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ABA and Autism…And Exercise

Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, is one of the few practices that has been proven effective for treatment and education of individuals with autism. A common misconception is that ABA is used to “reduce problem behaviors.” All behavior has purpose, however odd, problematic, or dangerous. No intervention is successful without providing more positive alternate behavior strategies. The concepts of ABA are also inherent to good fitness programming for the autism population.

The reason my Autism Fitness programs have been successful is not only due to exercise and activity selection. A fitness professional, parent, or educator could select some innovative and appropriate movements and still encounter obstacles. The two “secret” elements to consider are adaptive, or behavioral, and cognitive abilities. A fitness program for individuals with ASD needs to incorporate all 3 areas of development.

What is generally referred to as “ABA Therapy” can include behavior interventions or treatment, educational, and life skill programs. With a background in both exercise science and ABA, I used the foundational concepts of behavior analysis for teaching fitness activities and positive behavior support with young people on the spectrum. I am not, as some of the most extreme accusations, turning my athletes with autism into “robots” or “programming” them to do anything on demand. In fact, there are only two primary goals:

  1. Get them moving well
  2. Eventually have movement be a reinforcing, sought-after activity choice

Both goals would not be accomplished without the concepts and strategies of ABA therapy. The Autism Fitness Toolbox Assessment relies on baselines for Physical, Adaptive, and Cognitive functioning. How else will you know where to go (and how to get there) if you don’t know where the individual’s current ability levels? Guesswork does not make for outlining an effective program. Not that the entire process is one of pencil-to-pad (or iPad) data collection, but having legitimate and valid information about whether 16-year-old Paul can, will, and understand your wanting him to do an overhead medicine ball throw will alleviate enough frustration for both of you that it is worth a separate article entirely.

Possibly the most important ABA-based concept in fitness for the autism population is the use of behavior-specific praise. Rather than “good job,” specific praise serves as a guide, telling the individual:

  1. Exactly what he/she did correctly
  2. That she/he has succeeded

Providing appropriate behavior-specific praise can be very helpful in not only learning new skills, but acquiring language about those skills. Prepositions (in, on, under, over, left, right) are a particular favorite of mine to incorporate with fitness programs.

Interdisciplinary models, where concepts and ideas from different fields (in this case ABA therapy and exercise science) can lead to extraordinary discoveries and results. Looking beyond one’s own textbooks for answers is often…the answer.

Live Inspired,


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