Autism-Friendly Gym Opens Up In SF

Special Strengths Fitness is located near 69th and Western Avenue

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – It’s a New Year’s resolution for many: hitting the gym to get in shape.

But fitness centers can be busy and loud, making it a difficult environment for people with autism.

One woman noticed this issue, and decided to do something about it.

“Nice! Let’s go a little bit heavier,” says Sharon Bethke as she’s training 9-year-old Peter Looft.

Peter is a strong, fast and happy boy who just happens to be autistic.

“He was diagnosed just a little over a year ago,” says his mom, Heather Looft. “Exercise is kind of hit or miss sometimes with him.”

Like others with a developmental disorder, Peter comes across challenging situations every day.

“From noises to smells to sounds to new environments, you just kind of have to take it and be aware,” says Heather Looft.

Something that Sharon Bethke knows well.

Her son Marco is also autistic.

“He was having some behavioral issues at school, acting out, getting stressed out and melting down,” says Bethke. “It was interfering with his education so the school brought in a behavior specialist, and one of her first recommendations was exercise.”

After trying out the whole working out thing, Bethke started to see a change in Marco.

“He is less stressed out even when he does get stressed out and his anxiety level starts to escalate, he’s able to bring it down quickly.”

This is why Bethke opened up her own gym, Special Strengths Fitness.

“Everything we do is based on 5 movement patterns,” says Bethke. “The basic movement patterns that everybody does, pushing, pulling, rotating, level change and locomotion.”

But it’s the gym’s environment that really sets it apart from other fitness centers.

The walls are blank and the lights are LED to reduce flickering.

“We didn’t want things to be visually distracting,” says Bethke, which is something Peter’s mom is thankful to now have.

“It’s a nice one-on-one environment and opportunity to have him truly focus on that exercise,” says Heather Looft.

Special Strengths Fitness officially opened on January 2 near the intersection of 6th Street and Western Avenue.

It’s the first of its kind here in Sioux Falls.

Bethke hopes that in the future she can expand the business into a bigger space.

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