Turning Physical Fitness into Fun for Life
My four high school boys, all on the autism spectrum, bound into the “sports” room for our session in a weekly recreation program. The staff members call it “sports”, but, it is a misnomer that I let slide simply because I choose to take a “call-it-whatever-you-want” approach to some things. Chris, Ron, Kyle, and John vary a great deal in their abilities. For thirty-five minutes we work on mobility, coordination, strength, and stability while managing to have fun in the process. The boys are proud of themselves, seeking high-fives and eagerly awaiting commentary on how well they’ve done in between medicine ball throws, Sandbell lifts, and swinging a fire hose in high arcs in the corner of the room. Redefining fitness and physical education are crucial for optimal development in all populations. For young individuals with autism and developmental disorders, physical activity is a gateway towards achievement in all areas of life.
Later in the afternoon my younger group enters the room. I set out on the floor a variety of objects: orange plastic cones, multi-colored star-shaped spot markers, a big, soft blue medicine ball, the fire hose, and some low hurdles. With great focus and intent, the group swarmed around the objects, stacking cones, swinging the fire hose, and jumping on the stars. One of the newer staff members, “Lisa,” turned to me and cautiously asked “Are they supposed to be doing something…in particular?”
Fitness Rule Number 1: Play is a NECESSITY
Exploratory play is essential for optimal growth and development. Being able to navigate and manipulate the environment, not only, enhances physical skills, but also, is instrumental in the skills of self-initiative and independence. Many young individuals with autism and related developmental disorders do not engage in exploratory play readily. The challenges are often a combination of physical and cognitive deficits. I often discuss “playground skills,” physical abilities that include running, jumping, climbing, skipping, crawling, turning, and throwing. The cognitive aspects of play skills include motor planning, creating new activities, problem solving (for example: how to get around, over, under a structure), and social interaction.
To understand physical fitness and play from a special needs perspective, a short discussion of mainstream circumstances is helpful. Physical education in the U.S. has changed over several decades from being movement and general skill-centered to focusing predominantly on team sports. Team sports are not bad, but, there are some important considerations that work well in a bullet point format:
- Foundational movement skills are required to play sports
- Many foundational movement skills are not taught in standard and adaptive physical education classes
- Sports skills do not generalize well to daily life activities, they are specific to that particular sport
- Sports concepts are abstract, and may be difficult for an individual with a developmental disability to grasp both physically and cognitively
- Sports are generally not part of a long-term physical health plan
I smiled at Lisa and said, “Exploratory play is important for them right now. They’re between five and seven years old. They’re really motivated and having fun right now. If I stepped in and started directing they would stop having fun.” As a professional, it takes a degree of self-control to not step in and begin introducing new activities and challenges. These play opportunities, however, take precedence. During the last several minutes of the session, I set up a short movement course with some of the activities they had already been doing; low hurdle jumps, squatting to touch the cones, and swinging the fire hose up and down. The minimal structure that was added, provided some motor planning education and a small bit of exposure to turn-taking and counting (how many cones touched, how many fire hose swings).
Fitness Rule Number 2: You Can’t Force Fun
We do an odd thing with physical education in the U.S. In most programs, a student who does not have an inherent ability to play a particular sport (of a few offered), is labeled “not an athlete” and relinquished of having to pursue fitness any further than having “attended” gym class. This is certainly not all cases, but many. The scenario would not happen with math, science, or any other “core” curriculum. Many of the young individuals on the autism spectrum, with whom I have worked, have an aversion, or dislike of movement activities, sports or otherwise. Saying to a child, or any individual “You’re having fun now” or “You like doing this” is probably not going to change their enjoyment (or lack thereof) for the activity.
Beginning with activities that are consistent with the abilities of the individual or group is key to successfully integrating a fitness program. Using the foundational movement patterns as a guideline can serve as a template for creating fun, appropriate activities.
Below are some basic examples of the five foundational movement patterns. These are certainly not the only ways to perform and/or teach these skills.
Beginning to look at physical fitness from a long-term and lifestyle perspective provides clues on what can be focused on now, and what goals to set for the future. Exercise and physical activity should be “Want to” instead of “Have to” endeavors. For many young individuals with special needs, this process can take time. Initially, the ideal program may begin by throwing a ball back and forth one time, and then returning the next day to throw it twice. Small, incremental successes paired with plenty of behavior-specific praise are crucial to instilling a lifelong engagement in fitness.
Fitness Rule Number 3: Fitness is a Life Skill
Fitness, true fitness, is the development of skills that can be performed in a variety of settings among different situations. If I can only lift the blue ball and hold it over my head, throw it to Susie and then to Kevin (and only during gym class) it does not stand to reason that the skill will generalize far beyond that one scenario. Fitness means preparing and embracing life challenges. As much as any other skill set, exercise and physical abilities should be taught beginning at a comfortable and appropriate stage for the learner, with progressive goals outlined. It is possible to learn, improve, and have fun. Everything tends to work most optimally when all three are occurring.
As research piles up and one study validates another, we find that physical activity (and no, the new video game system with the controller and the interactive games does not count) enhances cognitive and adaptive, or self-regulatory abilities. For the autism and special needs populations, physical fitness is a necessary and important aspect of optimal development. Some of the confusion about what physical fitness is (and is not) has made it difficult for special needs educational programs to implement appropriate and progressive fitness programs. If fitness is approached from a conceptual, creative, and individual or group-centered perspective, we will have a healthier, more capable generation of individuals with autism and developmental disabilities. They are certainly owed the healthiest life possible. Exercise is something we do. Fitness is something we live.
More Fitness Fun
- The 7 Habits of Highly Successful Fitness Programs
- Looking for a Fun Family Exercise? How About Parkour!
- Fitness Equipment Worth Buying
- Fitness Gift Guide
- Come Bearing Gifts and Wearing Them Too! Technology Ideas for Your Family and Friends
- Gift Guide from the Fitness Guy
- 4 Exercise Progressions, 5W’s, and an H
- 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
- Do You Struggle With Planning Healthy Meals for Your Family?