East Bay Fitness Trainer Finds Calling Working With Young People With Disabilities

It wasn’t long into his career as a fitness instructor at Combat Sports Academy in Dublin, that Chad Hooker realized he had a knack for working with young people.


“I was running kids' CrossFit classes and I was doing all that stuff. I just really connect with kids,” he said. “It's a very nice family oriented place.”

Still, years of working with young people could not prepare Hooker the new wave of clients that were about to come his way.

It started, five years ago, with a simple question.

“I had a lady come up and she was like, 'Hey do you do personal sessions' and I look at her and I'm like, 'Of course, what can I help you with?' ”

Hooker said the woman was not asking for herself, but rather she was asking on behalf of her friend’s son.

“He’s on the spectrum,” she stated.

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Chris Jewett/NBC Bay Area

Hooker had absolutely no experience for training working with those living with autism. He also had absolutely no fear in trying something new.

Hooker took on his new client and, as he said, “everything snowballed from there.”

“I saw the effects that it was having on him and his mom would come up to me in tears and be like, ‘You don't know what this is doing for my child.’"

Hooker had found his new calling.

Soon, he founded Puzzle Piece Athletics, offering one-on-one training sessions, primarily for young people living with autism.

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Chris Jewett/NBC Bay Area

With over 40 clients and 6 coaches hitting the gym under his watch, Hooker said the quick growth of Puzzle Piece is a testament to his team’s ability to work with the neurodiverse community as well as the fact there are few other similar programs.

Some partents travel more than an hour each way to bring their children to work with Chad, who says he learned everything on the job.

“Over the years I've picked up on cues and stuff like that that work and I keep them,” he said. “I had to figure out how to use my cues, and when [things] happen, how to back off and how to give them time to settle down.”

Aside from the praise he receives from the parents of his clients. Hooker said that the therapists of his clients have reached out to him with positive messages as well.

One question they always ask, Hooker said, is how he is able to work so well with children on the autism spectrum without any formal training.

“'How have you had no background and you work with these people so well? And how did you get started with this?' I get all those questions,” said Hooker.

puzzle piece 3

All the praise and interest Hooker receives with Puzzle Piece Athletics is driving him to look to expand his venture outside the Bay Area.

He said people have reached out to him from Australia, the Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates and many more places around the world.

“It's not just the United States that needs a program like this,” he said. “There are people on the spectrum in every city and every town.”

“It's amazing. There's no feeling like it to know that you're doing good for the society,” he said. “Having this outlet for them is just so amazing.”

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