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).
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