Exercise Connection

Three people standing in a room with exercise equipment around them. A young man is holding a basketball on the left. Coach Dave is showing him how many times to throw the ball on dry erase board. A young girl stands to the right in the photo waiting for the basketball to be thrown.

By David Geslak, President and Founder at Exercise Connection

When did Exercise Connection start?    

Exercise Connection started in 2010.

Where are you located?

La Grange, Illinois.

How many employees do you have?

We have a multidisciplinary team of 12 employees & volunteer advisors.

What do you all do?

Our mission at Exercise Connection is to break down the barriers to physical activity and exercise for individuals on the autism spectrum and related disabilities. Through research-supported systems, we empower professionals and caregivers to provide effective specialized instruction designed to support diverse learning needs and equip children and adults to lead healthy and active lifestyles, enhancing overall well-being, function and quality of life. Our goal is to create more inclusive exercise environments, schools and communities worldwide.

Tell us a success story.

Early on in my career, I thought I would have the ability to lead every person with autism to make the exercise connection. But I quickly learned the only way I could do that was by learning more, building a team with diverse perspectives and sharing that knowledge with educators, fitness professionals and parents.

The first story I want to share is about Kristen Kmack, who created Maur Movement after earning her ACSM/Exercise Connection Autism Exercise Specialist Certificate. I recently had a chance to visit her facility and meet the clients and families she has been impacting. She has over 40 sessions a week and her clients keep growing. Kristin is building something special in Albany, New York, and impacting so many.

The other story success story started right as the US was shutting down because of the pandemic. Sana Ghawas flew from Bahrain to the US in March 2020 to earn her ACSM/EC Autism Exercise Specialist Certificate in Atlanta. Thankfully, she made it home, and soon after she returned, she started Wonder Fitness a specialized fitness center for individuals with autism in Bahrain. In 2022, I had the opportunity to visit Wonder Fitness and also meet some of the clients and families she has been impacting. In a region of the world that doesn’t fully embrace those with disabilities, it was an amazing experience.

Kristin and Sana are the driving forces behind what they have built, and to know Exercise Connection played a small role is why the EC team and I wake up every day.

Tell us about the video series. When did it start? Why is it so popular? Do you have a favorite video?

The Autism Exercise video series started in 2015 because both Exercise Connection and NCHPAD wanted to provide evidence-based strategies so practitioners and caregivers could help their autistic clients or children in a variety of physical activity settings. At that time, there was not a lot of information available.

Over the years, we have heard from people all over the world, and they say it is so valuable because we are not only sharing evidence-based strategies with field-tested exercises but that the videos also involve individuals with autism. 

It was a long few days of making those 30 videos, and each one holds a special place in my heart. That said, I think Episode 6, “Teach the Body Parts to Promote Exercise” is one of my favorites. A few reasons why: When I first started working with Roan, not only did he not want to exercise but he also had very limited language. In this video, Roan takes the lead during the activity and it makes me smile every time I watch it. Secondly, I like this video because what we are trying to teach the viewer is foundational to exercise and often not done in our schools – unless the practitioners have earned their Autism Exercise Specialist Certificate

A white graphic with the words "Coach Dave" and the NCHPAD logo below it. The "O" in coach is the Exercise Connection logo.

“Coach” Dave Geslak has been a NCHPAD partner for many years and collaborated with our team starting in 2015 to create the highly popular video series, “Improving the Lives of Individuals with Autism Through Exercise.” Get to know more about him and his team at Exercise Connection!

Tell us about your background and education. Where are you from? How did you become “Coach Dave”? (What’s your career path that brought you to where you are today).

I graduated from the University of Iowa in 2003 with a degree in Health Promotion and as an ACSM Certified Exercise Physiologist. My career in exercise began as a student assistant strength & conditioning coach for the University of Iowa Football Program. While I thought about pursuing collegiate strength & conditioning after I graduated, I left Iowa Football and moved back to the Chicago area. Nine months later, I co-founded a gym, Right Fit, that was intended for children.

In 2004, autism research, programs and interventions were getting a lot of attention, but exercise was largely ignored. It was only the chance encounter (see “success story” question below) between myself and Joseph’s father, that started me on my mission to use exercise as an important intervention for those with autism. When asked to help Joseph, I had no resources other than my exercise background and passion to teach exercise to everyone. If I was going to have a greater impact on this community, I recognized that I needed more education in autism.

In 2008, after four years of teaching exercise to those with autism individually and in small group sessions, I left Right Fit to dedicate myself to improving the lives of those with autism. I became a para-educator at a therapeutic day school for children with autism (Giant Steps). This position is arguably the toughest job in special education. Despite these unexpected difficulties, I was able to experience all therapies (e.g., physical, occupational, speech, behavioral, etc.) that those with autism routinely go through. This experience taught me how this community learned best.

I spent a year as a para-educator until the school asked if I would start their first fitness program for kindergarten through high school students – the entire school! I accepted the challenge. I had an average class size of 12 students (more students per session than any class or therapy session in the school). Using the knowledge gained as a para-educator, and my previous exercise experience, I created a structured and visual exercise program that worked. In a few months, the program received a grant, and all students (of various ability levels) were making the exercise connection.

In 2010, I made the very difficult decision to leave the kids and the program I created, but I was eager to help many more. I started Exercise Connection with the goal to educate autism parents and professionals about the role exercise should play in the lives of those with autism.

To try to shorten this journey, Exercise Connection has had the blessings of working with and lecturing at universities, visiting nine countries to help organizations, parents and professionals, and created a partnership with the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) – along with this collaboration with NCHPAD. I am also a published author and continue to write journal articles for several publications.

I became known as Coach Dave after walking into one of my client’s homes to give him a fitness assessment. The client, Brody, who is minimally verbal, tip-toed around his dining room table and glanced at me and said, “No more doctors.” I was taken aback at his comment because I was not dressed in a white coat nor has any client ever said that to me. My immediate response was, “I’m not a doctor, I’m Coach Dave.” And the name has stuck ever since – it’s also trademarked!

How long have you worked with people with disabilities?

Next year (2024) will be 20 years since I started working with my first client on the autism spectrum.

How long have you worked with NCHPAD?

I believe it has been almost 10 years since I first met Amy Rauworth and Allison Tubbs (I like to call them the “A-Team”) and soon after created the Autism Exercise Video Series, which officially launched on NCHPAD YouTube Page on August 3, 2015.

Share a success story. Tell us about a time when you saw something you taught working in the life of a participant/student/etc.

Well, it was definitely my first client with autism. In 2004, I was training a father with a 9-year-old son diagnosed on the autism spectrum. During a session, with both angst and hesitation, the father asked, “Could you teach my son Joseph, sports? Also, he can’t skip.”

Nine months earlier, I had graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in Health Promotion, but autism was not mentioned in any of my studies. Aside from hearing the word “autism” in the media, I had no idea how exercise impacted children, adults and their families.

While I knew sports could promote physical activity, I decided to focus on teaching Joseph to skip. I knew this fundamental movement pattern would be a building block to his athletic ability and motor planning. More importantly, I knew it would impact his cognitive development. I recalled reading a research study during my undergraduate classes that concluded that when a neurotypical child could skip, they demonstrated better reading abilities than a child who could not skip.

To teach Joseph, I tested the same strategies and protocols that I learned teaching strength & conditioning to freshmen at the University of Iowa Football program. I was responsible for breaking down Olympic lifts to teach proper technique, reduce the risk of injury, and improve the athletes’ strength and performance on the field.

My experiment worked. I was able to teach Joseph to skip in four 1-hour sessions. Joseph smiled from ear to ear, but what took me aback was that his parents were in tears. What I didn’t realize was that Joseph’s family, therapists and physical education teachers, had been trying to teach him to skip for years. They had almost given up.

This gave Joseph and his parents a newfound confidence and optimism. At the same time, my life and career path were forever changed.

What hobbies do you have outside of work?

I guess I am a triathlete, but no Ironman stuff. I compete in sprint triathlons when my body allows it – I’m starting to get old! I also like to cook. But I think my #1 hobby is being a caddie for my 7-year-old son, Andrew.

What’s your favorite food, favorite thing to cook or favorite recipe?

My favorite food is probably tacos or something Mexican. I love cooking and one of my favorite things to cook (because of the response) is eggplant parmesan. And yes, I of course make my own sauce. During the fall and winter in Chicago, I also love trying to make a variety of soups.