Investing in Vitality: Fitness and Long-Term Planning
Investing in Vitality: Fitness and Long-Term Planning
“What do you want to do?” This is my favorite question to ask one of my Autism Fitness athletes. “What do you want to do” is indicative of the athlete having preferred exercise activities, the ability to engage in them with a good amount of independent skill, and familiarity enough that they have learned a contingency between the words “squat to the ball” or “push throws” and the activity they represent. All this niftiness sets a good precedent for fitness as a life skill that will carry on into adulthood.
Similar to socialization, robust, creative, active play is often a limited or deficit skill in the ASD and special needs population. While some individuals may bound from room to room or engage in repetitive behaviors, these are quite limited in generalizing to other areas of life. There is a significant difference between being active and being progressively or creatively active. So it is a skill set we need to teach. We’re going to read more and more valid research about how fitness improves adulthood, and continuing research regarding the general inactivity of the autism and special needs communities. Developing systems for improving the quality of and access to appropriate exercise programs should be, and as always I am biased, a major focus of parents, organizations/ associations, schools, and other entities that serve those with autism.
Apart from a general initiative, it is a good idea to discuss how fitness programming looks over the course of a lifetime. Systemically, at a young age we want to introduce exploratory play and the manipulation of the environment around us “(what happens if I put this beanbag over here on the high shelf?”), this is the basis of play. During childhood years we introduce basic motor patterns (Crawling, gait, carrying things), and into adolescence and the teen years advancements on these skills with the possibility but absolute non-necessity sportbased/ martial art/specialty activities. Into adulthood we look at preserving and improving strength, stability, and strength endurance along with cardiovascular health.
The system we currently have seems to ignore prioritizing the introduction of physical education/ optimization in the early years and then specializing (sport-base programming) in childhood and adolescence. This type of system caters to the minority of individuals (those who want to participate and are adept at sports). Motivation aside, a system that does not address the foundations of movement (strength, stability, motor planning) is a poor choice for long-term fitness because it assumes that the participants will be able to perform sport specific skills with any basic ability level and, second, that individuals will have access to these activities.
The most important quality when introducing physical fitness programming to an individual, particularly children, is adaptive functioning and ensuring that there is a reinforcing quality/incentives during programming. A constant barrage of “this sucks” is not a desirable take-home message on a regular basis. Having fitness programs that are, at least in some way, enjoyable create a situation in which it is more likely the individual will want to continue engaging in those activities.
Think of starting out a fitness program as investing in a very secure fund that maintains steady, mostly predictable increases in wealth. We may not have profound enhancements in the first few weeks of an exercise program for an 11-year old with ASD, but over month and years and by their 40th birthday, the proactive benefits are evident and the preventative ones, as preventative things tend to be, evident as a result of absence.
The advantages of general fitness activities (strength and movement-based) include:
1) Individualization: While the entire ambulatory population requires pretty much the same movement patterns for optimizing physical ability (squat, hinge, push, pull, locomotion), it is important that the exercises be progressed or regressed based on the ability of the athlete. In the short-term, we can set goals for an individual based on current needs and abilities. For long-term planning, we can focus on particular aspects of exercise, fitness, and other movement opportunities. Even if an individual engages in a sport or athletic pursuit (swimming, hiking, etc.), a general strength and fitness program will only enhance performance in the other activity.
2) Environmental Accessibility: For swimming, you need a pool. For basketball, you need a court and hoops, for competitive dolphin riding you need two permits and four references. For fitness programs you need half a living room, a couple of Sandbells or sandbags, a Dynamax ball, and a resistance band ortwo. This setup can be replicated in a school gym, at a playground, fitness facility, backyard or just about anywhere.
3) Social Advantages: Apart from the importance of individualization in programming, socialization is an important constant in the lives of those with ASD and related special needs. Fitness programs can serve as a gathering for interaction and the development of interpersonal skills. This does not mean that the exercise activities will automatically facilitate meaningful socialization, these are separate skills that need to be addressed, however an obstacle course or fitness circuit with built-in partner activities (tandem fitness rope swings, medicine ball throws, dragging a heavy object across the floor together) sets up a scenario in which social exchange can occur.
So what goes into planning for long-term health and fitness? We need to maximize accessibility to programs at every age and ability level, so immediately included are the home and school/vocational facility. Beyond these we have gyms and fitness professionals who are qualified to provide fitness for special needs populations and access to service centers, such as the Family Center for Autism (Familycenterforautism.org) in Garden City, NY that have ongoing programs and resources.
Fitness programming in any environment should always begin with assuring a positive, reinforcing environment, progressing or regressing exercise activities as needed, and seeking to increase autonomy over activity selection where it is appropriate. In my experience, fitness on the “Special Needs Radar” has moved from “Not even considered” to “Might be important” to “We think it’s important but..” I would like to welcome soon the age of “Think it’s very important” with no but, because everyone is moving theirs.
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 January/February 2016 Magazine