Mark (in blue) enjoying the aerobics workout designed by ActiveSG with Eden Centre for Adults.

Mark sits within a circle, whirling his arms.

“Like a helicopter!” he declares with pride.

The 35-year-old, who has autism, loves all things that spin and the helicopter is his favourite.

It is a Saturday morning and he is here at the gym studio in Enabling Village, along with four others from Eden Centre for Adults, a social service agency dedicated to supporting persons with autism. They are enjoying an aerobics programme specially designed for them by Singapore’s national movement for sports, ActiveSG.

Says Head of Programmes for the Eden Activity Club, Sarayanan Mariappa: “We have organised many activities for our clients such as horse riding, badminton, inline skating and bell boating, which is like canoeing for a big group.

“We were looking for more activities for them and decided on aerobics because they need something visual in a structured environment, something that can be broken into pockets of activity because they can’t sustain their attention for too long.”

Sarayanan Mariappa (in black) helping one of the participants during the workout.

Enabling Village found out about their endeavour and facilitated the partnership between Eden Centre for Adults and ActiveSG because the latter has instructors experienced in working with persons with disabilities, thus began the inaugural collaboration.

Designed for autism

The 12-week aerobics programme which began in mid-February had to incorporate principles for dealing with persons with autism.

“To create a structured environment, we put up chairs for them to sit on within a circle. We also put out props like a rope ladder at the door to show them where they can enter and exit the exercise area,” explains Sarayanan. Mark (in blue) enjoying the aerobics workout designed by ActiveSG with Eden Centre for Adults.

Structure is also created by putting up a schedule with built-in breaks and informing the participants ahead of time so they know what to expect.

Adds Sarayanan: “Our main aim is to engage our clients. We don’t want them sitting around at home doing nothing because then they will regress and forget all that they have learnt.

“When they come for our activities, beyond physical exercise, they also learn social skills such as taking turns, queuing up, obeying instructions.”

Though it is the first time ActiveSG is partnering Eden Centre for Adults, it is not the first time Sports Champion Chelvam Raman has worked with persons with autism. A fitness instructor with ActiveSG since 2017, Chelvam had trained for six months with KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital where she learnt to design and conduct fitness classes for persons with disabilities, including autism.

Chelvam Raman (in red) has nearly five years of experience conducting workouts for different sectors of people, including the elderly and persons with disabilities. She brought her experience to the class, engaging the participants with her warmth and repartee.

Of the programme she designed for the adults, Chelvam says: “The workout is meant to train their strength, co-ordination and balance, and work out their abs.

“There’s body conditioning and stretching, and I make sure to rotate the exercises so it is different every week.”

To make it fun, Chelvam engages their power of imagination. As she encourages them to reach high before bending down to touch their toes, she tells them with glee: “Let’s carry the watermelon … up …. and down …”

During leg exercises, she encourages them: “Let’s cycle to East Coast.”

An activity ladder where simple activities such as leg movements and jumping into and out of hula hoops are included to motivate the class.

“I want to build their confidence,” she says.

Conducted with consideration

At every workout, each participant is assigned a volunteer from Eden Centre for Adults to ensure their individual needs are cared for.

Volunteers are on hand to help the participants get the exercises right.

Says Sarayanan: “Some need sensory inputs. So, they will jump up and down or walk around to regulate themselves. We call it their autism moment. We have to give them the space to do it.

“We also have to go slow and give them time to process instructions. When you say, ‘Hands up’, they may not react immediately. So, you need to give them time.

“Or they may get distracted. So, the volunteers are there to redirect them. We know our clients well.”

During the session, two participants decide to link arms. The volunteers gently disentangles them and brings them back to the activity at hand.

Meanwhile, Chelvam carries on cheerily, encouraging her class to “fly your aeroplane”.

“I do the propellor with my arms,” Mark responds.

Asked why he enjoys the exercise, Mark says it reminds him of a helicopter ride he once took over Alaska in pre-Covid times.

“We saw glaciers,” he says. “We also took a seaplane. Some people find it too loud but I like it because its propellors spin just like a fan.”

Apart from these Saturday morning exercises, Mark (in blue) keeps active by engaging in a variety of sporting activities with his family.

His parents signed him up for the aerobics programme to keep him active. The entire family – mum, dad, Mark, his younger brother and younger sister – enjoys sports. Mark has tried yoga, Pilates, roller-blading, ice-skating, skiing, horse-riding, swimming and badminton.

As the class ends with echoes of “good-bye”, Chelvam says: “When I am with them, I am very, very happy. I treat them like family. They are the ones who give me happiness.

“I used to be very shy, very quiet, I didn’t talk to people. Now, I’m totally different. I enjoy giving back to society.”