How Tonal Helps This Dad Better Connect with His Autistic Son
Working out together allows Tonal member Ben Intonato to be more present with his son, and has made his son more confident.
By Ben Intonato, as told to Karen Iorio Adelson
As an avid surfer, I always imagined I’d have a surfing son. I’m definitely not the best surfer myself, but I find so much joy on the water. When my son Rocco, who’s now 13, was diagnosed with autism at 2 years old, I didn’t know if that vision would ever come true.
At the time of his diagnosis, people told me and my wife Sara that Rocco would never learn how to swim or surf. But even at that young age, he seemed calm and happy whenever he was in the water, so I still wanted to try sharing that experience with him.
We started out on a boogie board and the first time he stood up on a wave, he held onto my hair the whole time. Over the next few years, Rocco found his own unique style of surfing and, in that way, taught me how to coach him. More than anything else, the simple power of being present together has helped Rocco learn to surf (he’s now standing up on a standard board on his own) and helped us connect and communicate without words.
When Sara and I bought our Tonal, we didn’t expect that we’d find that same sense of presence working out with Rocco. We originally got Tonal because our small fishing town didn’t have a lot of year-round exercise options, especially after the pandemic.
The intimacy of the coaching on Tonal really resonates with me. When I do a workout with Tony Horton, one of my favorites, it’s like he’s there with me the whole time. All of the coaches give off such a sincere vibe. They do everything possible to help you be your best at this moment. Hearing a coach say “I’ve got you” or “We got this” reminds me of what I’ve been saying on the water to Rocco for the past decade. Now, I can get that encouragement for myself.
Even Sara, a yoga teacher with a very well-established practice, has added Tonal to her routine because she loves how it makes her feel physically and mentally. It’s hard to find time to exercise when you have a special needs child, but Tonal makes it easy since it’s right in our home. Our Tonal workouts help us make the most out of our limited free time.
We never actively encouraged Rocco to use Tonal. He just saw us working out and started mirroring the movements and grabbing Tonal’s handles. The combination of auditory, visual, and sensory prompts on Tonal helps him process information and adapt faster. Tonal is truly engaging and supportive of his abilities.
The Tonal room in our house has become a sacred space. When you’re at the bottom of a squat with very heavy weight, you have to be present and not let your mind wander or else you won’t be able to stand back up—it’s just like riding a wave. Digital weight almost feels like a wave, too, giving you constant sensory feedback. If we can’t get to the ocean, Tonal is another tool for us to find that shared presence with Rocco.
As the parent of a autistic child, you have to learn to guide your child in a way that will eventually allow you to step back and let them do things themselves. For Sara and me, Tonal feels very empowering in that sense. We’re starting to work out with him but eventually, he’ll be able to do it independently. That gives us, as parents, a lot of relief and comfort knowing he can take care of his own health and fitness.
Gaining strength on Tonal has also improved Rocco’s confidence in the water. While standing on a surfboard isn’t difficult for him anymore, he still struggles with paddling. He sees the connection between strengthening his upper body on Tonal and improving his paddling skills. He used to always avoid paddling because it was so much work, but now that he’s stronger, he’s more willing to try. That’s another step toward his independence.
Incredibly, Rocco’s story has impacted other families with special needs children. A movie producer noticed what we were doing on the beach and approached us about making a documentary featuring Rocco. The film, Rocco Up, has been selected for film festivals around the world and is giving us a chance to spread our philosophy—which we call Nature, Presence, Love—with more families.
Parenting a special needs child comes with struggles, but the time we spend surfing or working out on Tonal together helps us break through them. In those moments, I forget about everything else and it’s just me and him rocking it and having a good time. That time re-energizes me, and it’s like rocket fuel for him.