Not just any program !!
Many of the teenage athletes I’ve coached missed the widespread introduction of early intervention education & therapy.They have difficulty communicating and limited social interaction with peers. Fitness programs for teens with ASD can not only provide a social opportunity, but can focus on improving areas of physical deficit. In order to do this, we have to understand and appreciate good fitness programming and current individual skills.
We also have to understand not only physical needs, but the behavioral and cognitive considerations for these individuals as well.
Teenagers with autism often have limited strength, stability, speed, power, and coordination. They may have been diagnosed with “low tone,” which is a catch-all phrase that refers to deficits in general strength. This not only affects daily life skills and physical health, but may have an impact on self-esteem and the way individuals “carry” themselves in public.
So we ask; Is this a trend we want to continue or do we want to provide fitness programming that will truly be life-changing? If fitness is truly going to be a life skill, we need to implement those exercises that will have the highest amount of carryover or generalization to activities of daily living.
Think about what we do on a daily basis. Carrying groceries or laundry, reaching for items in a cabinet, walking up and down stairs, sitting and standing. These are all movement patterns that can be enhanced with the right choice of exercises. Additionally, we can begin to fine tune some of the movement and motor deficits that may already exist, and provide strength and motor skills that may offset compensatory movement patterns; the kind that lead to gait issues and low back pain in adulthood.
It is very important to note that an exercise is only as beneficial as it is coached; meaning there’s a difference between “just doing an exercise” and performing it at a level of progression or regression that works for the athlete.
Understanding progressions and regressions for each exercise is critical. In fact it is the difference between a program “working” for an athlete and something that just appears to be a fitness program. Education on correct performance, including the coaching of each exercise is paramount.
So consider that while these are definitely highly important exercises for teens and young adults with autism, the true benefit of each movement is based in safely and effectively coaching by finding the appropriate progression or regression for each. Regressions are a simplification of an exercise while progressions offer a greater challenge.
SHUTTING UP: A COACHES GUIDE TO SUCCESS
A FEW THOUGHTS
"Okay, first we're going to step over the hurdles so you're going to bring your foot up and lift your knee and then do the five steps..."
Let's take the instructions above and simplify them while maintaining effectiveness;
"Do five hurdles"
Yeah. That's it. Along with a demonstration, perhaps with us just stepping over the first and second hurdle, the athlete is receiving all the instruction they need with no extra feed, no static.
Our athletes with autism often have delays or deficits in auditory processing and receptive language. If we provide a barrage of verbal information it may just sit there like a buffet dinner. Plenty of nutrients going undigested.
We want to take a "Tell & Show" approach to coaching exercises, particularly when teaching a new movement or progressing one that has been mastered. As coaches and educators, we often have to resist the urge to "do something," sometimes when the recipe requires fewer ingredients instead of more.
If the goal for our athletes is independent mastery of each exercise, adopting a practice of "just enough but no more" provides the necessary structure for them to progress and us to fade our prompt or cue.
Individual-centered coaching includes accounting for the cognitive abilities of the athlete. A habit of asking "How little information needs to be spoken here?" is a gateway to more productive sessions. Deliver and demonstrate. A secondary but important benefit is the athlete associating the label with the action. This is the contingency between direction and performance that we want to establish.
Verbal direction should focus on labeling the exercise, the number of repetitions, and the contingency;
All the verbal information our athletes need is there.
Coaching direction takes the form of a visual, or, if needed, physical prompt. These should be faded (systematically removed) as the athlete grows more confident with and proficient in the exercise.
Effective coaches and teachers communicate. We enjoy explaining. Effective explaining requires filtering out extraneous information. Direct. Prompt. Succeed