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Adaptive Physical Education: Reality Check

Adaptive Physical Education in 35 seconds.

That’s the usual amount of time a middle-school age individual with autism is usually moving during “Adaptive” Physical Education class.

Adaptive Physical Education needs a Wake-up Ball

They might be playing kickball, wiffle ball, soccer, or some other sport, but if you add up the time they are actually engaged and moving (beyond just wandering) it is around 35 seconds. Yes, even the Adaptive Physical education versions of soccer.

What is the problem with Adaptive Physical Education Today?

Part of the issue is activity selection and the other part is adaptive, primarily motivation. Game theory, the concepts involved in playing a sport, are very abstract, and do not hold much interest for the average adolescent on the spectrum. Activity selection is a big problem too.

Is it really worth it to spend the entire semester working on kicking a soccer ball or swinging a bat? Really?

Sports-based movements do not have much crossover to real-world activities. They are too specific, like trying to haul a horse trailer with a dune buggy. The dune buggy is fine for dunes, but that’s about it.

The alternative is developing movement programs based on general skills (pushing, pulling, bending, rotation, locomotion) that strengthen, add stability and coordination, and can be developed around individual needs.

Sure, it sounds great when the Adaptive physical education or classroom teacher says that the class is playing kickball, but are they actually playing? This is what I observe during most kickball or baseball games in Adapted Physical education gym sessions:

1) Student stands at plate (maybe)

2) Student kicks ball (softly)

3) Student walks to first base (or possibly second base)

4) Student walks around bases and then sits

Total time moving: About 15 seconds. Total time performing a life-enhancing skill: maybe 2 seconds.

There are plenty of people who get annoyed or plain angry when the “Actually” test is applied, but too bad. Children, adolescents, and teens on the autism spectrum deserve better than a wasted time in PE class. Focusing on general activities using obstacle courses, exercises stations and, when it is appropriate, interactive games, makes a huge difference and will actually have them moving and improving.

Sports aren’t bad. There are very few things in physical activity that can be labelled utterly, without-benfit bad. Unfortuantely our sport-centric culture has trickled into Adaptive physical education, and too few gym classes meet the needs of students with special needs.

A more balanced approach to Adaptive Physical Education is in Order

 A general, play-based approach to Adaptive Physical Education can build strength, stability, coordination, and agility in ways that will carry over to other life skills. Sure, you can include a unit on kickball, but the majority of gym time for students with special needs should focus on creative ways to push, pull, squat, rotate, locomote, jump, hop, crawl and MOVE.

Physical fitness  can provide so much for individuals with autism and special needs.  It is time that Adaptive physical education becomes a cornerstone of special education everywhere. Adaptive physical education is the new frotier in success for those with autism.

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