A Miracle of Persistence and Courage
Over the years working in my Special Strong program that provides physical activity and lifestyle advice for children with special needs and their families, I have seen some inspiring achievements. Some might even call them “miracles”. Those are the moments that make me feel blessed that I chose to develop this as my line of work and give me and our team a real sense of purpose and meaning.
We never know when those miracles will occur, but in our hearts, we know that they will. We know that the assumptions and expectations about the special needs population can fuel limited aspirations and lead to inhibiting anxiety that can only enhance the special needs child’s sense of being depressingly different. That’s in part why we exist, to show these young men and women and their families, that many of the assumptions about their diagnoses are false. When we can prove it to them, well, that’s when the miracles happen.
On June 4th of 2019, we received a notification that someone was interested in our free 7-day gym pass at Special Strong. Her name was Mandy and she was interested in our services for her 17-year old son, Brandon Neal.
Brandon’s development was problematic from the start. By the age of six months, he was extremely underweight and had jaundice. Developmentally, he was very behind and unable to sit up, roll over, stand or make eye contact. At the age of 5, they found out Brandon had strabismus, a vision condition that required him to get five surgeries to fix his eyesight. A few years later, his parents were finally able to get him potty trained and talking in sentences. In 2010, they discovered that Brandon had a genetic gene mutation that was causing all of his problems, including his abnormal gait. After a few years of very abnormal walking, a doctor took x-rays and discovered scoliosis and that his right hip was misplaced. Brandon and his family were advised to have surgery to correct his hip and were told he would be walking normally again within six months.
After the six months, Brandon still wasn’t walking. He became severely depressed and anxious. The physical therapy he went through made him so sick with fear that he was hospitalized many times. As a result, he remained in his wheelchair and would not allow anyone to take him out of it.
Brandon had been unable to walk in the eight years since the hip surgery. His parents were at a point where they needed to buy him a new wheelchair. However, when his mom approached Brandon about the new wheelchair, he told her that he didn’t want any more wheelchairs. Brandon told his mom he wanted to walk, but he wanted to do it on his own. The problem was that his parents didn’t know how to help him until they saw a Facebook Ad for a company called Special Strong.
When they heard about Special Strong and our special needs gym, they had a glimmer of hope that just maybe, Brandon might walk again. Hope. It often leads to small decisions that have major consequences. Instead of buying the new wheelchair they decided instead to invest in a personal trainer. Based on where they lived, they were assigned to work with me in McKinney, TX.
On July 15th, 2019 we had our first training session. Brandon came in with his wheelchair and we did a thorough baseline evaluation. I saw his potential and shared with Brandon that I knew there would be a day when he would walk again. Brandon smiled at the thought. He didn’t resist the idea at all but he told me he was scared of falling and getting hurt. He also confided in me about his other struggles: how people looked at him differently and how he didn’t feel accepted by some of his peers. He also told me that he believed he didn’t have a girlfriend because of his inability to walk.
Importantly, Brandon seemed to believe me and trust me enough to confide in me his most important fears. Our journey had begun.
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On our next session, we did an actual workout. Brandon was able to stand up and get out of the wheelchair and hold on to my arm, which allowed us to do some corrective exercises to work on the muscles that had atrophied from not being used in eight years. As I worked with him, I continued to see his potential and I called it out as often as I could. At the same time, I also saw the fear inside of Brandon and how it was preventing him from progressing.
Whenever I told him we were doing a new exercise, he would begin to physically shake and say, “I CAN’T DO IT DANIEL – I’M SCARED!” However, even though Brandon was scared, he was always receptive to my coaching. He believed me. He understood his fear, but he didn’t run away from it. That was crucial and gave me more confidence about Brandon’s ultimate progress. You might not look at him and think he was brave, but I can assure you he was as courageous as anyone who has ever faced a ferocious enemy or even worse, their own demons.
I ended up making a rule with him that the word “can’t” was not allowed in my gym. I told him to think of the word “can’t” like a cuss word that should never be spoken. It took him a few sessions, but he did stop saying the ‘can’t’ cussword.
I knew it was time to progress him to the next phase of training, which was having him use forearm crutches. I told his parents my goals for him with the forearm crutches and that it was time to stop bringing the wheelchair to the gym. They smiled, in partial disbelief. They just didn’t want to get their hopes up.
Brandon had never used forearm crutches, but he quickly learned how to use them.
Outside of the gym, Brandon continued to alternate between his wheelchair, walker, and forearm crutches. Anyone who works with helping people beyond their perceived limitations can relate to this. When any of us do something that is uncomfortable but beneficial, our tendency is to find shortcuts and the least path of resistance, even if that means going back to old habits. It’s a constant fight to choose to remain uncomfortable, but we know that we become better for it. It’s the ultimate challenge.
On July 30th, we had our fifth training session. During this session, I took Brandon into the group room and told him we were going to walk without forearm crutches. Brandon began to tear up and told me “I can’t” because he was scared. I reminded him of the rule we had, and that I would be with him the entire time he walked. After a lot of coaching and encouragement, here’s what happened: https://youtu.be/OzepVsJmEw4
This was a huge victory for Brandon! He overcame his greatest fear of walking independently and it gave him an incredible amount of confidence. We continued to strengthen Brandon’s legs and core, especially his lower back. We attempted a few more walking sessions, but they didn’t go well as the fear started to come back and consume Brandon. He would have small moments of victory followed by many moments of defeat as the fear repossessed his mind, but he had the most important attribute: he would never give up.
“Success is not the absence of failure; it’s the persistence through failure.” – Alisha Tyler
On August 21st, Brandon came into the session and I had a strong impression in my heart that it was the day he would walk independently. I told Brandon that today was the day and that he was going to walk. He said, “I’M READY!”
I let Brandon hold on to my arm as we walked outside to have him walk independently for the first time. I knew I had to get this moment on video, anticipating something great was going to happen; another “miracle”. I gave Brandon a pep talk, encouraged him, and got the video rolling — and that’s when Brandon truly conquered his fears for the first time his life.
After Brandon finished walking, I stopped the video to tell him how proud of him I was. He kept repeating out loud, “Daniel, I did it! Daniel, I did it!”
After that, everything changed for Brandon and his entire family. He hadn’t just learned to walk. He had conquered his fears. He had conquered the assumptions and self-limiting thoughts. He had conquered himself.
The video was seen all over the world, and Brandon was so encouraged by it. Brandon started going to school without his wheelchair or walker and people started coming up to him to in school to tell him how proud they were and that they saw his video. For the first time in his life, Brandon felt like he had a purpose and that he could make a difference in the lives of others.
Brandon continues to train with me at Special Strong, twice a week. On August 26th, we were able to capture a video of him doing a 4.0 speed on the treadmill, which is close to a light jog. The only thing preventing him from running is his foot drag, which we are currently addressing through our training sessions. I am confident that one day Brandon will walk, run, and even sprint!
And so is he.
Special Strong provides fitness and nutrition for special needs children, adolescents, and adults with autism and other disabilities. Through our online training platform, we also provide special needs fitness certification courses for personal trainers and service providers who want to work with autism and other disabilities.