Gaining (Play)Ground for young individuals with autism
I was speaking with a colleague today about the goal of fitness programs for my young athletes with autism. The two main concepts are Structure and Randomness. For many children with autism, movement is aversive and deficits, or lagging physical abilities can interfere with developing play skills. In addition to building functional fitness skills that GENERALIZE to the real world, exercise is also important for building the foundations of PLAY.
Play is random, chaotic, fun, and extremely important for optimal development. As adults, many of us have lost the concept of play, of actually enjoying movement. Most people I meet are uncomfortable with their own bodies and often have to relearn, if willing, what good movement feels like. For children with autism, this disconnect with movement will inhibit random play. Running across a room or jumping up and down while engaging in stereotypy (self-stimulatory behavior, automatically reinforcing sensory activity, etc.) is not a random “fun” activity that will generalize to the playground situation.
Oddly enough, I’m going to quote philosopher Nietzsche on this one; “From chaos comes order.” In this case, the opposite is also true; From order comes chaos. When we successfully teach movements and exercises to children with autism in a planned, goal-oriented way and then generalize the skill, those activities become part of the behavioral repertoire. That is, they may very well appear in new or novel situations (such as playtime).
Play is not only important for generalizing skills to life situations, recent research (and GOOD research at that) is demonstrating that play is important for it’s own sake, apart from generalizing movements and social skills to other situations and environments.
So how do we begin to develop chaos? We need a foundation of movement first, including foundational abilities and finding joy in different forms of physical activity. Does it occur immediately? Usually not, but with time and effort amazing transformations occur.