Because many of my athletes past and athletes present engage in repetitive, ritualistic behaviors, doing something new can be stressful, particularly if it is movement-related. Exercise, at least the way I do it/teach it, is not too passive. The athlete has to be engaged in the activity and perform some approximation of the exercise prior to reinforcement (break, access to preferred activity, etc.). The comfort zone of the individual with autism is most likely going to be smaller, often much smaller, than that of a neurotypical peer. That’s just autism. The key is not to neglect providing new experiences and opportunities simply because the first 50 efforts are unappreciated.
I’ve commented multiple times in many forms of media and various venues how I do not have the luxury of my athletes with autism enjoying exercise much the first several sessions. But with time, persistence, and good coaching, physical activity takes on the near-magic (if it weren’t so damn demonstrable and replicable) quality of being reinforcing for someone who, at first, did *not much care for it at all.
About two years ago I re-visited an autism education program for which I had developed an adaptive PE curriculum including a PAC Profile assessment and individual goals for each student. When I walked into the gym, one of the instructors had a student throwing basketballs at the hoop.
“Did you try the individual program I wrote for him,” I asked.
“Yeah, but it was too much so we’re just doing this.”
It wasn’t too much. The instructor either didn’t understand the goals, didn’t want to understand the goals, or it was too much of a dramatic change (meaning she’d have to do something different and in the best interest of the student, my apologies). Or it could be that the student didn’t want to do something new, engaged in one of the 143 variations of “escape/avoidance” behavior, and that was that. Quite often my athletes don’t want to cooperate. And that, really, is too damn bad. I respect their existence too much not to provide them with physical fitness. Yes, there is a balance. Yes, I always want to make sure there is some element of reinforcement. Yes, regress activities when they are too physically demanding or too complex. BUT, there will be movement.
We understand extremes to be points where detriment typically outweighs benefit. There is the over-prompted, way-too-regimented, can-only-eat-flax-seeds-and-gluten-free-wafers kid/adolescent/teen with autism, and the “I learn so much from my child with autism that I don’t have to teach her/him anything at all and it’s perfectly fine if he/she exposes him/herself in public on a regular basis because the rest of society has to shut up and deal” kid/adolescent/teen. How about considering young people with autism as, first, people, and as people, requiring pretty much the same lifestyle habits that provide a high and proven benefit. Such as exercise (oh my little professional biases).
Most of us don’t like stuff at which we suck (most things unfamiliar). For those with ASD, the intensity at which they don’t like something may be a bit amped, comparatively. The cool thing though, the nifty thing, the moral of this post, is that if you add good programming with persistence, you get less resistance. Repeated Application (opportunities with the activity) + Regular Success = Higher Rate of Reinforcement, Familiarity, and a New Contingency (if -> then) of expectations. Oh, and they’ll be able to overhead squat too. So keep the line moving.
Priorities are going to dictate how programming time is spent. How educational time is spent is subject to the “What you SAY you do versus what you ACTUALLY do” test (they should match up). In part I of this writing I covered the misconception of fitness as an “intervention” strategy for students with autism who “need to lose weight,” as opposed to a life skill program that, in addition to enhancing a variety of physical, adaptive, and cognitive skills, is mandated both federally and by state. Yes. Not only are PE/Adaptive PE programs nifty little ideas, but they are required. Most educational programs won’t be cited for having inadequate APE programming, but it is a nice argument point for parents to bring up at an IEP meeting.
Back to prior priorities.
If you accept the premise of Part I; that extreme separation of different educational/vocational programming causes missed opportunities, then we can discuss the problem of time. It’s nice when someone says how important fitness is, or how great it would be if their students with autism had access to a regular fitness program. It sort of kind of very much sucks when they don’t actually implement anything ever. And it happens (or doesn’t happen) a lot. I categorize information into Concept (how to think about something) and Concrete (what to do about it). The obstacles in the way of implementing fitness programs for students with ASD is typically a combo deal; a lack of understanding what a fitness/PE program should include and how/when to run fitness programming.
Typically, if there is no specified gym time, time itself becomes the limiting factor. Between educational, social, vocational, and life skill programming, the school day is worn away. If that 45 minute period for PE is not built into the schedule, those 45 minutes don’t exist. BUT…
I guarantee there are nine five-minute segments throughout the day. And movement throughout the day is good, very good, for students with ASD because:
1) It provides exposure to a novel activity
2) Is not overwhelming because of extended duration
3) Can circumvent the issue of physically low-functioning students becoming fatigued
4) Can serve as a transition activity between other academic tasks
What if during social skill time a medicine ball activity was used to facilitate eye contact and reciprocity? What if rope swings were used as a way to learn counting, and even addition and subtraction? When you use fitness as part of the learning process, the “lack of time” argument dissolves, because physical education becomes part of general education. The obstacle was finding time for fitness when academics, social skills, etc. took priority, but using fitness activities as curricula builds them into the day. You don’t have to exchange one time block for another, rather restructure the blocks that already exist.
We (those of us who know better which I imagine includes all of you reading this) realize that the general education model of “preparing students for standardized tests” does not exactly highlight the rather important concepts of critical thinking, creative problem solving, the scientific model of discovery, and/or individual learning styles. It also is one of the main contributors to the compartmentalization problem, where in the real world everything is related and in school everything is taught separately. While we eagerly berate and attempt to topple the current model, the answer is; If it is important, build it in.
Time can be a limiting factor or a helpful guide. Knowing you have all day to get something done may provide enough procrastination to ward off completion. Having exactly 55 minutes, however, demands focus. Autism Fitness programming relies on a careful balance of structure (teaching) and controlled chaos (meaningful play), using time as a guide for both. One of my athletes may only be able to follow directions for 30 seconds before she needs to wander around and regroup. My goal is to increase structured time so we can enhance her physical skills, but in the process, it is necessary to improve adaptive skills. You can use time to your benefit by finding better ways (and this can be an individual student thing) to teach specific skills. Me, as the Autism Fitness guy, I like to use movement activities in the place of sitting idle. Partly because I don’t sit all too well, but also because it works.
The time component of educational compartmentalization can provide the notion that providing fitness/PE programming is just not possible because the day is already filled. I suggest that upon further inspection, a few 3-5 minute cracks can be found in that stone wall. Filling in with some fitness activities is a good gateway towards promoting more physical activity. Baby steps do lead to bear walks.
I sat down (at my computer desk) to provide some answers some damn good questions asked by Michael Zweifel on his Building Better Athletes blog. The main idea here is that perhaps some fitness professionals will consider working with the ASD population.
The other day I had the opportunity to sit down and explain myself before a pair of school administrators. The program is a highly respected (and deserving of that) school for students with autism here on Long Island. I made the case, hopefully in a persuasive enough manner, that physical fitness ties in to EVERYTHING related to optimal functioning. We have a tendency to compartmentalize different areas of ability, particularly in discussing academics. Everything human (physical, psychological, biological) is related. To what degree the effect/affect occurs varies widely.
There still seems to be a thought process that equates the need for exercise and physical activity only with those students who are overweight. The assumption is purely based on cosmetic reasoning. Because culturally we are taught (mostly by magazines and media) that fitness is primarily an aesthetic pursuit, it would follow that a student with autism who is not overweight would not benefit as much from a fitness program. The aesthetic (how good you look) perception of fitness robs the student of a proper Adaptive PE program because “He/She is skinny so he/she must be healthy.” We know, meaning that enough good research studies and anecdotal evidence in physiology, psychology, endocrinology, etc. make the opposite highly unlikely, that regular physical activity can provide significant benefits for all populations, the ASD community included.
Without pouring through stacks of studies, take the plank walk of assumption and believe that fitness programs can enhance cognitive, self-regulatory, and social functioning, in addition to, of course, improving physical ability. The asterisk (*) here is that programs must be:
3) Maintained and Progressed over time
Given these 3 conditions are met, it is certainly possible to increase Physical, Adaptive, and Cognitive skills, very specific ones, if the right programming is in place and fitness/PE is considered and utilized as more of a “life skill” program than something for students who “need to lose weight.” So if we consider that all things academic and life-skill are inter-related, and that fitness/physical education is also an important component in academic and life-skill progress for the autism population, we can begin to make better choices about developing fitness programs and using them as a gateway towards improved functioning in other areas.
I haaaattttteeeeed math all through my standard education, until I took applied statistics in my senior year of undergrad. In a semester, I managed to evolve from a “D” average student to earning an “A.” Did I suddenly get smarter (which would be a decent comic book origin story or pitch for a new neuro-focused supplement), or perhaps applied stats was taught in a way conducive to how I learn. Now, while not always proficient in math, I am fascinated by physics, applied geometry, and data. Having a reinforcing experience with math, just for a semester, provided the boost needed to build a lifelong (from that point) interest and initiative to learn more.
That being the backdrop, here are some equations that help facilitate success developing and providing fitness programs for the autism population:
1) Novel Experience/Activity + Preferred Experience/Activity x Repetition x Consistency = New Reinforcers
2) Best Effort Performance + Behavior-Specific Praise = Greater Occurrence of Best Effort Performance
3) Beginning with Baseline Skills + Appropriate Exercise/Movement Progression = Enhanced Gross Motor Patterns
4) One of My Cats + Digging Around in the Litter Box = Distracting Me from this Post
5) Short, Concise Instructions – “Don’t,” “Not,” “Wrong,” and “Other,” = New Associations/ Contingencies Between the Words and the Actions
6) Squatting with Weight + Overhead Pressing + Carrying Heavy Objects = Physical Skills that will Generalize to other areas of life
7) Teaching New Activities + Offering Choice = Emergence of Creative Play Skills
Fitness Activities x Multiple Environments + Multiple Instructors = Faster and More Generalized Mastery
9) Incorporation of Language, Social, and Academic Targets + Medicine Ball Throws = Cognitive Retention