Let’s get physical! Exercise and autism

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A practical guide to sport and exercise for children with autism

Many teachers and coaches feel that exercise is especially beneficial for children with autism, particularly as physical activity can be highly sensory in nature. As providers of our children’s recreation and physical education, we need to understand as much as we can about children with autism so that we can deliver sessions that are mentally and physically fulfilling for them.

Many years ago, I felt quite isolated working as a coach in the field of sport and autism. It was difficult without a mentor and, at times, I was very frustrated at the lack of resources available. Few coaches were offering gymnastics classes that were autism friendly, and many coaches didn’t feel confident enough to start. Some of the children that came to me did not attend any sports club or exercise class, and some had been excluded from school and were, therefore, excluded also from physical education classes. I consciously set out to improve my knowledge and understanding of autism so that I could provide a better service for the children in my classes. My objectives were to include, where possible, any child with autism from two to sixteen years in a mainstream gymnastics class, and to provide a specific autism friendly class, with peer models, for children who found a mainstream setting difficult.

Initially, I felt quite nervous that I was moving into this area with very little knowledge or experience. I asked parents if they had any comments to make about their children’s school-based physical education. Many of them suggested that they would like more aerobic activities, such as jogging or static bike riding, and that they would like their children to learn more sports and gymnastics skills which could transfer to their leisure time at home or on holiday. These consultations helped me to understand the wider needs of the children when setting out my lesson plans.

I read about the nature of autism and how it could affect different individuals in many different ways. For example, while some children’s motor skills might be delayed, for others it could mean a lifetime of continual practice. Others might have short term memory and motor planning challenges and have difficulty remembering three stages of a skill, while some could remember and perform whole routines and gym skills learnt months ago.

The use of observation in free play was really helpful for me. Watching how children moved, what they liked to do, what they avoided and what exited them, gave me important clues as to the types of equipment that might be useful to the children and how I could develop agility skills around key pieces of apparatus.

I attended a talk for coaches, sports providers and parents given by a young women with autism, and it was a moving experience. She was a very keen sportswoman, an articulate speaker and had appeared in a film about autism. A member of the floor asked her what we could do as coaches and teachers to help children with autism in sport. She explained that stress, such as that caused by noise, fluorescent lights, odours, bright colours, distractions or large numbers of people, could be a serious barrier in sport. Reducing these stressors could increase an individual’s output markedly. She also felt that preparing an individual for an activity was helpful and could increase the likelyhood of them being able to cope with taking part at more advanced levels.

She argued that, at times, rules and regulations could be disabling; they could make participation more difficult and, therefore, should be limited. Games or activities where everyone is doing something different could also be disorientating. She found logos on coaches’ clothes to be a complete visual nightmare. She also mentioned feeling patronised, as an adult, if the trampoline coach called out something like “good bouncing”. She appreciated the coach supporting her firmly as light touch could be extremely uncomfortable. Finally, she pointed out that, although she had an amazing ability to speak in front of hundreds of people, this did not reflect the same ability in her day to day life skills; we should be aware that a person may be quite uneven in their learning. As my children would inevitably grow older, it was helpful to understand a little of what would be expected of me long term.

In my work, I found the personal experience of joining in with the children and observing what worked, while a designated person provided an overview, very beneficial. I found that lowering the tone of my voice made the class more responsive to instruction. Lowering the volume of my voice, for instance when cooling down, was calming for them. I tried to use just enough language necessary for an instruction and, depending on the individual, I made sure not to repeat it for a number of seconds. Children were, therefore, less likely to be left in a loop of language processing. I also always addressed the particular child by name.

I praised everything that warranted praise and let my voice crescendo in anticipation. I used gestures such as thumbs up or high five to show acknowledgement of achievement. The responses from the children I was working with were incredible, and the children became far more engaged in the activities. I would look for early warning signs of behavioural changes and, where necessary, redirect them, try to meet their need or use distraction.

Sometimes I used my body to communicate for me; I found this to be more instinctive than learned. I might face a confrontational child and lower my gaze to the floor to diffuse their agitation. I might reach out and wait for a child to throw me a ball, demonstrate an action required or join in alongside the activity to act as a physical prompt.

Not knowing how much was understood by a child without speech, or one who was very fragmented, I always assumed that they knew far more than I initially thought. Often a child would interact in a way that showed they had understood what I had been coaching, so I learnt never to judge a child on how they presented. Indeed, I was to find out, some years later, that the two children who were the least interactive and responsive in my class were to become the most able, one of them being recognised as gifted and talented.

How we feel and behave in class is crucial; children can sense if we like them, are enthusiastic about what we are doing and are consistent in our method.  As educators we should see successes, however small, as incredibly important for a child’s lifelong development. We should also realise that the biggest disservice we can do our children is to pitch our expectations too low. Whatever we teach our children, if the environment is hostile to them, little gain will be made.

Further information

Amanda Durrant is the author of An Introduction To Exercise and Sport for People Who Have Autism.

Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 44: January/February 2010.

Amanda Durrant
Author: Amanda Durrant

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