Autism, Patience, and Persistance
A week ago my good friend Dr. Kwame Brown made a poignant statement about child development on Facebook;
“Why are we so happy when a child can do something early – as if accelerated development is the pinnacle of the human journey? How about being happy when a child is engaged, exploratory, and inquisitive?”
I begin my Autism Fitness training workshops by pointing out that if an individual’s baseline ability does not yet involve being able to stand on two spot makers for three seconds, that is one of the first goals she/he will have. Being able to stand “at attention” and orient towards a parent or instructor is the first requirement in following directions. Sure, some students with autism can follow a single step request while bouncing around the room, but it certainly is not optimal for more complex or functional activities.
I’ve worked with numerous parents of children and young adults with autism who are concerned that physical activity holds no interest or, as has been many cases lately, he/she cannot yet ride a bike. These are both legitimate concerns, however, you simply cannot force progress beyond current abilities.
The process towards success is as important as the goal itself, probably more so. The process reinforces the goal, and allows us to achieve small victories along the way. The first rule of Autism Fitness is “You can’t force fun,” and you cannot force skill development either. True skill development, physical or otherwise, includes some important factors:
1) The skill is developed on a sufficient foundation
2) The skill can be performed independently
3) The skill, or result of the skill is reinforcing enough that it will be performed regularly
Some children will begin walking and talking sooner than others. Some young individuals with autism will need eight months to learn to squat correctly. We have to keep in mind that you cannot simply say “do it better” and the ability will automatically appear. It does not work that way, and it never will.
Empathy is one of the greatest assets we have for teaching the autism population. Never confuse empathy will passivity. Empathy is not “You have autism so you don’t have to build any physical strength whatsoever,” rather, empathy is the ability to consider what it is like for an individual to not be able (yet), and what steps are needed to meet that goal. Empathy allows us to put aside ego and frustration, and rely on sound practices, good information, and take an individual-centered approach.
My athletes will “learn to exercise and like it,” but the truth is that they will learn to exercise, and like it. For our young autism population, we must meet them where they are, and progress to where they can be…Eventually.