Moving in the Right Direction
Moving in the Right Direction
When one of my athletes begins trying something new or different, I let it happen. Discovering an enjoyment of movement, even if it is a slightly different way to jump or swing the fitness rope around, is cause to get excited. There is certainly a lot of practice individuals with autism have to apply to become more fit and active, but play, and celebrating small accomplishments is essential to long-term success and a healthier lifestyle.
The Science of BSP
Behavior-specific praise is instrumental for great fitness and active play programs. Behavior-specific praise (BSP) tells the athlete exactly what they did correctly. For example, if my athlete is performing jumps over some low hurdles I may say, “Good bending knees and looking forward” as opposed to a more general “Good job!” or “That was great”! Using BSP provides the individual with a blueprint on how to succeed again.
BSP also allows us as instructors/coaches/parents to provide effective feedback without having to comment on what the athlete is not doing correctly. When we hear a negative “Don’t do it that way”; “You’re doing it wrong”; “No, you’re other left”, not only can it be discouraging, but also, it can easily confuse an individual and not just those with special needs. Several studies have demonstrated that athletes who are provided BSP without any mention of mistakes tend to improve in performance. They are able to focus on what they are doing well, continue doing it, and improve.
In the now, BSP helps us to consider the small improvements an athlete is making. Over time this is how we achieve more demanding goals. Anything from frog hops to riding a bike to running up a hill are going to require the investment of time, proper effort, and sufficient motivation.
Break movement activities down into smaller steps. What needs to be done first in order to independently master this particular exercise or activity? Usually teaching the whole thing at once is overwhelming, particularly if there are several steps that have to be performed in a specific order. If I want my athlete to pick up a ball, raise it overhead, and then carry it across the room and touch a cone, the instruction needs to be delivered in pieces, especially if these are all new movements and words. With that overhead carry, we might break it down into smaller accomplishment steps:
- Pick up the ball
- Raise ball overhead
- Walk to cone at opposite end of the room
Each step would be independently mastered before moving on to the next item. This not only builds the physical skill, but can also build confidence. The concept of behavioral momentum suggests that when we do one or two things we are good at, the next, more challenging item will be met with more confidence and a higher possibility of success. What we’re doing here is setting up our athletes for performing better than they would if just given a difficult new movement or activity. With a little planning and structure, we can individualize the process.
The Power of Second
Secondary reinforcers are specific activities or items that we know are preferable to an individual. If exercise activities are aversive, we may build in a contingency plan (if/then). We can start out as simple as standing on two spot markers earning the athlete some break time or the opportunity to listen to a favorite song. Apart from edibles (squatting for gummy worms isn’t really conducive to our fitness goals), just about any preferred object or activity (within reason) can be used.
The idea over time is to “thin” the reinforcement schedule, so rather than a single medicine ball throw being rewarded with a 14-minute break, 10 medicine ball throws are rewarded with a minute or two of individual time. We still always, always want to include behavior-specific praise, even when fitness activities are motivating on their own.
There is a Japanese concept called “Kaizen,” meaning small improvements every day leading to great achievements. We have to make time and effort to be joyful about the little successes that come with good programming, patience, and setting up an environment that increases aptitude. Changing fitness and physical activity from a “have to” to a “want to” is hardly an easy prospect in many cases, but one that is well worth the effort. Celebrate each little hurdle step.
Eric Chessen, M.S., YCS Eric Chessen, M.S. is the creator of the PAC Profile Assessment Toolbox (autismfitness.com), PAC Profile Workshop series, and consults with special needs programs around the world. Available on www.Autismfitness.com
Learn More About Fitness
- The Family Factor of Five: Making Time for Fitness (and Actually Doing It)
- The 7 Habits of Highly Successful Fitness Programs
- Get Your Heart Pumping with These Free and Easy Tips
- Life as We Grow It: Fitness as a Life Skill for Special Needs Populations
- 4 Exercise Progressions, 5W’s, and an H
- 4 Stages of Exercise Mastery
- The Folly of Fitness Focus a User’s Guide
- Fitness Challenge
- Waving Not Drowning: The Process of Making Fitness Fun
- Five Fitness Facts for a Fitter Fall
- Fitness Fun: Incorporating Fitness into the Classroom
- Looking for a Fun Family Exercise? How About Parkour!
- Turning Physical Fitness into Fun for Life
This post originally appeared on our July/August 2014 Magazine