6 Summer Success Steps for Getting Active
The June edition of every parent-related magazine since the dawn of the printing press has excitedly, in bold-font and capital letters, informed readers that Summer is the time to get outside with your kids and HAVE FUN, ADVENTURE, EXPLORE, and MOVE. But, simply because the temperature hovers around 77 degrees for a week straight, with nary a cloud in sight, does not mean that children with developmental disabilities will automatically embrace the spirit of warm weather and rolling green meadows. For some of my athletes, the warmer weather has simply meant a more opportune climate for disrobing in public. The warmer weather does give us a variety of outdoor opportunities, and matching ability levels with novel activities can lead to fun…when done right.
Step 1: Choose your venue wisely
Some of my athletes are not bothered by a park full of loud adults and children moving around, with stimuli abounding. Others are going to be thrown off and immediately seek the refuge of a quieter spot. It doesn’t matter how pretty a park is, or how many cool jungle gyms are settled among the trees and grass, if Tammy is not going within 50 yards of it. But, this park is really, really, really neat, and you know that if she just had a chance to explore a little bit without the distraction of too-many-other-people she might have a more-than-ok time.
The place may be perfect, but when everyone and their brother is there, well. it may not be ideal. Can you try a morning venture, or a time when the place is less crowded? If it is a park, playground, or other outdoor spot, does it have areas that are more open or less used during certain times of day? You may need to perform a bit of reconnaissance here, but a good outcome is worthwhile.
Step 2: Time Factor
It is the first above-60 degree and sunny day here in New York, and after walking for fifteen minutes around the meadow, my minimally verbal young adult athlete signals to me that he’s “finished,” presumably because he wants to go back inside and watch the same 3 videos on YouTube for a half hour. I know well the feeling of traveling to a well-researched, ideal destination only to have an individual lose interest in five minutes, or less. It’s one of the more charming attributes of the autism/DD population.
We have to consider that our experience is not necessarily their experience. I would rather my athlete have a good 15 minutes than a good 15 minutes plus 2 barely tolerated minutes finished off with 1 half-hour meltdown. The math there does not equal fun. So maybe after 10 great minutes of activity or exploring, you head back to the car, or at least offer a preferred activity (if they must be on an iPad, at least they can be on it outdoors). A positive short experience provides the foundation for returning to and building upon that success.
Step 3: Skill Maintenance
Yes it’s summer. Yes it is supposed to be fun. But keep up with those communication and language skills. The more an individual is able to express him/herself during a new activity, the more easily we can alleviate and prevent anxiety, and solve any particular problem they may be having. Continuing to promote the use of acquired communication skills can also lead to using those language/communicative targets in new or novel environments. Having some key words, terms, and pictures for new places and activities can also build upon the lexicon.
Step 4: Family Fitness
It is just about impossible to promote a fit, active lifestyle for your children if you are not leading one yourself. Just getting outside and moving around is a start. I work with families around the country who want to start creating fitness and movement programs in the home. I make sure they know that these activities are, not only, suitable in the home, but also, outdoors as well. With a few sand bells, a medicine ball, and a big rope, the entire family can get moving and active throughout the day.
Everyone in the family is going to have different abilities starting a program, but exercise activities that can be easily regressed (made simpler) and progressed (more challenging), provide benefits for everyone involved.
Step 5: Allow and Encourage Exploration
Despite the often rigid and routine-driven nature of individuals on the spectrum, providing the opportunity to experience new places, particularly outdoors, can help in promoting independent exploration and “trying something new,” which may require a little prodding. I’ve found it beneficial and less anxiety-proving to start with “Let’s try this,” “Let’s walk this way,” or “Let’s climb up those rocks.” This circumvents the “Have to” trap.
If we don’t know something exists, or we’ve never done it before, it is difficult to accurately say whether or not we enjoy it. When it comes to the ASD/DD population, consider the fact that they often find new activities aversive, so start off simple with few demands. Trying to provide too many new experiences in one day can be overwhelming. I like to go for small victories that can be built upon over time. This is the process by which things actually get fun, and done.
Step 6: Social Experiments
Socialization is an ever-present issue with ASD/DD; outdoor activities with a small group can provide some excellent socialization opportunities. Interaction, particularly among individuals who are lower functioning from Adaptive and Cognitive perspectives (as I outline in the PAC Profile), may need some extra support to socialize and communicate with peers, but, as with other educational and vocational goals, exercise and active play settings provide new and appropriate situations where social skills can be developed.
I hope these six steps have promoted some thoughts and perhaps even motivation on your side. Remember that the first rule is “You can’t force fun,” but providing new places, people, and activities along with good instruction, reinforcement, and behavior support, serve as building blocks to a healthier, happier life.
Eric Chessen, M.S., YCS Eric Chessen, M.S. 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
Photo courtesy ©familymwr /flickr.com
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This post originally appeared on our May/June 2013 Magazine