Browse By

When to end a Session (and How to Keep it Going)

Autism Fitness sessions with my athletes typically last about an hour. Therapists, fitness professionals, we typically work on either a 45 minute to 1 hour session time frame. Some of us even get fancy and do a “professional” hour, which translates to 50 minutes. But does the 1 hour block make sense each and every time?

Depends on how you break up the hour.

For some of my athletes, that hour winds up being an 80/20 split between breaks or reinforcing activities (i.e., anything other than exercise) and actual exercise and physical activity. Ironically, if you really pay attention to youth sports, most are an 80/20 split for the majority of participants, but that is another issue/article entirely. Unless the athlete is highly motivated, you’re going to end up somewhere in this time exchange, with a high rate of reinforcement/free time/break time to actual instructional activity, which is fine in the beginning.

The goal with individuals who are lower in their adaptive functioning is to “thin” the schedule between access to reinforcement time and structured activity time. Those with lower adaptive functioning are the kids/teens who will wander away from the target activity, begin doing something else during the target activity, or, in the most delightful cases, have a meltdown (to varying intensities) during the target activity. Incidentally, when you work with an athlete/client long enough you begin to pick up on some of the precursory behaviors that happen prior to an actual tantrum/meltdown/aggressive episode.  During a Discovery Channel Shark Week years ago there was footage of a blue shark arching its back and swimming in small circles in a defensive posture prior to attack. I think of this a lot during my more challenging sessions.

Physical functioning is going to have different time variable than adaptive functioning, provided you have a highly motivated (or at least very compliant) athlete. Depending on his/her level of physical functioning , We may perform anywhere from 1 to 5 activities prior to a break.  This can be a set of 6-8 medicine ball push throws or a circuit of exercise activities (Sandbell slams, ropes swings, cone touches, overhead walks, etc.). It can also be time-based, which works well for those ASD individuals who are very adamant about knowing how much time is left before they get access to a break/reinforcer. You can do both at the same time, setting a timer for anywhere from 1-3 minutes and having the athlete perform the single or multiple activities until the timer goes off.

HERE’S THE THING. As a fitness professional and one of those fitness professionals who is very particular about technique, I cut instructional time when form in a particular exercise begins to break down. I want to reinforce proper mechanics and movement patterns, when an athlete is fatigued that does not happen. I’ve had plenty of parents give me “the look” or suggest that “break time” should be finished, but when an athlete needs recuperation time, they need recuperation time.

I understand you’re paying good money for this hour, but we’re not going to jam pack every possible exercise I know of into this hour simply because we have an entire 60 minutes. Fitness doesn’t work that way, time-space continuum be damned. You just have to learn to be patient and/or ask about the physical attributes and appropriate work-to-rest ratios for specific age ranges (and account for gross motor and strength deficits). I’m not being snarky. Really. Ask.

If the athlete is highly motivated AND capable of performing most of the day’s exercises independently, breaks and recovery time are appropriate. I seldom go more than 4-5 minutes of straight activity without a break. This relates to 1-to-1 situations. With groups it can vary, considering that with circuit stations and activities in which turns are taken there is more rest time. Nonetheless I’ve found that after about 5-6 minutes groups need some downtime as well, which is an ideal opportunity for speech and language development (“what did you just do?” “Who did you exercise with?” “What did you do first, second, third, last?” and, my favorite, prepositions including in, on, under, over, right, left, etc.), socialization, and relaxation.

Your 45 minutes-to-an-hour is not about how much you can get done so much as how well it can be done and the careful balancing act between instruction time, free time, and play time (where the skills being developed are used as per the independent engagement of the athlete).  Have specific and measurable goals, remember that every day is going to be a little different, and if your athlete starts doing something new, creative, or just keeps going with a particular activity, LET THEM. Independence  and creativity are the most sought-after adaptations/skills with the autism population.

In closing with key points:

– An hour session does not have to be sixty minutes of straight activity

– In fact it shouldn’t be

– But you can use the down time to develop other skills (speech, socialization, memory)

– IF it is appropriate

– For adaptively lower functioning individuals, your reinforcement-to-structure ratio will be higher. The goal is to “thin” it out and get more instructional time in

– This will take time and a lot of reinforcement + good coaching

– Have goals for each session and allow for a little bit of chaos

– When independent movement (play) happens, allow it


Live Inspired,


Leave a Reply