5 Ways to Include Fitness for the ASD Population: Anytime, Anywhere (and Others within the Special Needs Community)
5 Ways to Include Fitness
Interested in starting the school year off with a secret program that can increase positive, productive behaviors, self-regulation, and cognitive functioning? Perhaps you have a slight inclination towards concepts that can lead to healthier bodies and better socialization opportunities? Nah, I didn’t think so. But because I still have roughly 750 words to go in this article, and because you are still reading along, I will share with you this highly guarded, top level clearance protocol; Physical Activity. For years disregarded, misunderstood, and ignored, it is now spectacularly clear that regular physical activity and play have demonstrable benefits for the autism population.
In my practice I tend to consult with two categories of special education programs; those that do not have a physical education program in place, and those seeking to optimize a preexisting program. The term “Adapted” PE is often used, but all physical education is adapted, or should be adapted, to individual abilities. I have yet to meet a class of students on the spectrum who have the same physical, adaptive, and cognitive skills. In a class of ten, three or four may have age-appropriate physical skills, two or three with slight motor impairments, and the rest functioning low enough on the adaptive, or behavioral, level that it is difficult to figure out exactly what they can and cannot do.
A typical “Adapted” PE class features a soccer ball, bat or kickball on the floor, one or two students attempting to participate, and the rest of the class in various states of wandering or avoiding the activity. I scrap sports entirely and go for a movement-based program, focusing on developing general fitness skills (squat, push, pull, locomotion) and play. The cool factors include these programs being open to individualization and developing abilities that generalize or “cross over” very well into life skill situations.
While I designed these protocols for the classroom or school gym, there is no reason why they cannot be performed in the home, as well. I’ve had the opportunity to meet some active, and rather proactive, parents who have implemented fitness programs for their children/adolescents/teens with ASD. When it is done in school it becomes a great routine, when done at home it becomes a lifestyle.
You may not be familiar with the 5 pieces of equipment mentioned below. The exercise modalities I use in my own programs must be:
- General in application. It has to have more than 1 usable feature
- Portable. Fitness programs should be performed both indoors and outdoors.
- Safe. No real moving parts.
- Fa-hun (uncommon spelling but appropriate pronunciation of the term “fun”)
The conversation about type starts and ends with Dynamax. I have been using these balls for years with my athletes and have yet to see one break. They are hand stitched in Austin, Texas, and unlike other medicine balls, are soft and do not hurt when caught.
Some of my go-to medicine ball activities include:
- Squatting to to the ball
- Push throws (from the chest)
- Overhead throws
- Scoop throws
You need some space for ropes, but they are 1/10th the price of a treadmill, provide a far better cardiovascular effect, and can be used by individuals with any level of ability. Right now, Art of Strength makes my favorite ropes. They come in a variety of “jacket colors” and last a long time without wearing down. Take that, stupid eliptical machine.
My go-to exercises for the ropes include:
- Double swings (both hands swinging at the same time)
- Alternating hand swing (right-left-right-left)
- Big-medium-small-big-medium-small swings
- The “Angry Chimp” (Jumping up and swinging the rope as high as possible)
Sandbells are a cross between a medicine ball and a sandbag. They are outstanding for developing grip strength (a particular issue for many young people with ASD) and provide a safe alternative to dumbells.
My go-to exercises for Sandbells include:
- Squats holding a sandbell at the chest or behind the neck
- Overhead raise and slam to floor
- Pushing across a non-carpeted floor
- Overhead walks
Sandbags are great when a little more weight is needed. I find that anything over 15lbs makes the Sandbells a little difficult to grab. Fitness Sandbags solve that issue with many, many handles and can be loaded with almost 100lbs. Some of my older and stronger athletes with autism who have progressed in their physical development to being stronger, more powerful, and up to the challenge.
My go-to Sandbag exercises include:
- Overhead presses
- Lifts off the floor
- Hug or overhead carries
The Human Body
Body weight exercises are included in all of my athlete’s programs. Animal-style movements are ideal for groups and can be quite creative in nature (no pun intended).
- Bear walks
- Frog hops
- Star jumps
- Monkey hops
I know that many of these exercises are new, so I put up plenty of videos on autismfitness.com. All of the exercises above can be progressed or regressed (made more or less challenging) based on the ability levels (physical, adaptive, and cognitive) of the individual. Focus on including each of the five movement patterns: Squatting/bending, pushing, pulling, and locomotion (Point A to Point B. A bear walk covers this nicely). Individuals with autism deserve great fitness programs for a more active, more optimal now and beyond.
Eric Chessen is the creator of the PAC Profile Assessment Toolbox (autismfitness.com), PAC Profile Workshop series, and consults with special needs programs around the world. Available on autismfitness.com
More Fitness Fun
- Fitness Fun: Incorporating Fitness into the Classroom
- Autism Fitness in My Classroom
- 5 Ways Fitness Can Improve Autism Symptoms
- Looking for a Fun Family Exercise? How About Parkour!
- Fitness Activities: A Gateway Towards Introducing Social Skills
- The Family Factor of Five: Making Time for Fitness (and Actually Doing It)
- The 7 Habits of Highly Successful Fitness Programs
- 4 Exercise Progressions, 5W’s, and an H
- The Folly of Fitness Focus a User’s Guide
- Fitness Challenge
- Waving Not Drowning: The Process of Making Fitness Fun
- Five Fitness Facts for a Fitter Fall
This post originally appeared on our September/October 2012 Magazine