Adapted PE for Reality
So each year around late August I’m reminded of my school observation gigs in which I was hired to assess and critique adapted PE programs around the Northeast. One of these ended in my stating “ That’s fine but l’m not changing my professional opinion,” yes, really. These programs were run by dedicated professional who just needed a little bit more. Like an entire overhaul. But that’s fine. A systematic change in how we approach Adapted PE will ultimately benefit our students, instructors, and parents.
I’m not certain how many of you are familiar with my “ Pyramid vs. Tree” analogy. I get occasional and very encouraging emails from readers who have been consuming my articles for longer than I even recall writing them. I’m not kidding. Sometimes one of you will reference an article or presentation I don’t even remember doing. Back to “ Pyramid vs. Tree,” this puts into perspective the role of sports for the ASD population.
Culturally, we have a very high regard for sports. So much that youth sports have become a multi-billion (yes, billion) dollar enterprise, often without questioning whether this is really time best spent for our youth. There has been a trickle-down effect from general physical education, which has become focused on team sports to adapted PE which often models itself after mainstream PE. But what are the benefits of sports? The actual benefit, not the perceived one. Let’s break it down PAC style because that’s how I do everything and this is my article.
From a physical perspective, team sports require mostly specific rather than general movement patterns. As is evident by all the…evidence, individuals with autism have deficits in gross motor skills; strength, stability, and motor planning through foundational movement patterns. These are not going to be addressed through sports participation.
On the adaptive side, individuals with autism and related developmental disabilities tend to be less-than-enthused about sports. In a group or class setting, it may not be feasible to provide adequate reinforcement for each step necessary during a sport activity. We can incentivize certain actions (kicking a ball, shooting a basket) through behavior-specific praise, but it is going to be prohibitively difficult to both teach and reinforce further skills to the point of game play situations with a class of more than two or three students.
Cognitive processing and abstract thinking, combined with the speed of game play, can make teaching sports to any meaningful stage very difficult. Now there’s difficult in “this is a challenge but the outcome is worthwhile” and difficult in “We’re doing this to push through without taking into account short- and long-term progress.”
So the pyramid is how we tend to view physical activity culturally, and on the top of that pyramid is “sports” as the greatest, most important thing you can possibly do. But that isn’t really the case physically and it is not the case from a behavioral or cognitive point. A better way of considering sports may be as a branch on a tree. You can climb to that branch, but it’s only one of several branches. That branch is also an extension of the roots and the trunk of the tree; the strongest, most stable components. And what are those components? General movement, strength, stability, and motor planning, the very foundations our special needs students tend to lack.
What then of programming? Build units around movements. Here’s the litmus test; Can the activity be progressed or regressed for each participant so that they still gain a benefit?
One of my favorite exercises is the medicine ball push throw. It is part of both the PAC Profile Assessment and all of Autism Fitness programming. The push throw can be progressed to complex and powerful variations, or regressed to simply passing the ball back and forth. In a class of eight students, each one can not only perform the push throw at their currently level of ability, but a goal can be set to progress it. The goals don’t even have to be the same. One athlete may be working on increasing the distance for a throw while another may be progressing from five throws to eight per set.
The importance of adaptive and cognitive considerations cannot be overstated when discussing activities with groups. Here are questions. These questions should be answered.
- Are we familiar with any off-task or maladaptive behaviors that might occur?
- Does each athlete understand the expectation for the activity?
- Are we providing appropriate and effective reinforcers including breaks and access to preferred activities?
Having answers to the questions above will greatly increase the regularity of wheels staying on versus wheels falling off, even with whole groups. Knowing who might need a break and when is a proactive approach to providing behavior support and ensuring the safety and optimal experience for the class. No, it is not always ideal, and there may be off-days, but remaining consistent has marvelous effects.
Consistency should be maintained in programming, reinforcement, and coaching/cuing. An arbitrary timeline does not mean that the students will acquire the skills. Having a 6- to 12-week plan may read well on paper (email template), but has mastery happened? Can the student(s) perform the exercise independently without support?
Taking a same-but-different approach to movement and programming works really well. I’ll use this exercise selection regularly:
- Bear Walk/Crawl
- Sandbell slams
- Hurdle steps
- Squat to elevated medicine ball
Each of these exercises can be progressed or regressed as needed, and quickly so that each student has ample time to perform. Bear walks can be regressed to craw ls or progressed to forward/backward/lateral patterns. Sandbell can be slammed at the current power level of the student. Hurdles can be lowered, elevated, or placed in a zigzag pattern. Squats can be lowered, supported, weight or repetitions added. We can also change the order of the exercises for some variety. Playing with the order provides a slightly different session while still continuing to provide students with the level of exercises they currently need.
When we account for physical, adaptive, and cognitive abilities and needs, we can approach with goals in mind. In any class of individuals with autism , there is going to be a given degree of resetting, revising, and reestablishing structure. If we plan with an understanding of our student’s capabilities and how to support progress, we can prevail in adapted PE.
Eric Chessen, M.S., is the Founder of Autism Fitness. An exercise physiologist with an extensive ABA background, Eric consults with families, educators, and fitness professionals around the world. Eric works with his athletes in the NY metro area and is the author of several E-books. Visit AutismFitness.com for more information.
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This post originally appeared on our July/August 2017 Magazine