Phrasing, Praising & Playing: Why Language is Essential in Movement
Phrasing, Praising & Playing
“It’s time to work with Eric!”
No. It isn’t. That’s a typical instruction parents give prior to my sessions with their children. True, we will be working on some target activities and continuing to master goals, but the way we approach instruction, in the gym, home, or classroom, is essential for success. It’s not time to work with Eric, not in the common sense. It’s time to play.
For many young individuals with autism and related developmental disabilities, vigorous physical activity is neither a regular occurrence nor anything approaching reinforcing. Associating new, potentially aversive activities with terms that imply “have to,” sets a tone of work rather than exploration and play. It can be challenging enough to embark upon a new series of medicine ball throws and squats when one has never before heard of, seen or performed any of these exercises. Both the activity and the situation are new and can be anxiety-provoking.
Related: Autism Fitness in My Classroom
“Have to,” implies that there is a demand with no choice, that physical activity is something that needs to be done. And certainly physical activity is something that needs to be done, but Autism Fitness rule # 1 is…You can’t force fun. Just telling someone that something is enjoyable or “fun” does not automatically make it so. Equally important is refraining from instructions that sound like demands. Since it is never wise to eliminate a problem behavior without providing some functional alternatives, here are a few suggestions for initiating physical activity:
- “It’s time to move”
- “Let’s play!”
- “Let’s try this…”
- “________ (exercise name) time!”
So there’s our starting point, on to coaching and instruction. Language and the delivery of information can be the difference between frustration and fascination. Providing too much information verbally can be overwhelming for any athlete. Keeping verbal cues to a minimum provides two key benefits:
- Learning the association or “contingency” between the name of an activity and the performance of that activity
- Short verbal instruction allows the individual to process the information without losing any of the steps
I tend to keep my verbal cues at five words or less, particularly when I am working with a new individual or teaching a new activity. Here are a few examples:
- “Grab the ball. Do push throws!”
- “Step over the hurdles”
- “Do seven Sandbell slams”
- “Touch the blue cones first”
When first teaching the exercise/activity, providing a visual cue is tremendously helpful. Many of my athletes respond well to motor imitation. Demonstrating the activity prior to them beginning, or even during the first few repetitions or steps, can help your athlete focus on what he/she is supposed to be doing. There is, of course, the common issue of the individual performing the activity incorrectly.
Performing an activity incorrectly stems from one of the three areas of ability in the Autism Fitness PAC Profile approach. These include physical, adaptive, and cognitive skills. When an individual cannot perform the activity correctly, we should figure out whether it is one or a combination of these ability levels.
If there is a deficit in gross motor skills, strength, stability, and/or coordination, which is very common among the ASD/SN population, we have to figure out a way to regress the movement. I’ve often heard “encouragement” or “coaching” that goes something similar to “No, not that way,” “No, your other left,” “Do it right,” “Do it the way I showed you,” or “You can do that.”
If the deficit is physical in origin, the individual can’t actually do that, not yet. Suppose you are not an advanced physicist, and someone barges into your cubicle demanding “Come on, fix this quantum mechanics equation! You can account for the issues with String Theory!” In addition to that instruction exceeding five words, it is also highly likely that the skills necessary are beyond your current capacity. Such is also true for the special needs individual who does not have the baseline skills to perform a proper push throw just yet.
If the issue is adaptive in origin, the individual may or may not be able to perform the activity correctly. We don’t know, because they are not motivated enough to perform the target exercise or movement. This occurs often in my assessment sessions, where the instructor (me) and environment or equipment are new, and expectations have yet to be established. I’ve had plenty of introductory sessions that equate to observing the individual run, bounce, or meander around the space while any attempt on my part to intervene with a simple cone touch or standing on spot markers is met with resistance.
If the issue is cognitive in origin, the individual may have difficulty with the form of information/instruction. Successful coaching is about determining whether an individual will learn better with a visual or physical prompt for a particular activity. Often it is a combination of first providing a physical, guided prompt, and then fading back and providing only the visual cue or imitation. With respect to verbal cues, less is better. Teach through example and guidance rather than expecting the individual to know what to do and to perform it correctly.
A proactive approach to both teaching and reinforcing physical activity leads to both skill acquisition and a situation that is more reinforcing, yes, fun, for the individual. Providing behavior-specific praise gives the learner feedback about what he/she is doing correctly. Some examples:
- “Great job bending knees and jumping!”
- “Good overhead throw. Nice looking forward!”
- “Great squat with feet on the floor!”
Behavior specific praise both encourages and educates. It reinforces the relationship between the instruction and the activity. Language and communication from the beginning of an exercise/active play session to the end is instrumental in developing and progressing skills that can lead to a lifetime of health and independence.
Final key points:
- Avoid “Have to” or demand-style instruction
- Keep verbal directions basic and short
- Provide prompts based on the individual’s learning style
- Give regular behavior-specific praise
- Encourage exploratory movement and play
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 2019 Magazine