A few weeks ago I partnered up with the NY Metro chapter of the National Autism Association for our 2nd Autism Fitness in the Park event. On paper it reads great. Outdoor environment, free to attend, all ages and ability levels, fitness activities. Allow me to let you in on a couple of oh-so-important matters and considerations that existed:
1) To just get it out of the way, I had to park on Manhattan’s Upper East Side
2) Many families signed up, but it is indeterminate how many would actually show up
Our AutFit/NAA Crew
3) With about two exceptions (both surprises), I had never met or worked with any of the kids/teens who participated
4) Because of that, I was completely unsure of the 3 crucial variables with regard to programming: Physical, Adaptive, and Cognitive abilities
Why it Was Successful:
1) Scalability: Each activity, from our warm-up animal movements to the individual stations could be progressed (made more challenging) or regressed to the skill set of every participant
2) Movement-based activities rather than sport- or practice-specific. If you have a magic wand you can get a random group of young people with autism to play kickball, soccer, or do yoga. You can automatically account for that fact that most of them will have poor motor control, some strength deficits, and often a bit of difficulty understanding the abstract concept of game play. I don’t have a magic wand, so I use activities that introduce and enhance basic strength, stability, and coordination.
3) Exercise Stations. Stations take a specific activity or exercise and focus on it. Athlete stay at that station for a minute or three getting to practice the movement before going to the next activity. At each station we can progress/regress the movement immediately for each participant. It also eliminates long waiting periods and allows for…
4) Breaks. Take a break whenever you need/want to. Those who want to continue playing can without any interruption.
6) Letting the Wheels Fall Off. It was a free, open event that lasted 90 minutes. At some point, and I was surprised how far we got, it was going to disintegrate. The kids would get tired or interest begin to wane. Completely cool. Autism Fitness rule # 1 is “You can’t force fun.” I was happy enough having each participant actually participate. Taking multiple turns at each station was all bonus.
Controlled chaos means allowing some latitude within the structure. It is an important step toward autonomy and integral to having fun.