DUBLIN, Calif. (KGO) -- Combat Sports Academy in Dublin is known for mixed martial arts and Krav Maga. But occupying part of the space is something very unique: Puzzle Piece Athletics, a first-of-its-kind gym for a special group of kids.
As beaming parents watch on approvingly, you'll hear encouraging cheers from owner and trainer Chad Hooker.
"Nice job, Nathanial! You're killing it man! Good job, bud, super proud of you!"
Puzzle Piece Athletics is a first-of-its-kind gym in the Bay Area serving kids with autism. With hard work, determination, encouragement, and a special compassion lives are changed. Join us as we introduce you to some of the wonderful people working out their muscles of happiness and hope.
This is a gym that emphasizes inclusion and specializes in Crossfit training for kids with autism. They're held to the same high standards as those not on the spectrum, doing box jumps, squats pushups and more. Except with a special touch noticed by parents like Seth Hamalian.
"I think Chad has a demeanor about him that helps him remain very calm."
Hooker is a 10 year CrossFit enthusiast and trainer who started Puzzle Piece Athletics after a friend introduced him to a child with autism.
"I had never worked with anybody like that so I said I would be more than willing to give it a shot. He was non-verbal. After working with this child for 6 months I saw all kinds of awesome things were happening. He would start saying these little sentences and seeing him grow from there was just outstanding. I was amazing to see how much this helped him."
Tiffany Bakker's son Nathanial has been training with Hooker every week for several months.
"Nathanial is a pretty tough kiddo and really hard to break through with him. He can be very anti-people sometimes but Chad just has a way with him. He's so much more personable with people, he's able to say hello instead of running away and covering his ears. He is able to tolerate a lot of noise now and his activity level has gone up." She beams.
According to Dr. Sara Schiff, a clinical neuropsychologist, there haven't been a lot of studies about the benefits of exercise for kids with autism but believes Puzzle Piece Athletics is a huge step in the right direction.
"When you have social difficulties and you're not developing typically this is a game changer.There are pilot studies that are showing benefits of exercising with children with autism, we just need to build upon this. We know there is an improvement in mood when they're having these kinds of activities."
While there can be distractions, such as Nathanial asking to leave during training to grab his prized Pokemon book, Hooker uses the book as motivation to get his client to keep working out.
For Seth Hamalian, father of 13-year old Sammy, training at Puzzle Piece helps with his confidence.
"My son didn't have a comfort level with exerting force. He has a difficulty determining what's the right level of force. And you can see him become more comfortable in his own body and more comfortable in his strength and his own balance and awareness which is great."
To Hamalian, the secret sauce behind Hooker's training, is his ability to believe kids with autism can do more than what's expected.
"This is the first time Sammy's been introduced to athletics in a gym. I think sometimes what happenes with kids who are autistic is a lot of people lower their expectations and expect the kids to meet them there. Chad exudes confidence that they can do more than what they did the last time."
Through solely word-of-mouth, Chad has been getting requests from parents all over the world to bring Puzzle Piece Athletics to their country. One request recently came in from Dubai.
At this rate, and given the demand in Dublin already, Hooker's dream of opening gyms catering to those with autism just may come true.
"I fell in love with it and it was a snowball effect. I love it and will never turn back."