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Autism, Physical Education, and the System

I was re-reading Mark Rippetoe’s excellent book “Strong Enough?” and a particular quote got me light-bulbing.

“When you discover you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount. But other strategies with dead horses [include] the following: buying a stronger whip: changing riders; saying things like “this is the way we’ve always ridden the horse”;…and, finally, harnessing several dead horses together for increased speed.”

– Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson

Adaptive Physical Education appears, generally, to follow this exact map. Forego the foundations of fitness, movement, and play. Take team-sports and water them down until they serve no purpose other than to fill 45 minutes once or twice a week.  Report to parents that their son/daughter is “learning to play baseball/soccer/tennis.”

Consider my favorite two-step question:

What do you SAY you do? What do you ACTUALLY do?

In my experience with Autism Fitness for several years now, I can say that most young people on the spectrum do not gravitate towards team sports. Those that do still have many motor deficits, and lack the opportunity for creative play. Sports, as I continuously (but necessarily) protest, are NOT the be-all, end-all of physical fitness. They are a BRANCH on a TREE. The trunk and roots are basic physical skills. The same skills that make up the big five movements (push, pull, bend, rotate, locomote) and are inherent to every life-skill task and, yes, sports as well.

Just because they make it doesn’t mean you have to buy it. The idea that kids/teens have to play sports to be athletic is absurd.  People in general derive greater benefit, MUCH greater benefit both physically and cognitively, from more open-ended, play-based activities. This does not mean easy activities either. I’ve had group session with my athletes, a long rope, and a couple of Sandbells that were quite challenging, and allowed for creative movement and use of space.

The system runs on tests and teams, academic and athletic respectively. I can cite plenty of good, strong data and historical evidence that suggests both of these are stupid, and poor measures of outcome. I quit team sports as an overweight high-school athlete. I am now known for walking a good distance on my hands. Team sport history would not have predicted my being a good athlete, and did not provide adequate options for more general (and important) fitness modalities.

This is not a dig against sports, but a legitimate appraisal of their limits. What are the long-term benefits? Can you say that because you had a great workout while playing high school football 20 years ago that you are now set? It does not work that way. Fitness is part of a lifestyle and requires continuous upkeep and growth. It should also be equal parts fun and challenging.

Specific to the autism population, fitness programs must actually IMPROVE physical abilities. I can call it whatever I want from “movement skills” to “Ultimate Autism Abilities”. I cannot call it Autism Fitness, because some lunatic already owns that domain name. Regardless of what I name a program, it has to do two major things:

1) Get individuals with autism moving better

2) Get them to enjoy different movement activities

If my adaptive program enhances basic gross motor skills and students enjoy it, then I am doing my damn job. If not, what are you doing? And why are you doing it?

My hope is that someone reads this post ten years from now and is NOT surprised and delighted to read something that blows away conventional thought.  Let’s evolvercise.

Live Inspired,