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Autism, Structure, Chaos, and Developing Play Skills

Today my 9-year-old athlete “Michelle” decided it would be fun to roll around on the big exercise mat rather than do frog hops with the medicine ball. After a minute of rolling on the floor and giggling, I assisted her in standing up and redirected her back to the frog hops.

My goal was certainly not to block her fun, but to develop a balance between skill acquisition and complete chaos. Chaos is not always bad, depending on what the “chaos” is and the circumstances in which “it” occurs. For individuals with autism, there is often an overabundance of structure, set routines, set behaviors, set movements or chaos (meltdowns, escape behavior/eloping).  Appropriate and relevant programming is about finding a balance between the two.

Teaching movement is structured. Using movement in play situations is chaos. On a recent Facebook post, my good friend and master fitness/play professional (particularly with the youth population) Bill Meyer wrote about the more “ethereal” nature of play. I mentioned that play can be quantified. Here’s my equation:

Learned physical skills + Motivation + Novel Approach to combining movements = Play

The important factor here is not that play can be studied, though there is that thought, but that play skills can be improved.

Many of my athletes with autism were initially and highly UN-motivated to move in new ways. Exercise was a new task with new demands and directions.  As they became more successful and familiar with the activities, the “demand” factor decreased, and some of my athletes started using their new abilities in novel ways. This right here is that basis of PLAY, and has, on occasion, dramatic carryover to life skills, social skills, and even cognitive abilities.

Teaching new exercise skills requires structure, a hint of chaos adds the play factor. Fitness programs should cycle from structure to chaos as needed. From learning news skills to engaging in play. There is order in that there randomness.  Embrace it.

Live Inspired,


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