A vision to help individuals with autism thrive

Contact: Erin Flynn

A photograph of Erin Beal.After earning her bachelor's degree in 2016 and a master's at Columbia University, WMU alumna Erin Beal was set to begin her career in rhetoric and writing, working for the University's regional location in Grand Rapids and planning to continue her graduate work.

One year later at age 30, she was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and pursued a much different path to understanding her own condition and helping others with ASD reach their full potential.

She used her personal experience as well as what she’s learned earning a master’s in Developmental Disabilities at Teachers College, Columbia University, and working as a wellness staff member and personal trainer at the YMCAs of Greater Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo to thrive in her new goal—opening a one-on-one “Autistic sanctuary” for young people and adults in Portage, Michigan. The Autism Wellness Center of Southwest Michigan accepted up to 20 registrants when it opened in September. Her goal is not to try to “fix” people’s behaviors but to help those with ASD achieve a greater sense of well-being.

“I focus on strength, balance and mobility training, helping individuals discover how they can best take care of themselves during their life span. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s personal training for each individual in an environment that provides the best outcome,” says Beal.

To accomplish this, she transformed an 1,800-square- foot space in a building at a busy intersection into a tranquil setting, using acoustic panels, sound- blocking curtains and natural and LED lighting. The six-week, in-person training program and three- week, follow-up remote sessions are catered to each specific client.

“I’m not interested in changing a person’s behavior so they seem less Autistic,” Beal explains. “I am about serving individuals as they are without trying to fix them. My goal is to find out what’s important to them and how I can help develop those qualities.

“First-hand experience, along with my education in autism studies and work in fitness instruction, have given me a unique expert approach that I’m excited and honored to be able to share with the greater Kalamazoo community,” she adds.

Although her career path took a turn when she received her own diagnosis, Beal says her Bachelor of Arts in Rhetoric and Writing Studies from WMU has helped her prosper with her new career in organizing her business plan and getting the word out.

“I never stopped using the skills that I learned in my undergraduate education. Being a strong writer and having analytical skills give you a distinct advantage in virtually every way,” says Beal.

Although the mission of the Autism Wellness Center of Southwest Michigan is to provide evidence- based services, Beal says her greater goal is Autism advocacy and acceptance.

“Is exercise a science-based way to reduce unwanted symptoms like anxiety and insomnia? Yes. Is lifting weights fun? Yes. But personal training is merely the medium through which I want to spread my message of self-acceptance and public accommodations for people with disabilities.”