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.
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