Fitness Activities: A Gateway Towards Introducing Social Skills
Ever read the laundry list of fantastic things that will happen when you enroll a child or teen in a sports, martial arts, gymnastics, or physical education program? The usual list includes “self esteem, independence, confidence, better grades, and socialization.” As is the regularly occurring hindrance in my programming, I still haven’t found the elusive magic wand possessed by so many of these other organizations. This results in having to really consider what each of these skills means, both on general and specific to each athlete, and build goals into their sessions. Social skills are a crucial area of development for the ASD and special needs populations. Group fitness activities can be a gateway towards introducing social skills and having meaningful interactions.
We need to have realistic expectations about social skill development. It can happen. I’ve witnessed it happening. I have videos of it happening. But, it doesn’t happen by accident and it doesn’t happen simply because two or more individuals are in a room together (this is where that magic wand would make a drastic difference from a timing perspective). So much as we need to start with baseline physical abilities, we also have to identify current social and interpersonal functioning. Similar as Adaptive functioning or motivation to engage in a fitness activity, motivation to interact with peers may be initially low. With an appropriate approach, we can use fitness sessions as a platform for social interaction.
Here are three levels of interactive activities from basic to more advanced socialization. Each can be implemented in consideration of the physical, adaptive, and cognitive abilities of the participating athletes. In each phase, opportunities can arise that enable more complex socialization including turn taking, politeness, and sharing common goals.
Level 1: Tandem Activities
When I have two or more athletes in a session, the primary goals remain to increase physical ability and adaptive ability, or motivation to perform exercise activities. While the athletes may not be interacting just yet, we always begin with a greeting “Hi (name)” before we get started, for our non-verbal athletes, we can use a hand wave, device, or alternate form of communication. If the pair have a significant difference in adaptive level, one athlete may take longer breaks than the other between activities or require an incentivized situation (performance of exercise to best of ability = access to reinforcer), so they may not always be actively participating at the same time.
When the athletes are both engaged they usually perform the same activity together or modified/regressed as needed. In the video, two of my female athletes demonstrate overhead Sandbell walks. They move in close proximity and perform the walk for the same amount of distance, though with different weights in accordance with their physical ability.
Tandem activities can be initiations to more meaningful social interaction. They can also help with defining personal space and an awareness of others. Tandem activities can also be performed with larger groups.
Level 2: Interactive Single-Step Exercises
One of the most important reasons why developing physical abilities should be the primary goal in fitness programs (besides the obvious), is that once these basic skills are mastered, meaning they can be performed independently, two athletes can begin using them as an interactive activity without the instructor prompting or guiding one/both athlete(s) through the movement.
In the video you can see two of my athletes performing push throws. Teaching the push throw to each athlete took some time, along with both physical and eventually visual prompting to enhance the movement. Eventually, each was able to master the skill and I could fade back and capture it all on digital film.
Medicine ball throws and other “ I go/you go” exercises are great go-to’s for developing social skills beyond the tandem stage. It is important that the participants have similar physical and adaptive skill levels to maintain consistency of progression, meaning that each athlete is still continuing to develop the physical ability further.
Level 3: Sharing Objectives/Common Goals
One of my arguments against the use of sports activities as a basis for adaptive PE and special needs fitness programming is the abstract nature of game play. The concepts of winning, losing, opposing teams, time of play, offence/defense can be very difficult to understand and, ultimately, quite meaningless for the participant. I often note that coaches have to incentivize the idea of winning which is a ridiculous waste of time. Instead, we have the opportunity to develop movement-based programs that both serve the physical needs of the athletes in a scalable way and introduce goals that align with their cognitive functioning.
Every Sunday at 12pm my two teen athletes are visibly excited to play “Cone Carnage,” in which they use a pair of Dynamax medicine balls to knock over about twenty multicolored cones, trying to beat the standing record (as of this week just under 2 minutes). Sometimes they move quickly, other days more of a “mosey along” pace to grab the ball from the other side of the room and throw it to fell another cone. They work together to knock all the cones down (and help to pick them back up). The complexity of the game is relatively simple, and it allows them to keep in mind what they are supposed to be doing.
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Socialization skill development is certainly a valuable and highly sought area for parents and professionals. We have to take time to consider how we are defining meaningful socialization for an individual, what baseline skills they currently have, and how best to introduce new targets. Fitness activities, because they are active/ engaging and provide situations for interaction, can be outstanding conduits for developing new friendships.
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 March/April 2016 Magazine