Don't ever challenge Sam Smith to an enthusiasm contest.
The 29-year-old fitness instructor has the booming voice of a radio announcer, the optimistic outlook of a cheerleader and the boundless endurance of a marathon runner. (He's finished four.) So when he starts a warmup by shouting, "Welcome to Spirit Club! Let's clap it out," it's impossible not to put your hands together.
There's no question the program Smith is leading deserves the applause. Spirit -- which stands for "Social Physical Interactive Respectful Inclusive Teamwork" -- offers classes that help clients with developmental disabilities build muscle, increase flexibility and improve their diets. As a population, they have limited opportunities when it comes to health, Smith says. "And a lot need more social interaction," he adds.
What makes Smith such an expert? He's a certified personal trainer, and he also has autism.
"Sam gets them engaged more than a typically functioning trainer would be able to," says Jared Ciner, who launched Spirit in April 2013. Ciner had two jobs at the time: as a personal trainer at Sport & Health, a D.C. area gym chain, and as a support counselor with the Jubilee Association of Maryland, which provides residential services to disabled adults.
Recognizing that many of his Jubilee clients were uncomfortable in typical fitness settings, Ciner developed a curriculum just for them. Each class included partner exercises and group activities, proceeded at a pace that left plenty of extra time for answering questions and ended with a homework assignment that included an exercise to practice and a nutrition tip to follow.
After two sessions at a branch of Sport & Health, Ciner spun off Spirit Club as a separate entity that he now runs full-time. Over the past year, more than 100 students have participated in its classes at Chevy Chase Athletic Club, the Arc of Prince George's County and -- as of this month -- Spirit's own studio in Kensington, Md.
Every Spirit class starts in a circle, with introductions and exercise suggestions.
These types of interactions establish connections and empower students, Ciner says. Like every group he works with, this class has a mix of mobility issues, communication limitations and sensitivities. As long as everyone feels involved, however, it's easy to overcome those hurdles, Ciner adds.