The Slight Moving of the Comfort Zone Line
Because many of my athletes past and athletes present engage in repetitive, ritualistic behaviors, doing something new can be stressful, particularly if it is movement-related. Exercise, at least the way I do it/teach it, is not too passive. The athlete has to be engaged in the activity and perform some approximation of the exercise prior to reinforcement (break, access to preferred activity, etc.). The comfort zone of the individual with autism is most likely going to be smaller, often much smaller, than that of a neurotypical peer. That’s just autism. The key is not to neglect providing new experiences and opportunities simply because the first 50 efforts are unappreciated.
I’ve commented multiple times in many forms of media and various venues how I do not have the luxury of my athletes with autism enjoying exercise much the first several sessions. But with time, persistence, and good coaching, physical activity takes on the near-magic (if it weren’t so damn demonstrable and replicable) quality of being reinforcing for someone who, at first, did *not much care for it at all.
About two years ago I re-visited an autism education program for which I had developed an adaptive PE curriculum including a PAC Profile assessment and individual goals for each student. When I walked into the gym, one of the instructors had a student throwing basketballs at the hoop.
“Did you try the individual program I wrote for him,” I asked.
“Yeah, but it was too much so we’re just doing this.”
It wasn’t too much. The instructor either didn’t understand the goals, didn’t want to understand the goals, or it was too much of a dramatic change (meaning she’d have to do something different and in the best interest of the student, my apologies). Or it could be that the student didn’t want to do something new, engaged in one of the 143 variations of “escape/avoidance” behavior, and that was that. Quite often my athletes don’t want to cooperate. And that, really, is too damn bad. I respect their existence too much not to provide them with physical fitness. Yes, there is a balance. Yes, I always want to make sure there is some element of reinforcement. Yes, regress activities when they are too physically demanding or too complex. BUT, there will be movement.
We understand extremes to be points where detriment typically outweighs benefit. There is the over-prompted, way-too-regimented, can-only-eat-flax-seeds-and-gluten-free-wafers kid/adolescent/teen with autism, and the “I learn so much from my child with autism that I don’t have to teach her/him anything at all and it’s perfectly fine if he/she exposes him/herself in public on a regular basis because the rest of society has to shut up and deal” kid/adolescent/teen. How about considering young people with autism as, first, people, and as people, requiring pretty much the same lifestyle habits that provide a high and proven benefit. Such as exercise (oh my little professional biases).
Most of us don’t like stuff at which we suck (most things unfamiliar). For those with ASD, the intensity at which they don’t like something may be a bit amped, comparatively. The cool thing though, the nifty thing, the moral of this post, is that if you add good programming with persistence, you get less resistance. Repeated Application (opportunities with the activity) + Regular Success = Higher Rate of Reinforcement, Familiarity, and a New Contingency (if -> then) of expectations. Oh, and they’ll be able to overhead squat too. So keep the line moving.