THE BLOG
01/02/2014 02:14 pm ET | Updated Mar 04, 2014

CrossFit Helped Us Face Our Son's Autism Diagnosis

Annie Kelsey Sledge Hammer

CrossFit was the best thing that happened to my family in 2013.

I know that sounds like an overstatement of immense proportions. It's not.

Annie, my wife, agrees. And if you knew Annie, she doesn't overstate anything.

Don't get me wrong, we had a lot of awesome things happen personally (I taught my daughter how to ride a bike... on Father's Day!) and professionally (my second book came out), but the last year has been tough.

Honestly, we've sort of been reeling since Sept. 18, 2012. That's the day we learned that our son Griffin might be on the autism spectrum. In 2013, after jumping through all sorts of hoops and watching our son be poked and prodded again and again in the name of evaluations, we learned that our little Griffy is autistic.

So much of our hearts and minds have been wrapped up trying to learn what autism means and what to do and how to feel. We struggled. We cried. Nothing we could say or do made it better. Much of whatever free time was left after a day of wiping ends of kids, feeding, bathing, and putting them to bed was spent talking about autism.

We took less photos. We spent less time with friends. We both were depressed.

But then my friend BJ opened a CrossFit gym in Muncie, Ind., and things started to change.

Something to talk about

We suffered together.

I'm not sure I had ever seen Annie do a push up in her life. At one of our early workouts she did like a hundred of them.

I had never climbed a rope. At one of our first workouts Annie climbed the rope like it wasn't a big deal. I thought, "Oh crap! My wife just climbed that rope! Now I have to." And then I did.

We witnessed the strength and weakness in one another.

We pushed each other and before long, Annie, a pretty good high school athlete who hadn't worked out in a decade, started to beat me on a regular basis. I'm okay with it, really. Seriously, I don't die a little on the inside every time Annie beats me. When I rush into the gym to check Annie's time on the leader board, that's me making sure the coaches got her time right and not looking for a time to beat, right? (Okay... now I'm just trying to convince myself.)

We've been doing CrossFit now for about five months. Yesterday, our 4-year-old daughter Harper told us, "All you ever talk about is working out."

She's right. We compare strategies for the workouts and form on the lifts. Annie taught me how to do a handstand push up. A lot of the time we can't work out together, but we're always on the phone checking in to see how the other did.

CrossFit gave us something else to talk about other than therapies and behaviors and symptoms.

Out of the house into the Box

When I'm not traveling for research or talking on a college campus, I'm alone in my office. I don't have a boss. I don't have any coworkers. It's just me in a room with my thoughts. If you saw me write, you would think I was a mad man. I talk to myself. Cuss at myself, and regularly crack myself up. It can be a little lonely.

Annie is anything but alone. She's at home with the kids. Griffin needs Annie like a rose needs the sun. He sits on her lap and twirls her hair. Any conversation with Harper may end with the appearance of her alter ego -- Butt Girl (why couldn't she just pretend to be a princess?) -- and her bare bottom.

When we learned about Griffin, we isolated ourselves even more. When you get together with friends and see their kids doing things your kid should be doing, it's hard not to get down. So we just stopped getting together with folks, even though both of us need to get out a little and be around living, breathing, adult humans.

My friend's gym forced us to do just that. We've made a lot of new friends inside the box (CrossFit slang for gym), who've become our friends outside of the box as well.

In October, our community came together to do a work out to raise funds for autism. That meant a lot. Annie told me that when she saw her fellow CrossFitters pushing themselves to the limit, she teared up for the first time in a long time.

Dance parties are better

The other morning I got out of bed and walked into the bathroom and noticed in the mirror that there was something different with my stomach. "Great," I thought. "What's wrong with me now? How much is this going to cost?" There was nothing wrong. There were just abs. Abs!

Annie has them too!

When I list the ways CrossFit has changed our lives over the past year, it's weird how fitness comes near the bottom of that list. But we are definitely fitter.

You should see our dance parties! We spin Harper and Griffin until they're dizzy. We throw them higher into the air until they inform us that's high enough. Dance parties were once limited by our strength and stamina. No more!

Dance parties are way better.

A community that inspires inspiration

We need hope and strength and encouragement. All things in endless supply in the CrossFit community.

Just today, I saw a guy who I've working out with for months complete 20 unassisted pull ups for the first time. In the past few months, he's dropped 40 pounds, become stronger, and is a regular at the top of the leader board. Watching him give everything he had to complete his pull ups inspires me to dig deeper.

Annie came home from today's workout and told me that Jennifer, who she had been working out with for months, was upset that she was struggling so much to complete her fifth consecutive rope climb. Two months ago, Jennifer couldn't do a single rope climb. Jennifer reminds us that each day is a struggle, but we need to remember how far we've come.

Annie still gets down, and so do I. Five months ago, Griffin wouldn't acknowledge me when I walked in a room. Now he runs to me with open arms and a smile full of giggles. He and we have come a long way.

There's so much in life we can't change or overcome. There are burdens that we can never put down. But for an hour each day Annie and I climb, pull, carry, and push ourselves to new heights and weights. We overcome things that we thought we couldn't. We lift the burden of barbells over our heads and let them go, dropping to the floor with a thud and a bounce, and the knowledge that we can do it, that we can bare a little more if need be.

CrossFit has shown us how strong we can be.

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