Episode 5 – Skills for Life
Hosts Dr Lisa Interligi and Kristine Christopoulos welcome guest Nicola Millar, Occupational Therapist, to talk about helping young people with disabilities develop skills for life.
Tommy Trout is rare gem promoting true inclusivity. Another entrepreneur who has taken, love and his family circumstance to positively impact the lives of people with a disability. Lisa and Kristine talk to Tommy about how his fitness company – We Flex – is making difference to people to disabilities aged 7 years and up. Boxing, yoga, Zumba, PT, gym – whatever it takes to be active, healthy and much more.
Speaker 1: Welcome to Loop Me In, the podcast community for parents and carers on raising children with disabilities. Join presenters Dr. Lisa Interligi and Kristine Christopoulos and their guests in sharing experiences, information, and support ideas to help children with disabilities flourish. Loop Me In is brought to you weekly on platforms like Apple podcast, Spotify, and Stitcher, to name a few. You can learn more, connect to the Loop Me In community, and listen to more episodes on our website, loop-me-in.me.com.au.
Kristine Christ…: We’re talking today to the founder of WeFlex. WeFlex was an organization that was established to create an environment in health and fitness for people with disability. It provides unique training with one-to-one trainers for individual needs, not just a general exercise routine. Today, as I mentioned, the founder of WeFlex, Tommy Trout. Hello, Tommy.
Tommy Trout: Hello. Lovely to be here. Thanks for having me. Absolutely great to be here and thank you so much for the introduction. I normally prefer to describe WeFlex as the fitness brand for people living with disability.
Kristine Christ…: Sounds awesome. I’ve been watching your video and I just loved the story about how you started and the sad loss of your dad and obviously your brother now, Jack is, you mentioned before, he’s 32. Is that right?
Tommy Trout: 32 years young, yes.
Kristine Christ…: Wow. Tell us how this all began for you.
Tommy Trout: Absolutely. So look, post your primes by saying I’m the last person who should have started a business and definitely the last person that would’ve started a business, but like most things in the for purpose sector, you kind of get to a point of just stuff this and things aren’t working or things aren’t there to support the people that you love, and you just may take matters into your own hands. So quickly, I’m a absolute industry tragic. I’ve been working in disability since I was 16 years old as a volunteer and I’ve worked in a broader community services industry ever since. Just can’t get out once you get into that cartel, there’s just no leaving.
And so, what happened was, is I was working in a respite center up in Sydney and I was given a client. The client file simply told me, autistic, psychotic, antisocial, off you go. That’s all I knew about this person and their name. So really helpful feedback and briefing. Of course, I was super excited for this session. But of course, within meeting this young man for the first time I realized he was just absolutely extraordinarily interesting and really pleasant and lovely, and so strike up a great young rapport with him. I realized that due to his antipsychotic medication that he was taking at the time, he was gaining weight, like absolute crazy. It was obviously creating a burden on him as well and I thought I’d really like to help him with that.
What happened was is that as someone who was psychotic and autistic, he had virtually no support system around him whatsoever. So for cultural reasons, his family completely abandoned him and left him. So zero there and he had no friends essentially either. The only people in his life that asked him how he was were people who were paid to ask him that, which was really quite disappointing. And so I really set about what can I do for this guy. And I thought, for me, I’ve just always been a bod guy, always been a fitness guy, and I’m just like, “I’ll just take him to the gym, screw it.” It’d help him lose weight and it might give him somewhere to go socially. I just had no idea what the result would be, but I just didn’t expect it to be what it was. And that was just, this gym, absolutely wrapping itself around this young guy.
I was teaching him about the body. I was teaching him how to lift weights. Before I knew it, the gym refused his money because they just loved him too much. He was also then all the regular punters who were there at the gym, at 10:00 A.M. on a Thursday, were coming up to him and just talking to him. You know what I mean? Then before I knew it, I had six people with disabilities coming into that gym with me. I was pairing them up, giving them their assignments, letting them out. I got up to eight and they just loved it. The gym loved it. I always forced them to give money to the gym because I said you need to take ownership over this. You are not a charity case. Put your money in and put in the work as well. Right? Nothing’s free.
It was just going to gang buses, and it was very much in that moment that I decided, “This is exactly what I want to do for the rest of my life. I can do this forever.” I was all set to set up another program just like it in another part of Sydney. Right before I was about to do that, my dad passed away. So my old man, he was on the spectrum, but of course he was of the generation where that wasn’t diagnosed as a young man. So he was a very weird kid and he was very good with computers. He was able to get employment and do well for himself, but very much on the spectrum. It was only when my younger brother Jackson came around and was diagnosed with autism that dad sought his own diagnosis out and realized, “Oh, there you go. I’ve been autistic for the last 50 years. How about that?”
Lisa Interligi: It happens Tommy. I’ve had numerous cases where parents have got diagnosed at the same time. Do you think that was really important information for him?
Tommy Trout: I think so, but I think for him it was sort of like, so he was so much older that, “Well, I wish I knew that, but now I’m sort of on tracks with my life.” He just knew what he liked to do. So I think he just sort of was interesting more than anything else. I don’t think he actually took anything out of it in how he changed. He definitely didn’t change his lifestyle, I’ll say that. So my dad passed away from very preventable health conditions. So I can’t stress enough just how unhealthy he was in every metric. He just liked what he liked and it was bad food and not exercising and playing computer or working on the computer. And he just did that.
It was really one day he stood up and his leg snapped underneath him, and it was actually from cancer that had been completely destroying his body for years and years and years. He just never wanted to go to the doctor, just toughened up, stuck it out, had a really weird interceptive sense of things, and he just kept on with it. And so, he went from being seemingly okay to having six months left to live. He passed away right before I could do that second program.
I’m there at my dad’s funeral looking at my little brother Jack, who was very much on the same path from a health perspective, and thought, “Well, I’m not losing my best mate and my little brother in the same vein.” I tried to get Jack into a gym, but we really struggled. I mean, Jim’s heard the label autism, chop chop, tried to get him a PT. I’m not qualified for that. I’m not a bloody doctor. I’m not a psychologist. I can’t work with someone on the spectrum. It was really at a desperation that we found a gym, Anytime Fitness, that worked excellent with Jack and the manager there just doted on him completely. But I took myself off out of frustration, became a certified personal trainer and train Jack myself. Jack went on to lose 14 kilos. He makes independent lifestyle decisions for himself. He now works for WeFlex. He went from zero pushups to a hundred in a single session. He’s done a complete 180. He now writes a blog on our website about his weight loss journey, what he learned, and I’ve just instilled that in him.
But I realized two things. One, Jack getting fit had nothing to do with accessibility. He didn’t need a ramp. He didn’t need easy English material or anything like that. Jack just needed someone who knew how to talk to him and how to understand him. So, expressive and receptive. Also, as a personal trainer, I need to stay qualified and up to date professional development wise. I couldn’t find a single god damn thing around disability. 20% of the world, the population, there’s just nothing there. And so I decided, well, that’s what I need to do. I need to go and start creating these materials. That’s WeFlex in a very long nutshell.
Lisa Interligi: That’s a great story. Tell me, Kris and I had our kids, our oldest children, on our podcast and I think it was our first season, wasn’t it, Kris?
Kristine Christ…: Yeah.
Lisa Interligi: And it was really useful for us to hear their perspective about growing up with brothers who both had disabilities. How was it for you growing up in a family where you had a father who was on the spectrum and also a younger brother?
Tommy Trout: I think like a lot of I found out later in life that I was termed a young carer, but I think like a lot of young carers though, you just don’t know any different. So it’s just, all dads are like this, aren’t they? All sibling relationships are like this. It’s just what you know. And so for me, it’s only really as a grown man myself and leaving my family dynamic and taken on my own, and you sort of realize that things were a bit different for you. And so, a lot of it for me is very retrospective. But as much as I’m sure there was, like all carers, there’s elements of I’m sure that has affected me in some ways, with both positive and negative.
I think I’ve got a very people pleasing, others first mentality, which has not always served me, but I’d also argue that I’ve got really good communication skills and I’m also probably I’m a bit better at, I am empathetic. I am more mindful, conscientious, nurturing than I may have been otherwise. So like all things, there’s two sides to it, but really for me, a lot of the awareness has come from afterwards. Or maybe I’m just very thick and slow. Could be either, but it took me a while to get there.
Kristine Christ…: I think both our kids said the same thing. That growing up, it was just normal. But now that they’ve stepped out of the family home and they’re living independently, that’s when they sort of see, “Wow, there was a role there that we play. It’s different to our friends.”
Tommy Trout: Absolutely. But wouldn’t change it for the world.
Kristine Christ…: Absolutely.
Tommy Trout: And I’m just so grateful that I’ve got Jack in my life. Even to this day, we’ve been completely inseparable from birth just ever since and nothing’s changed and whatsoever. We’ve obviously, we’re in arrested development, we’re still 10 years old together at all times and even now and our thirties. But WeFlex really more than anything just came out of love for my little brother. I’m the last guy that would’ve and should have done it.
Kristine Christ…: So explain how families can get onto WeFlex and start the process.
Tommy Trout: Sure. So the important things to know about WeFlex is that we are the fitness brand for people living with disability. Our passion is to create a more inclusive fitness space. So what we are not are special needs gyms for special needs people to do their special needs workouts in their special needs, parking spots and everything else. We are very much about the fact that the world should be inclusive, the world can be inclusive, and we are going to work with the industry to become more inclusive. I’m very tired in overseeing my little brother have to navigate the world that wasn’t built for him, especially when building a world that’s fit for Jack is not that much work. It just requires a few minor modifications.
That’s something that we are really passionate about. What we do is recreate training for our personal trainers, that we carefully vet thoroughly and bring on the right people with the right experience and attitudes and the rest of it, and we create training modules for them, which means that I could tell you, “Lisa, my little brother’s autistic, go help him.” That doesn’t give you much information. But if I say to you, “My little brother has sensory needs and he has communication needs, and he has these two behaviors of concern,” that gives you way more information to be able to engage with them straight off the bat. That’s how we look at needs. We don’t care about the diagnosis or disability anywhere near as much as we care about their unique support needs.
We do training modules around support needs, not around their labels. Those training modules are co-designed by people with those unique needs. So I’m in a room with 10 people who are blind and low vision telling me what every personal trainer should know before they work with them. I then get that checked off by a clinical lead. I put them to a module and I give that to the personal trainers. Then we can then match those personal trainers to clients who have those unique needs so that they’re appropriate for each other and they can work safely with them.
So, the families out there, you go to our website, you give us a call, send us an email, carry a pigeon, whatever works for you. We will get back in touch with you. But we are going to want to know about your kid. We want to know them as a holistic individual so we’ll know what their diagnosis are. We’ll know what their support needs are. We also want to know what their favorite sport team is. We want to know what makes them happy, what motivates them, what kind of person is going to best engage them, and what kind of support do they need. Then we go and find the right fit for them. I know that I’m the right fit for my little brother. I want to find that fit for every client that we get through. We are NDS registered, so we can do call, we can do capacity building in terms of the NDS jargon. We do our best to make it work, but it’s very much about them and what they need.
Lisa Interligi: And how old do the people need to be if they want to become, participate in your programs.
Tommy Trout: At the moment, we’re about seven or eight and up.
Kristine Christ…: Okay.
Lisa Interligi: Okay, that’s cool.
Tommy Trout: Yeah, absolutely. So one thing we know, we actually work with more younger people than we thought we would purely because sport at school is just not working for them one way or another. They just wanted one or the other way, a lot of the times. And so what we do is okay, but it doesn’t mean that they’re not interested in being active. It’s just the way sport school’s going about it. One size fits all, 30, 40 kids in a class doing it isn’t working. So we do work with kids and we work with people in their 60s and 70s and everything in between. And we’re not just personal trainers. We have Zumba instructors, we have MMA instructors, boxing, instructors, yoga instructors. Anything that’s going to get people moving and active, we are all over it.
Kristine Christ…: It’s what you said before. It’s individually targeted.
Tommy Trout: [crosstalk 00:13:24].
Kristine Christ…: I think that’s what is required. Because both Matthew and Louis have autism, but they’re just so different in the way you teach them how to do things. But at the same time, they would prefer to be in a gym. Like you said before, with people around them, not necessarily in a small room where there’s no one else there. They probably wouldn’t do anything if that was the case.
Tommy Trout: And what we are saying to them when we’re doing that.
Kristine Christ…: Yeah, that’s right.
Tommy Trout: What’s the message that’s in that. So again, we’re not for that special thing. So I think this aspect, I have a wonderful saying where they say that if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism and that is it. We really embrace and encourage that. But we totally believe that there is everything they need in the gym to get them engaged, and that there’s an incidental social benefit from being in a room with people. Even if you’re not talking to them, if you’re in a room with people, you don’t have to be talking to them to get that social feel good that we’re socially engineered to experience. The example we always give is that if you go to prison, you are arguably in very bad company and you’re with that, but they punish you by removing you from those people and putting you in solitary. So the only thing worse than bad company is no company. And so, when we create these isolated spaces, it is so much worse for them. They don’t have what’s called social opportunity, which we want to create.
Lisa Interligi: It’s paradox, isn’t it? Particularly with autism. I know for us, it’s important. I guess it applies to lots of different disabilities where social interaction is limited or in fact pushed away by the person. I remember when Louis was younger, he’d tell people to shut up and go away. But actually that was the worst thing that you could do, and of course we didn’t. But it is important just to have that desensitization to having people around as well as the social benefits that you pick up. So yeah, I think it’s really important.
Tommy Trout: It’s also a surprisingly wonderful opportunity though, to support them with other independent life skills. So one thing that we do and serve the clients that I have that operate in gyms is there’s a whole process around routine building. But looking after your things, putting your stuff away, cleaning up after yourself, so wiping down the equipment. One thing I hope stays after COVID is the sanitary wiping down of equipment. I’m doing that forever. I don’t know why no one else did, but there’s that. There’s waiting your turn, and there’s maybe asking someone, “Are you done?” and being mindful of other people’s workouts as well. And I think it’s more of a male thing as well, the idea that if you tell me, “Oh, we’re going to go there to talk to someone,” you don’t want to do it. But you go there to do an activity and there’s other people there that talk to you as you’re doing that activity, the conversation is easier to manage and process, but it always gives them an out from a conversation to, “Okay, I’m going to go back to working out” sort of thing.
So it’s not the point of it. It’s just incidental opportunities around them, which is really, really exciting. And to be honest with you, we are very likely to be partnered with Anytime Fitness Australia who are absolutely and hardily authentically driven to be the most inclusive gym network in Australia. We have been working with over a hundred of their gyms nationally and that’s growing, and they are all, all in meaningfully and they really want to celebrate and just do whatever they can to support people with disabilities accessing their gyms. And we are providing them support around that. So, you know what I mean, but they know that there’s benefit and that their members are going to love it. And so far, their members do love it.
Lisa Interligi: There must be a lot of confidence building as well, Tommy. I think anybody wants to be successful at what they do. Often some of these kids, particularly because we know we’re interested in kids and young adults or children and young adults, often told that they’re not successful or they don’t feel successful. And so, building that confidence by having their own plan, meeting their own goals, feeling stronger and more capable, must be fantastic to see.
Tommy Trout: It’s cool. Well, have you guys ever seen a fitness or health product advertised towards women? Yes. Have you ever seen fitness or health goals advertised towards older people? Yes. Younger people? Yes. How many times have you seen anything health and fitness related marketed to people with disability? Probably never. I know I certainly haven’t. And so, the confidence thing is a big part of it as you can’t be what you can’t see. And so, I know for me growing up, I was always encouraged to be healthy, to be active, always at a sport, the whole thing. Jack had a label. None of that applied to him. For some reason we just figured he’d never want to get into it or do it or would respond to it. But when Jack started working out, really quickly he fell in love with it, and he’s been doing it ever since.
His confidence has grown. His confidence probably overshot the mark of where I wanted it to go and I now need to rein him back in because this boy is very confident and starting to get a bit cocky if you ask me. He thinks he’s thinner than me. But we know it’s funny. We’ve all got our own quirks, but Jack, like a lot of people on the spectrum, a love affair with the mirror and reflections and faces and posing and different things. But Jack’s just, he’s starting to flex, he’s starting to look at himself. He’s really proud that he’s lost weight. You can see the difference. That’s just a really cool thing to see because like my dad, he never cared what he looked like whatsoever. We’re not aesthetically driven at WeFlex. We’re not six packs or anything like that. Jack needed to lose weight for his own health, and Jack’s noticing that he lost weight and he feels really proud of that. It’s just really cool to see my brother in that way in a way that I may never have seen it if the life turned out differently.
Lisa Interligi: It’s about building those practices up when you can, I guess. Because I often think Louis is a bit of a Labrador. He’d ate his way through life. And so, you don’t want him to be predisposed to heart conditions or type two diabetes or any of those chronic illnesses when we are getting older and won’t have that time to help him build those disciplines. So it’s a good time now I guess.
Tommy Trout: Well, absolutely. And what’s really exciting for us is that, and I’m sure you know as well from a clinical standpoint, there’s not a huge amount of research backing the impacts of regular exercise on different types of disability. There has been some literature review done on how exercise impacts people on the autism spectrum. And I said that when participating in moderate to rigorous exercise, two to three times a week, about 30 to 45 minute workouts, they’d noticed that positive behaviors like the ability to concentrate, emotionally regulate, things like that improved, and negatives behaviors like absconding, emotional deregulation and things like that actually decreased. And so, there’s not enough literature to say that it absolutely will make everything better but things typically work out when you do work out. And there is some evidence suggesting that there’s actually real support in behavior, support for people on the spectrum with others around exercising regularly.
And so, we’ve partnered with university as well, the Australian College of Physical Education, and we are excited to look into how can we actually support research into this to show that exercising can actually support with regulation and also support with behavior support as well.
Kristine Christ…: I agree with that because I think it also helps with anxiety.
Tommy Trout: It does.
Kristine Christ…: I know when we worked with personal training for Matthew, just that level of anxiety sort of went from high to kind of eased down a little bit because he was using energy. He was exercising, was sweating on a day-to-day basis. These kids won’t voluntarily go out for a run or go to the gym on their own because where are they going to go? I think it’s very important and something that’s not really looked at, like you said before.
Tommy Trout: No, absolutely not. And so, what’s really exciting then is that the idea that, and I’m definitely guilty of it myself as a brother, but when someone in your life has the label, that very much becomes their defining feature and we forget that there’s still a very human being beneath that who has every other need and their body will benefit from these physiological practices like anybody else would. And so, with Jack, he’s autistic. We always saw him that way as a kid and you always tailored around that and always tried to make his life easy because of that. We did, collectively as a family, lose sight of the fact that as a human, he would benefit from exercise. He would benefit from being outside, being engaged. We just saw it as a binary fit. You know what I mean? A round peg through a square hole instead of saying, “Well, Jack actually can do it. We just have to tailor it to fit him.” That’s very much the crux of reflex is just, we are acknowledging that they’ve got human bodies that will benefit hormonally, physically from exercise. We just need to make it fit.
Kristine Christ…: So true.
Lisa Interligi: Fantastic. What’s your next ambition? I guess that you expanded your business, then what’s your mission, do you think, or your purpose? What do you think you’re driving towards?
Tommy Trout: The one thing I’m really passionate about really is creating a more inclusive world and more inclusive space, but not by taking on that as the mission, but finding pockets, little things that I think that can actually be objectively changed. So I don’t think an inclusive fitness industry is the most important thing on the planet right now, but I think it’s something that’s within my skillset, my knowledge, and something that is achievable in my lifetime. So that’s going to be a part of an inclusive world, so I’m going to focus on that. WeFlex itself is taking off. It’s doing really well. We’ve got more PTs coming on, more opportunities available for other families. And so, we are just focusing on that. But this is really broad how it can go. We’re in conversations with, we’re creating a inclusive active wear with our friends over at P.E Nation for people with disability.
Kristine Christ…: I heard about that. That’s awesome.
Tommy Trout: People with sensory needs, people in wheelchairs, people who have access needs in terms of bigger holes to fit into shirts or sleeves and things like that. People with amputations. We’re creating an online platform that’s going to support the clients that we have, just manage themselves on their own, automated. But on top of that, I’m creating a health literacy series where I’m supporting people with disabilities, understand their own health, understand their body, and give them the tools to make decisions in their lives. Because the fitness industry and health industry, the point of entry is getting quite higher now. It’s getting really intense and we are very much a meet people where they are and incorporate that 1% rule, just making tiny little things you can do over the long haul to get healthier.
Everyone wants to get healthy in three weeks. No one thinks about it the term of three years. But WeFlex is going to keep me very busy for the foreseeable future. But what we’re excited by is that we’ve already got opportunities to work overseas as well. As you guys know, autism, disability is exactly the same wherever you go in any country, and so are the benefits of exercise and fitness. We’ve got opportunities that we’ll be taking, and we see this going all over the world. Because at the moment we are being reached out to by other countries because that’s how little there is out there.
Lisa Interligi: That’s great. What advice do you have for other siblings who’ve got kid brothers or sisters who have disabilities. What would you say to them? You’ve got a 32-year old brother who’ve gone down that journeys. So, what would you say?
Tommy Trout: Firstly, I just want to shake your hand and say how awesome you are. Make sure that you look after yourself as well. Put your needs first, I think is really important. But on top of that, if you think your sibling would benefit from health and exercise and you engage in it yourself, bring them along. See if you can get them actually engaged with the way that you engage with it or find a way to do what you want to do with them. If you are also quite sedentary, maybe you can engage in this activity together. Maybe you can do it through your good friends over at WeFlex and we can help you out.
Kristine Christ…: On that note, love the name by the way. Keep saying it out loud.
Tommy Trout: Well, we wanted to be a cool brand and not be what weak is said to be. A bit of an industry that has one, there seems to be a rule that you need to have ability in your name, no matter what. You know what I mean? It’s just a bit not be interested in that, but also we don’t want to be the lame Mickey Mouse sort of brand that’s just condescending. We want to be a really fun, hip, trendy, aspirational brand that everybody wants to be a part of, but we’re for people with disabilities only.
Kristine Christ…: Awesome. Well, we can’t wait to put our boys in, both 22 and love Diet Cokes and [crosstalk 00:25:36]
Tommy Trout: Bring them on.
Kristine Christ…: We will have to bring them on. Thank you so much for talking to us, Tommy, today. It’s been awesome and yeah, WeFlex. Love it and can’t wait to see how it grows.
Tommy Trout: My pleasure. Thank you so much for your time.
Lisa Interligi: Thanks, Tommy.
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