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Apr
24

Abstract Art

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A recent criticism of Crossfit, to which I have zero affiliation or commercial interest, is that competing in Crossfit and the Crossfit games themselves are “competing to be the best exerciser,” which is damn funny.

The premise here is that we train for something, whether it be a team sport, martial arts, life in general. The criticism/joke relies on the idea that lifting weight, swinging fitness ropes, gymnastic hybrid movements, and any other fitness modality will provide a physical benefit in the “primary” sport/activity.

However…

The importance of a particular sport is still abstract. Man picks up heavy object and carries it to designated line vs. Man takes wooden stick and hits leather-covered sphere thrown by other man. That the later activity (baseball, PLEASE let this have been your guess) generates huge interest worldwide and, subsequently, large amounts of money, does not make it any better as a competitive activity or sport.

Far from a being a philosophical-at-best discussion, this has real world implications. For the ASD population, our cultural obsession with youth sports has spawned “Adaptive” soccer, baseball, and other sports leagues. Why sports? Because that’s what we do. Sports are popular and so kids should play them, so goes the idea that led us to where we are today with a highly inactive young population but plenty of soccer fields. For many individuals with autism, the very abstract concepts of game play (offense, defense, outs, strikes, goals, winning, losing) hold no value.

We can, in some cases, teach the rules or contingencies of game play, but spending two months teaching that after you hit/kick the ball you run to first base and then stay there, there!, THERE! while waiting for someone else to take their turn does no pass my cost/benefit analysis.

Teach movement. Good movement. Build strength and stability and motor planning. Make it reinforcing and, over time, something to be sought out independently. Build social connections through non-competitive activities and use competitive activities if/when applicable.

So yes, competitive Crossfit does hold to high esteem the “best exerciser,” but in fairness, football holds in high esteem the guy who can hit hard enough to elicit early-onset dementia.

Live Inspired,

-EC

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“Today you should have seen me and Mousy today, at school today” – “Drugs” Delany, Outside Providence, Greatest Comedic Movie Scene Ever

This afternoon I performed 7 PAC Profile Assessments in two and a half hours, which may or may not be a record.

While there are 18 exercises that I use to assess, programming for most of these new athletes will focus on perhaps 2-4 movement goals. Certainly I want to provide my athletes with a wide range of movement skills, but it is always necessary to provide a situation that is not overwhelming, enough opportunity with new movement activities to become proficient, and enough secondary reinforcement for this physical activity stuff to eventually become reinforcing.

One new athlete was able to perform just about every assessment activity. His movement patterns were very rote; lumped clay that will have to be shaped, molded, and strengthened to result in what we would look at and call good, healthy movement. But he was able to perform an approximation of each based on my demonstration.

On the other side of Adaptive Land, another new athlete was quite set on spending our time sitting on the floor, where  we may wind up a few times over the next few sessions. We’ll meet at her current level of ability and motivation, building skills from there.

For both of these emerging athletes, initial goals will probably consist of 2-4 activities. Seems like a few. But these are necessary pillars of movement upon which we can develop new skills. From success with these primary goals, we can progress. Add movement, add resistance, add time, add locomotion. But we must start here.

Too many new activities will be overwhelming, and, generally, the ASD population needs an awful lot of practice to both master and enjoy exercise activities. Flight of the Pterodactyl? We will get there. However we will start as inchworms.

Live Inspired,

-EC

AutismFitness.com

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Apr
10

The Sheet Test

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Recently I’ve been under some expert guidance in correcting some movement imbalances that I have accumulated. After nearly fifteen years of weightlifting in various forms, I can claim only a few injuries but some nuances that have become dysfunctional movement patterns. Rather than force my way through them and consider pain as part of the lifting life, I sought professional input from a highly trusted source. While pain is often associated with resistance training, the idea that pain and playing with heavy things are synonymous is somewhat hypocritical when considering that the practice is, or should be, part of a healthy active lifestyle. So, the sheet needs pulling.

Pulling the sheet is a mantra. Wrinkles and imbalances in the sheet will cause it to have less length, function, and comfort than it should. Of course, as human beings, sometimes the sheets will be tidier than on other occasions. When the sheet is too wrinkled, we can pull it off and evaluate just where things went awry.

In Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) jargon, we call this backstepping; making an error and then returning to the last point of success and starting again. We do this to ensure that practice is met with success. Sometimes when we backstep we have to regress a little. In my case, taking a little weight off the bar and addressing some mobility issues. In many of my athlete’s cases, providing some graduated guidance/prompting to promote kinesthetic awareness of the movement pattern.

Coolio was half right when he penned “Gotta get up to get down.” Sometimes, on further inspection, we must get down to get up.

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Some of my Autism Fitness athletes have a tendency to wait a couple seconds before performing the activity-in-question. Sometimes it is a processing delay, and, on occasion (see also; Regularly), it is because the exercise/activity is not inherently reinforcing enough for them to immediately invest their effort into it.  There is also the occasion where the athlete will perform a not-so-outstanding variation of the activity-in-question (Target Task). Sometimes (See also; often), an instructor will tell me; “Oh, he/she can’t do that.”

Can’t or Won’t?

Suppose I am introducing a star jump for the first time. I say something like “Bruno, do a star jump.” I demonstrate it once or not at all. Bruno stands there. Or walks away. Or, remarkably, does some odd variation of the star jump. I am suffering from an assumption bias here. Couple things:

Thing 1) I cannot assume that Bruno is going to have a preexisting understanding of what a star jump is or how to perform one.

Thing 2) I cannot assume that Bruno is going to be able to perform the star jump correctly by my single demonstration. He may not have been paying attention. He may be more of a kinesthetic learner with respect to this movement. He may need to see it several times before he will attempt it on his own.

Thing 3) He may not be sufficiently motivated to perform the star jump.

When developing fitness programs for the autism population (or any population but since I own a company called “Autism Fitness” and hardly anybody else really writes about this stuff I’ll keep it to those with ASD), we have to consider Physical, Adaptive, and Cognitive abilities. Setting up an environment for success requires some fitness detective work. CAN Bruno perform a star jump? What about a modified/regressed version? What does his best possible right now star jump look like? Is Bruno motivated enough to perform the star jump? I don’t know. Initially. But I can find out.

Using one of our favorite ABA practices, the Premack Principle, we can tie a new/novel/non-preferred stimuli (The Star Jump), with a known reinforcer (something the indivdual already enjoys). Usually with my athletes it is simply taking a break from the target tasks and walking around, or listening to music, or even throwing the medicine ball back and forth.

This scenario may sound something like:

Bruno, do a star jump and then you can listen to Warrant’s Greatest Hits” (I demonstrate the star jump)

*Bruno stands there. I demonstrate it again and he does a very rote imitation of said star jump*

Nice getting your arms out on that star jump, Bruno. You can listen to Warrant for two minutes

In this scenario, Bruno could do a variation of the star jump, he just needed an extra demo. He was sufficiently motivated to perform the activity. After all, c’mon, Warrant.   *For the record, no athlete I’ve ever coached has ever had listening to Warrant as a reinforcer.

Point: The physical ability to perform a movement/exercise and the adaptive quality of being motivated to perform it are two different issues. Figuring out the missing piece in these situations is a proactive measure against frustration, and allows us to provide high quality physical education. If we want to do that sort of thing.

Live Inspired,

-EC

AutismFitness.com 

 

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If you don’t already know (and you should, every last one of you), there will be a full day Autism Fitness seminar in Lafayette, LA on April 4, 2014.

Here’s the black and white of it:

When: Friday, April 4, 2014, 8:00am-3:00pm

Where: Blackham (<– Ha! Ham!) Coliseum, 2330 Johnston St., Lafayette, LA 70503

Sign-up Link: http://acadianaautism.org/Events/EventsDisplay.asp?p1=11983&p2=Y&p3=4/4/2014&p9=&T=E&Sort=

 

Live Inspired,

-EC

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Mar
25

Operational Definitions

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An Operational Definition clarifies exactly what we are talking about in relation to a “thing,” whether it be performing a squat or asking politely for a sombrero. Because we human beings often have different expectations, it is important to distinguish just what we’re talking about, particularly with respect to performing physical tasks.

When we say “He/She can do that.” Do we require an asterisk (*)? Some * moments include:

“He/She can do that” *When prompted multiple times

“He/She can do that” *With me doing most of the task for them

“He/She can do that” *With extremely poor form

“He/She can do that” *In limited situations

I notice this occurring often in situations where an instructor cites that an individual has mastered a particular skill. A few questions on this:

1) What is the criteria for mastery?

2) Has the skill been performed in other settings with other people?

3) Is the skill at a level where it can be performed without an instructor present? (for example, will the individual perform a healthy squat in non-fitness/PE situations?

These are not questions directed towards uncovering some conspiratorial attempt on behalf of an instructor, rather to raise the point of whether or not the “mastered” skill is just that, mastered. Physical fitness, in addition to the adaptive/behavioral and cognitive benefits, should serve the function of providing movement skills and abilities that transcend the “lab,” and become part of healthier, more productive and efficient performance in a variety of situations. For perhaps the last 10 years, the term “functional fitness/training” has been thrown around like a horseshoe. There has been a large quantity of debate within the fitness industry as to what “functional” actually means. From a general/macro perspective, functional should entail the “big” movement patterns that make up the foundation of everything we (should) do; squatting, pushing, pulling, locomotion (point A to point B), and rotation. From the specific/micro vantage, “functional” applies to what an individual needs/wants to do  on a daily basis.

There are certain movement patterns/exercises that just about every one of us need to perform for optimal physical functioning regardless of what else we are doing movement-wise. These should be the foundation for fitness programs, autism-specific or otherwise. From there, we can develop more individualized goals if necessary and/or desirable.

A mastered skill on paper does little in the way of providing the individual with the actual skill, unless that “mastered skill” is actually mastered. We don’t need to hold our students/athletes to a perfect, 100%, A+ standard every day. They are human, and have their off and their way-off days. Hell, there are certainly occasions where I want to have a melt down in line at a store or, worse, in a meeting that goes over an hour. What we want to do is be honest about what our athletes can and cannot do, what appropriate goals are and how we intend to get there, and ensure that the environment is conducive to their success.

Live Inspired,

-EC

AutismFitness.com 

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Powerlifting focuses on three  lifts; Squat, Deadlift, and Bench press.  The highly-specified programming in powerlifting requires a lot of time and focus on those three movements to ensure a high level of mastery.  Each lift is practiced many, many times to develop proper mechanics, feel for the movement, and even neurological optimization (yes, the overused and oft-misunderstood mind-body connection that somehow, according to common lore, only yoga can provide).  Suffice that powerlifters become very proficient in these three lifts because they practice very often.  There is a conceptual carryover to building movement skills with the autism population.

In my experience, individuals with autism, who often have strength and motor deficits even if they have one or two “splinter” skills (preternatural balance, for example) require a lot of repetition prior to mastering a movement pattern.  There are typically several items of consideration here:

1)      The physical deficit requires regular practice to develop the strength, stability, and coordination to master the activity

2)      Cognitively, there may exist some challenges with regard to working memory, establishing contingencies/associations between the name of the exercise and the exercise itself, and motor planning (auditory and/or representational processing)

3)      Becoming comfortable enough with the activity to perform it independently (without prompting)

I won’t use numbers, I don’t have any and have not seen any studies yet that demonstrate the distinction, but it is not outlandish to suggest that individuals with autism, on average, need a lot more practice with specific movement activities than their neurotypical peers.  If we accept this as true, it follows that the difference between a fitness/active play/PE session for individuals with ASD versus neurotypical individuals will require more repetition, or more exposure and practice to the same activities.

There has to be a balance between structure and novelty, and the answer lies in skill development. I may want to teach ten new activities at once to provide variety, however an individual who has little practice moving on a regular basis will likely not receive enough practice with each activity to become proficient.  Developing a “needs hierarchy” is helpful to decide what to teach and when.

This morning my 11-year-old athlete was working on squats to a Dynamax ball and Sandbell overhead presses, two compound movements with which he needs some improvement.  During his breaks, he decided to start playing with the big resistance band that happened to be lying on the floor. He really enjoys putting it around his waist while I hold the other end and walking backwards (a great lower body activity that can be used with just about any level of athlete). So we do this. It is not an activity on which I am focused, but provides a nifty extra movement between what I consider the main priorities.

These play-seeking movements are perfect buffers when we are performing a lot of repetition with two or three exercises. There is little instruction, because the activity is participant-guided, it provides a novel physical stimulus, and serves as an active rest between sets.  These types of activities also incorporate creative thinking, play, and autonomy, three concepts often difficult for the ASD population.

Balancing repetition with boredom is an un-ignorable issue. Of course, I’ve found that on occasion it is my potential boredom that is the issue. There’s a reason that successful children’s TV shows (Blue’s Clues, That Dora One) have long pauses. While faux-agonizing for most adults, the lag time allows for the intended viewer to process all the information. The best coaching/teaching is derived from a state of empathy; “What is it like for YOU to do this (squat, throw, crawl, jump).”

Focusing on developing foundational movement patterns also allows for scaffolding, building new skills on top of existing ones. We’re not performing calculus unless we have the rudimentary abilities to add, subtract, multiply, divide, and stay put for longer than 30 seconds. For the record, I do not perform calculus. A proper hierarchy of movement programming depends on figuring out what skills are most important, how they need to be taught, and what steps need to be taken to ensure enough practice is available.

Individual-centered programming, and this includes groups as well, means assessing what is needed and providing a strategy that actually achieves the goal, most often independent mastery of a skill that is then generalized to new environments and situations. Your basics are the center hub upon which spokes (new skills) can be added, but not before satisfying the need for basic motor development.  A bunch of P-things to finish this off; Patience, Persistence, Practice, Persevering, and  Practicality. They all have their…proper place.

Live Inspired,

-EC

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