Allowing Exploration in Autism Exercise
My close friends in the fitness circle and I often bring up the issue of “over-coaching” when teaching exercise. Over-coaching is when an instructor provides too many cues, regardless of how good they may be, to an individual. The problem is that the trainee or client gets overloaded with information. This is certainly important to consider when teaching new skills to the autism population.
Too much cuing (“bend knees, look up, no, lower than that!, Feet out!) leads to confusion, frustration, and not a very reinforcing time.
The LAST thing we want to do with an individual on the autism spectrum is frustrate them while teaching a new skill, particularly exercise. Even if he/she is motivated to perform physical activity, a hailstorm of instruction can be imposing. Think simple cues. Think mostly visual (demonstrating the activity for the individual) and keeping verbal cues to 4 words or less).
Suppose we are teaching an overhead Sandbell press to Roger. Roger can pick the 6 lb. Sandbell up, but continues to keep his arm bent when doing the overhead raise. Rather than say “Not that way” or “Do it correctly,” it is far more efficient and productive to demonstrate the overhead raise for Roger and, if necessary, physically guide/prompt him through the correct movement. The goal is always for the individual to come into contact with success.
That all being said, or written, it is equally important to allow exploration within physical activity. I have a phrase that, according to some of my friends, is the funniest damn thing ever; “We’re doing this now.” Whenever one of my athletes with autism decides that she/he is going to do something a little bit differently, it becomes a “We’re doing this now” moment, where they get to lead the activity for a little bit. If they’ve embarked upon a safe or novel variation of a movement, allow them to try it. This is a prelude to play; an extremely valuable and important developmental skill.
Keep cues short. Demonstrate activities. Allow the individual the autonomy to try out new movements and discover play. These are the keywords to success in fitness for the autism population.