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Autism Fitness and Socialization

Socialization skills are often a difficult area for individuals with autism. Human interaction is highly nuanced, with different rules for different situations. Standing in the way of successful peer interaction can be any of the following:

– Expressive communication deficits

– Social anxiety

– Perseveration on topics

– Inflexibility/rigidity

– Misunderstanding of social and conversational cues

For my adolescent and teen athletes with autism, social interaction with peers and adults often proves overwhelming.

Using fitness activities to facilitate socialization has proven to be an outstanding way to get adolescents and teens with autism to begin interacting. Exercise activities can be used as a “buffer” against awkward social situations.

I may have two or more of my athletes throwing a medicine ball, slamming sandbells, or, for my higher cognitively functioning athletes, perform a task that requires a partner or team effort. One of my favorite activities is for two athletes to carry a large section of thick rope (weighing about 20 lbs.) overhead to the other side of the room, or, if outdoors, to a spot marked off with two cones.  Not only do the partners have to communicate verbally, but there is a kinesthetic, or physical awareness that takes place as well. Additionally, from the fitness side we are developing trunk stability, shoulder strength, and increasing endurance.

A lot goes on when we move, not only physically but neurologically as well. I’ve found tremendous benefit for the young autism population in combining exercise with other goals that are both current and appropriate. If teamwork and extensive social interaction are more long-term goals, there is still a great amount of value in providing the opportunity for “parallel activity,” having individuals perform exercise alongside one another.

I often describe exercise as the “gateway towards socialization, self-esteem, and independence” for the autism population.  It is absolutely true and possible, provided the formula is followed:

Appropriate and fun fitness programs + Positive behavior support + A Best practices approach to teaching = Goal Achievement.

Sandbell Presses; Strengthening more than just shoulders...

Sandbell Presses; Strengthening more than just shoulders...

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