When Crystal Rapoza began training as a bodybuilder, she discovered that the fitness industry wasn’t designed for autistic people like herself to thrive in.
Fitness resources often rely on vague ideas like “clean eating” or “no excuses” that lack the specificity and context Rapoza needed to interpret and adopt. “What’s an excuse?” Rapoza remembers asking. “Does having a meltdown today count as an excuse or is that a legit reason to sit the gym out today? How do I know?”
She also found that gyms could lead to sensory overload and trainers didn’t always understand the specific needs of an autistic person. “It was a huge struggle for me to figure out how to balance the gym with my autistic limitations,” she said.
Despite these challenges, Rapoza kept at it and has earned three bodybuilding titles through the National Physique Committee (NPC).
“I knew it was my special interest and I would have done anything — put up with anyone — to get into this career,” Rapoza explained. “But how many others were discouraged from learning because maybe it wasn’t enough of an interest to put up with all that?”
This question led Rapoza to to start Autistic Bodybuilding, a coaching business for other autistics interested in individualized strength sports. Her brand consists of a blog, YouTube Channel, podcast, and one-on-one coaching sessions.
Rapoza also hoped to set an example for autistic and neurotypical folks alike. “I wanted a way to make other autistics feel seen. And I wanted them to see me competing and think, ‘I can do that, too.’ I wanted to show neurotypicals that savants aren’t all painters and piano-players. And I wanted to normalize autism in sports as well as sports in autistic spaces.”
We talked to Rapoza about her career.
Are there any ways in which being autistic helps you as a bodybuilder, or introduces unexpected challenges?
I actually think bodybuilding is easier for me as an autistic. A lot of my neurotypical friends talk about how the diet is so restricting and the workouts get so much harder. For me, because I’m able to be fascinated and intrigued by the process and how my body changes, I don’t focus so much on what I’m missing. I focus more on the experience I’m gaining.
Now, there are times when I’m too depleted and it causes more problems. For example, I once peed myself in a tanning booth because I was too tired to know I had to pee. I don’t think many neurotypicals can relate to that. Or there’s the spray tan. Ugh! It’s awful for everyone, but I can just tell no one else in the room wants to jump out of their skin the same way I do. Finally, I notice that my body awareness starts to break-down when lifting a certain amount. So, I’m constantly pushing past plateaus to get to that next level.
How has bodybuilding impacted the way you approach life with autism?
Bodybuilding is a sport of balance. Bodybuilders have to be resilient enough to bounce back when life gets in the way and consistent enough to keep going when there feels like there’s no reason to continue. It also gives you perspective on what’s important and who is really there for you. Competitions are tough and some of us lose friends when we start competing. These are all great lessons for being an autistic adult in our current society. I carry that resiliency into my activism. And I have learned to mercilessly set boundaries when necessary. When I was diagnosed with autism in adulthood, I lost a lot of friends, but bodybuilding taught me to take that in stride. Not everyone will see my vision and that’s okay.
When I was diagnosed with autism in adulthood, I lost a lot of friends, but bodybuilding taught me to take that in stride. Not everyone will see my vision and that’s okay.
In a more symbiotic sense, bodybuilding actually helps me mitigate executive dysfunction. If I know I have to eat a certain amount to gain a certain weight, I’m more likely to make eating or sleeping a priority – both of which have been real issues in the past.
What was it like the first time you heard your name declared as the winner of a competition.
It was surreal. My friends all told me I’d win, but I wasn’t so sure. It’s way easier to see what you could have done better when you’re surrounded by a bunch of other athletes, but they were right. I did have the best physique. I mean, I was anxious. It occurred to me right away that I had not rehearsed how to act if I won and I know I acted awkward about it. I am fortunate, though, to compete in Colorado with the amazing Jeff from MuscleQuest. He’s really good at cracking jokes and helping us feel at ease on stage. So, he got me laughing and, when I look at my pictures, the awkwardness doesn’t show much at all.
That said, I don’t think I realized what happened until days later. I have alexithymia and didn’t really feel the feelings of winning right away. I think it was all the people that stopped me at the gym to congratulate me that really drove it home. I think it was a month later when I called my mom and said, “Mom, I won the overall!” She knew. She was there. Haha! But called her because I knew she would understand the delayed reaction.
Can you describe a moment when you knew that your Autistic Bodybuilding business was doing good work for the autistic or bodybuilding communities?
So, I’ve been at this for four or five years now. At first, I was not entirely sure anyone needed me or what I was doing. I actually changed the name of the business at one point because I was just struggling with so much internalized ableism about what autistics actually want. I mean, I’m autistic and into sports, but, yet, I just kept thinking I was one of the very few and maybe no one wanted my ideas.
Then, during the COVID lockdown, I started to research marketing. I started to really think about what I wanted out of life and the impact I wanted to have on the world. I cut out anyone in my life who gave me doubts about myself. Again, not everyone will see my vision and that’s okay. Suddenly, it became clear and I knew I had to be the open, proud autistic that I was meant to be. I changed the name back to Autistic Bodybuilding and launched the YouTube Channel. I couldn’t believe the responses I was suddenly getting! People were coming on my channel, Twitter, and Instagram telling me how happy they were to find me! It was wild! I still get at least one message like that every week.
Most bodybuilders meet with the idea that we each have something to share and something to learn. It really is a wonderful and uplifting community.
Each moment makes my whole body physically warm. I can actually feel all the negative interactions I have online fade into insignificance. When I get messages like that, I am grateful to the universe for letting me know I’m on the right track. And I hope I always feel that way.
As for the bodybuilding community, we all come to the sport with so much baggage. We all learn so much from each other. I won’t pretend like there aren’t a couple of bad eggs, but I think most bodybuilders meet with the idea that we each have something to share and something to learn. It really is a wonderful and uplifting community.
Your mom is also autistic. How has she been a role model for you?
My mom showed me how to be strong in so many ways. She instilled in me a sense that a whole mob really can be wrong. She never had any tolerance for judgment or gossip and always stood up for me against society’s arbitrary rules.
When I was in high school, I wore “big pants” and chains. We were called “freaks” back then. She’d go anywhere with me proudly and never asked me to change my appearance. She never understood why society cares about appearances.
On the flip side, she understood my social struggles better than anyone and never scoffed at me when I wanted to just fit in at times. She taught me to observe people and try acting like them to see if I liked it. And she helped me find the middle-ground between my authentic self and what I had to do to get through life.
I like to say my mom wrote the handbook on our version of autism and I was lucky enough to just study from it. So, really, she did a fantastic job of teaching me the value of self-esteem while also helping me see the reality of what I’d have to do to take care of myself in a world that wasn’t set up for us. I totally credit her with my ability to change, adapt, and persevere in these tumultuous and exciting times.
She set a strong example. She was my safe space. Both of those things are such powerful influences on a child.