Waving Not Drowning: The Process of Making Fitness Fun
3) Pairing for Reinforcement
Pairing is the process of combining a neutral or non-preferred stimuli (physical activity, in our case) with a known reinforcer. Pairing is cool. When we do something that may be disliked, but do it in a positive environment that rewards us for trying, eventually that non-preferred thing can become reinforcing itself. On the journey towards making fitness fun, we want to include behavior-specific praise, access to breaks, and, apart from edibles, provide individualized rewards for engaging in a new activity.
When first introducing exercise and active play programming, our athletes may need a high ratio of reinforcement time to instructional time. Eventually, with consistent practice, success with new activities, and positive support, we can “thin” the schedule and have a healthier ratio of instructional-to-autonomous time.
4) Balance Structure and Controlled Chaos
My favorite question to ask my athletes is “What do you want to do”? Of course, in order to ask this, I have to be certain that they are already capable of performing some of the foundational activities from which to choose. If I know that my athlete(s) has/have independently mastered push, overhead and scoop throws, bear walks, low hurdle jumps, squats to a ball, overhead Sandbell walks, and can discriminate between red, blue, and green cones, then we have a basis for some self-driven active play.
The previously-mentioned activities were, at some point, all taught in a structured environment. Each was probably regressed to a point where the athlete could perform some version of the activity and progressed until they could perform the movement with appropriate levels of strength and stability. Structure time is when we teach individual activities to the point of mastery. Controlled chaos time (AKA play), is when those skills are taken to the playground, park, or other appropriate environment and performed in a random sequence.
Developing active play skills relies on first teaching movement patterns in a structured setting. This is why it is crucial to increase adaptive functioning (motivation) where it is lacking. The more motivated an athlete is to engage in physical activity, the more teaching opportunities we will have.
All four of the concepts outlined here have significant correlation to one another. General activities introduced in short periods of instructional time, with appropriate and individualized reinforcement with eventual encouragement of autonomy, is a wordy but efficient path to success. The process of teaching exercise and active play in a way that is conducive to enjoyment and long-term engagement means making sure you account for these factors. Very few of us in Neurotypical-land enjoy being told what to do, particularly for lengthy periods of time.
We want our special needs athletes to develop active play skills while being able to generalize what they do during fitness time to new environments and situations. We return to structure time to develop skills further, make fitness even more fun, and establish healthy living over a lifetime.
Eric Chessen, M.S., YCS Eric Chessen, M.S. is the creator of the PAC Profile Assessment Toolbox (www.autismfitness.com), PAC Profile Workshop series, and consults with special needs programs around the world. Available on www.autismfitness.com
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