Written by Alice M Walkup, MS, BCBA

Christina Danos (right)

Christina Danos (right)

Here at ASAT we are always excited to collaborate with organizations and businesses who share our commitment to evidence-based autism treatment. One such organization is Kettlebells 4 Autism, a Canadian-based effort dedicated to raising autism awareness through fitness. I had the opportunity to interview Christina Danos, an entrepreneur and advocate from Toronto, Canada who founded Kettlebells 4 Autism (KB4A) with the intention of using kettlebell training and sport as a platform to raise awareness and funds for autism.

Q: Please tell us a little about how you became involved in autism treatment.

A: I became involved shortly after a cousin began Intensive Behavior Intervention (IBI therapy). After observing one of his sessions I was hooked! An Instructor Therapist position became available shortly thereafter, so I applied, and was hired. That was in 2003 and since then I’ve worked as an Instructor Therapist, then Senior Therapist in a publicly funded IBI program, and recently as a Behavior Consultant with a new initiative in Ontario, providing ABA-based services to individuals with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis. I’m also pursuing a Master of Science degree in ABA.

Q: Can you describe what kettlebells are for our readers who are not familiar with this particular fitness program?

A: A kettlebell looks like a cannonball with a handle. Its history can be traced to Ancient Greece and 18th Century Russia, where its use evolved from a rudimentary weight to a functional strength and conditioning training tool. Kettlebells are cast iron, and differ from a dumbbell or barbell in that the shape lends to the bulk of the weight being located in the centre of the kettlebell, and the handle allows the user to maintain neutral wrist position. Full body movement is required to pull the kettlebell via a “swing” motion with the aim of completing high repetitions at submaximal load, therefore targeting both musculosketal and cardiovascular training.

There is also a kettlebell sport, known by its Russian name, Girevoy Sport (GS). Athletes aim to complete as many repetitions as they can in a 10-minute set, without setting down the kettlebell. There are three main events or disciplines: Jerk, Snatch, and Long Cycle, in addition to Biathlon, which is a Jerk set followed by a Snatch set. For the Jerk and Long Cycle event, male athletes compete with two kettlebells, and one kettlebell for the Snatch event. With the Snatch event, competitors can switch hands once during the set. Women compete with one kettlebell for all events, and are permitted to switch hands once during the set. During a competition, each athlete completes their set before a judge who will determine if a repetition is counted or not counted, based on form/technique; for example, if the athlete’s arm doesn’t fully extend overhead but remains bent at the elbow, it’s a “no count.” The winner is determined by the most repetitions per body weight category, per kettlebell weight, and event.

Q: There are so many autism causes from which to choose. How did you choose ASAT and the Geneva Centre for Autism as your recipients?

A: I’ve known about ASAT for some time, and have used the website as a resource. I mentioned to a friend that I was looking for beneficiaries for the T-shirt campaign, and she mentioned ASAT. ASAT’s mission is completely in line with the goals of KB4A, and I think it’s an excellent resource for parents and professionals. Since I live in Toronto, I wanted to support a local initiative too which is how I became involved with The Geneva Centre for Autism. Their Monarch Café program is a vocational training program for adults with autism. They are working toward developing a “case study style” digitized manual and other support tools to help replicate the café in other areas of Canada with the goal to transitioning more adults with autism into long-term successful employment. Again, this initiative is in line with the goal of KB4A.

Q: There are many sites that claim autism awareness is their passion. More specifically, why did you decide to emphasize the evidence-based practices?

A: As a professional working closely with families, I see how confusing and stressful it can be to navigate through the information available about interventions, and the vulnerable position caregivers are in when they are seeking what is best for their child. I also know that science-based interventions typically require more effort, from all involved in providing treatment, including caregivers. As professionals, this puts us in a difficult position, but we need to be open and understanding of parents’ wishes, while remaining committed to providing high quality service, and while competing with other interventions that may require far less effort and possibly make broader claims for success. The equivalent exists in the fitness community, which is why so many “quick fix” and “low effort” gimmicks exist that ultimately aren’t effective, continue to thrive. With KB4A, I chose to focus on supporting evidenced-based treatment, because I want to bring more attention to practices that are likely to provide individuals with autism and their families the best possible outcome. I’d say that despite the many fundraising campaigns that currently exist for autism, there are only a few specifically aimed at supporting evidence-based practices. As such, there remains a need to increase awareness that emphasizes those practices that have a proven evidence base. Kettlebells 4 Autism is dedicated to moving this awareness forward and will support four organizations per year with ASAT and Geneva Centre being the first two.

Q: We are so grateful that you are committed to evidence-based autism treatment. Please tell us about your website and your products.

A: The website is a work in progress, and I’ll take this opportunity to request assistance from any interested readers. We have a big event coming up in February 2014, our second annual Kettlebell Swings Event, with all funds donated to our beneficiaries. All of my time is donated, and I have had the support of some great friends when needed (Thank you, Shawn and Sara of Agatsu, Cynthia and Erika!). Last year this event raised over $5000, and it looks like we’ll have more than double the number of participants this year. I’m aiming for the website to be similar to Movember or Ride to Conquer Cancer, where donors can sponsor a participant, and all donations are tracked online. I’m in the process of updating the website to accommodate this event. In terms of our products, the T-shirts are great! The designer, Joel Tellier, created an amazing logo, and I’m getting fantastic feedback. They are a cotton- polyester blend, the cost is $30 plus shipping, and all proceeds raised through T-shirts sales will be divided and donated to ASAT and Geneva Centre for Autism. Funds raised from a comedy night fundraiser in Toronto, and the Kettlebells Swings Event in 2014 will also be donated to these two beneficiaries. Following the Kettlebell Swings Event, two new beneficiaries will be chosen.


Kettlebells 4 Autism T-Shirts

Q: We will certainly share more information about this event as the date approaches. I also understand that the T-shirts are being sold at several locations as well. You may not be aware but we have a few hundred subscribers who reside in the province.

A: Yes, I am happy to report that a number of gyms are selling the T-shirts for a limited time. These include: The Academy of Lions at 64 Ossington Avenue in Toronto, ON, SPEED Strength and Conditioning at 7551 Jane Street in Vaughan, Ontario, and Agatsu Academy at 202 Prom Ronald Montreal West in Montreal, Quebec. Readers should also check the website for an up-to-date list of locations carrying the T-shirts.

Q: That is wonderful! What are you hoping to accomplish with this fundraiser?

A: I would like to raise a minimum of $5,000 for each beneficiary this year, then double the funds raised and number of beneficiaries the next year. In terms of raising awareness, I hope that those who buy the T-shirts or participate in the Kettlebells Swings event learn a little more about ASD, which can lead to compassion and support for those affected by autism.

Christina, we appreciate that you took the time to tell us more about your program and fundraiser. Physical fitness is important for everyone, and if you haven’t found a routine that works for you, perhaps it can be found in kettlebells. Supporting Kettlebells 4 Autism helps support ASAT and spreads the word about science-based autism treatment. Check out the 2013 Kettlebell Swings Event here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvyaaLi1WgY

Many thanks, Christina! We will certainly keep our readers apprised of your fantastic efforts!

Citation for this article:

Walkup, A. (2013). Interview with Christina Danos, Founder of Kettlebells 4 Autism. Science in Autism Treatment, 10(3), 26-28.

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