April is Autism Awareness month, and rather than just let people know that autism exists, it is important to integrate individuals with ASD into the community. A particularly outstanding way is through fitness programs. There is a surge of interest building in fitness programs for individuals with autism. As with any population, regular physical activity promotes some significant benefits for those on the autism spectrum.
Strength and motor planning deficits are common among the autism population. In addition, most individuals do not have regular access to good quality (or any) fitness programs to develop fundamental strength and movement skills. The most significant differences between implementing fitness programs for the ASD population and “neurotypical” individuals are the considerations of adaptive and cognitive abilities.
Many individuals with autism find new activities, especially those of a physical nature, aversive or less-than-enjoyable. Below are some general guidelines for developing and implementing fitness programs that, with time and good coaching, can become reinforcing for any individual.
1) You can’t force fun. This is the first rule in Autism Fitness programming. You cannot assume that any activity, no matter how enjoyable it is for others, is going to be immediately exciting for individuals with autism.
2) Meet them where they’re at. Athletes will vary in their physical, adaptive, and cognitive needs. Always start at the current or baseline level of ability.
3) Use foundational movement patterns as the basis for programming. Pushing, pulling, squatting, and locomotion should guide the show.
4) Provide behavior-specific praise. Not just “great job,” but “Great job bending knees on that squat!” Let the athlete know exactly what he/she is doing correctly
5) Start with short intervals of activity and build up based on an athlete’s physical progress and adaptive skills (what exercises they can perform, at what progression level, and how motivated they are to participate)