Naturalistic Teaching for Enjoying Fitness
Fitness and creative movement are seldom the most reinforcing activities for young people with autism. Most of my athletes on the autism spectrum did not exactly take to exercise when I first began working with them. I could list the range of maladaptive behaviors from avoidance (walking or running to the other side of the room) to aggression. Any of these behaviors is a clear indication that the individual did not want to perform the activity.
A best practices approach to incorporating fitness into the autism classroom or home requires the movement activity to be paired with something that is known as enjoyable or at least preferred. I will often give my athletes a break from activity once they have completed a specific exercise. Using a naturalistic teaching approach can also be very helpful.
Naturalistic teaching is based on the environment around the individual. A safe, well-lit, enriched area is more likely to attract curiosity and enable optimal learning. In the first stage, I will place a piece of equipment (Sandbell, med ball, cones) in the room and allow the individual to explore the object. Sometimes he/she will take an interest and on other occasions none whatsoever. Regardless of whether the individual actually handles the object, having it around makes it familiar in the environment.
For new athletes with autism who have lower adaptive skills it helps to teach exercise in short, minimally-demanding sequences throughout the session or, even better, throughout the day. Robert may engage in a great deal of stereotyical behavior, running back and forth across the room. If I catch Robert at the opportune time, I can place a 4 lb. Sandbell in his hands, have him pass it back to me, and he can go on his way.
While this may seem a less-than-optimal way to teach fitness, it has been tremendously beneficial for many of my athletes who find exercise and high-demand situations extremely aversive. This process also allows for success with each new activity, because it is not yet highly structured. Remember that a naturalistic teaching style is a good plan for individuals who:
– Do not find exercise reinforcing
– Do not respond well to demand situations
– Engage in high rates of stereotypical behavior and/or escape/avoidance
The first three steps for introducing fitness programs to children and young adults who fit into this description include:
– Introduce the fitness objects and equipment into the environment
– Use brief, minimally-demanding activities (Sandbell or ball passes, arms up, bending knees, short hops)
– Begin to pair longer periods of fitness activity and more challenging/specific movements with known reinforcers or preferred activities.