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?
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