dwell on it. I do think it’s okay to feel my feelings about it when they come up. And I think it’s important to have more conversations—and louder ones, led by autistic people, including non-speaking autistic folks—about what autism actually is, and how it intersects with and impacts health, wellness, and athleticism. Especially considering autistic people are among those who could most benefit from such discussions: Autistic folks experience significantly increased rates of all (ALL) major psychiatric disorders, nearly all major chronic medical conditions, and a number of rare medical conditions.

Also: More than half of us have four or more co-occuring mental or physical health conditions.

And, startlingly: Our life expectancy is right around 40 years of age.

To be extremely clear: I’m not saying that all, or even most (or any!), autistic people should be, or should want to be, competitive athletes. Or do CrossFit. I’m saying that autistic folks are one of the most vulnerable communities—we die younger/earlier, we’re at increased risk for injury, we’re at increased risk for illness (including chronic illnesses and other illnesses that aren’t well understood), we face more barriers to accessing healthcare, we experience high rates of medical gaslighting and trauma, the vast majority of us are under- or unemployed, many of us are uninsured, the list goes on—and people who work in healthcare and adjacent fields need to know and do better. For all of us, athlete or not.

If I sound salty, it’s because I am. I’m salty that I spent most of the last decade feeling like a failure as an athlete even as I worked my ass off, repeatedly being made to feel lazy, dramatic, undisciplined, and dishonest when I spoke up for myself and tried to communicate what I was feeling and experiencing. I’m salty that autistic people in general have such shit outcomes across every domain of life. I’m salty that so few allistic people listen to us, believe us, care about and center and support us, that our quality of life is seen as something to be earned, if it’s considered at all. I’m salty that autism is defined by supposed deficits, and that autistic people are pathologized—and consequently ignored, ostracized, vilified, and harmed—because of it.

I’m especially salty about all of this because I’ve finally found a gym full of people—both coaches and fellow athletes—who *do* believe (and believe in) and support and accommodate me. Who make me feel included, and worthwhile. Who recognize my value as a person, and my potential as an athlete. Who respect my boundaries, and my preferred ways of communicating. Who don’t make me feel stupid or small for needing different cues and more time to learn and master movements. Who are open to learning from and with me. I’m grateful to have found this space and these people. And I’m frustrated and pissed that it took so long and cost me so much. Where might I be if I’d had this acceptance and support from the start?

The answer, as annoying as it is, is: I don’t know. Maybe further along, maybe not. I try to not dwell on it. Sometimes, like during these last few days, I do.

Most days these days the question I try to focus on instead is: Where will I go now that I do have these things, now that I *am* part of a community that accepts and supports me? I don’t know—yet. I sure as hell intend to find out (although in weightlifting, not CrossFit, but you catch my dramatic drift, no?).


A note about the linked resources: Most of the resources I link to in the body of the post are, or reference, studies that were conducted with autistic children. Unfortunately, there’s not much research on autistic adults and their experiences, so these pediatric studies are often the best data we have to run with. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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