“Kettlebell and the sandbag,” Nico states as I’m preparing for him to do squats.
“You want to do farmers carries?”
“Yes,” he says in a soft voice but with an assurance that tells me he’s not just randomly calling out an object in the room.
“Awesome. Yes, you can definitely do farmers carries right after this set of squats, okay?”
“Yes,” he says, in the same low but definitive tone. I’m thrilled. Farmers carries involve roughly 3 steps; Pick something(s) heavy up, carry them while maintaining an upright, healthy posture, and put them down with control, sometimes with less control than other times. Farmers carries have fantastic generalization to other life skills, yes, carrying things of course, in addition to maintaining trunk stability and gait pattern (think climbing two or three flights of steps).
When we consider fitness as a life skill rather than something individuals with ASD and related special needs either “like” or “don’t like” the focus becomes less on “if/should” and more on “how/what.” We’re not just talking about young populations either. Fitness over the lifetime has immense benefits for both short- and long-term development, both proactive and reactive qualities.
That fitness and physical activity are only for young populations disregards the true value of progressive movement programs. As we age, the importance of strength, stability, and motor planning increases, as these are skills that degenerate with age and dis- or non-use. The result is costly, both in quality of life and financially. Consider the healthcare costs for a 55 year old individual with pervasive Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), diabetes, and compromised mobility. Two out of these three complications are entirely avoidable. They are also, with the proper fitness and nutritional interventions, reversible.
Quality of life can be a general, not-certain-what-we-mean-by-this-but-sounds-good term unless we consider it with respect to what those in our care can do and what skills will allow them to be more independent, healthier (physically and emotionally), and enable them to connect with others (building community) in meaningful ways. We also want to consider stress levels and longevity. What does life look like and feel like for a non-verbal individual in his/her 20’s? 30’s? 60’s? How can we ensure the best possible present and future for them?
Let’s take away “Doesn’t like to exercise.” Let’s get rid of that. In fact, I don’t even know what that means. Our definitions and perspectives on exercise programs may a “little” different. I get this interaction a lot;
“Kevin hates exercise.”
“What do you mean by exercise?”
“Oh, well we had him run on the treadmill for five minutes and he hated it and doesn’t want to do it again.”
The fault isn’t in the trying. There is no fault. There is, however, a lack of information about the components of an appropriate fitness program. So here are the rules;
- We use exercises that will have the greatest benefit/generalization to life skills. These include squatting, pushing, pulling, carrying, and locomotion.
- We get a baseline understanding of what an individual can currently do.
- We progress exercises and movements once an individual demonstrates mastery.
What do we do? What do we doooooooooooooo? What exercises do our athletes need? What’s age appropriate? Are there super special special needs exercise?
The thing about fitness is that we’re doing it with human beings (goat yoga being a hideous exception). Since we’re doing it with human beings, we’re looking at human movement patterns and our individuals with ASD and related special needs are no exception.
The key is learning to what degree an exercise or movement needs to be simplified (regressed) or made more challenging (progressed). This is where baseline comes into play. If where know where our athlete is starting with an overhead Sandbell press, we can decide on an appropriate course of progression, maybe increasing the weight by 4lbs once they can complete 10 repetitions independently.
Understanding how each movement relates to quality of life is helpful. So let’s review that.
- Maintaining healthy posture when sitting/standing
- Increasing low body strength for walking/climbing (stairs, etc.)
- Sustaining healthy posture
- Prevention of low back pain
- Increased trunk/core stability
- Shoulder stability when reaching/placing items overhead
- Trunk stability and postural control when holding weighted objects
- Increasing general upper body stability for fine motor movements
- Development of upper back muscles to decrease forward posture
- Increased range of motion for shoulders
- Trunk stability when opening doors, dragging laundry bags
- Increased control when grabbing objects from above or below
- Being able to move objects from one place to another independently
- Increasing postural control and strength endurance (the ability to do a task for a longer period of time)
- Gait patterning
- Getting from point A to point B with minimal discomfort
- Establishing coordination and motor planning for multi-step activities and ADLs (cooking, taking out the garbage, showering)
- Decreasing latency (catching the bus, getting to the car in less time)
The reasons why our Autism Fitness programming focuses primarily on developing strength, stability, and motor planning in these movement patterns is because these are the most common deficits and will have the greatest short- and long-term benefit for our athletes. We want to build a physical ability and progress as the athlete demonstrates their improved capabilities.
Programming, for individuals and groups, should include each of these exercises at a level of challenge where the athlete can perform the movement safely and with good technical form. We don’t just have our athletes move a lot, but coach healthy movement. This is why regressions in exercises are so critical and why we spend so much time with them in the Autism Fitness Level I Certification seminars.
As professionals working with and enhancing the lives of individuals with ASD and other developmental disabilities, there is a responsibility to provide life-enriching skills and opportunities. So much of this can be found in effective fitness programming. In both reducing the instances of health complications and increasing independent life skills, we can used the development of strength, stability, and motor planning to help build our athlete’s futures.
Photos provided by Eric Chessen.
Eric Chessen, M.S., is an Exercise Physiologist with an extensive background in Applied Behavior Analysis. Eric provides on-site and distance consulting worldwide. He is the founder of Autism Fitness®, offering courses, tools, resources and a community network to empower support professionals to deliver adaptive fitness programming to anyone with developmental deficits to create powerful daily living outcomes that last a lifetime.